Wednesday, December 30, 2009

NFL Issues Purple Alert

Following the national trend of using color-coded alerts to address matters of urgency, the NFL, yesterday, issued its own color alert. On the heals of yet another befuddling Minnesota Vikings' loss to one of the league's junior varsity components, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell promptly unveiled what he termed a "Purple Alert."

Goodell did not mince words when conveying the rationale behind the alert. "Clearly, something is amiss in Minnesota," Goodell gravely intoned, brushing the Dunkin Donut crumbs off of his rumpled, multi-colored, striped tie. "We've done what we can to promote that situation up there, to assist that ownership group in its efforts to assist itself and the rest of the league--and, of course, the great fans up there--but the rest of the league can only do so much. If we cannot figure out what's going on with that franchise, then, at some point, we simply will have to leave it to them to figure out."

Dabbing tears from his eyes with a well-worn thousand dollar bill, Goodell stated that the Purple Alert was the league's final effort to assess how it could be that a team with eight pro bowl players, the league's second softest schedule, and a league orchestrated delivery of Brett Favre from his one-year hiatus with the New York Jets to the Minnesota Vikings, could be foundering so profoundly.

"I don't have any answers," Goodell said, exhaling heavily. "This thing was set...They had everything in place--or so we all thought. We wanted...They wanted to show well for the fan base to win support for a publicly...for the team. It was all coming together."

Goodell choked back more tears, pulling his gold-leafed handkerchief from his vest pocket and blowing his powdered nose.

Regaining his composure, Goodell noted that "the League has done everything to assist the Vikings in this joint venture to build the Viking brand in a manner that allows the NFL to expand its own brand. This is important enough for us to ask for the assistance of every caring NFL fan in deducing how the Vikings' ship can be righted."

Asked what he thought might be the problem, Goodell shrugged and looked down at his podium as though the answer to the question would appear there before him. "I don't know," he admitted, slowly shaking his head. "Honestly, I just do not know. We gave them Jared. We gave them Brett. We gave them Adrian. We gave them Big Hutch. We gave the Percy. We gave them Pat. We gave them Kevin. At some point, it's up to them to put those guys together and win. It seemed a lock. All they had to do was take advantage of the situation. Why they haven't done so is anyone's guess--that's what we are all trying to figure out."

Goodell initially was less responsive when asked if he had any suspicions of his own regarding the Vikings' difficulties. "I can't comment on that at this point," he demurred. When asked the root of the problem, Goodell allowed, however, that "the Vikings have the players. By any measure, they have the players--far more than do most other teams in the League. I think our Pro Bowl announcements reflect that. But it's the piecing-together of those talents--using the players, moving players around to help those learning or less talented, exploiting an opponent's weaknesses, calling...." He stopped short.

"Let me just say," Goodell concluded, "that this is about figuring out something that many of us thought was already figured out. This is important for the League and for the Vikings--and for the Vikings' fans, too. And that's why we are issuing this Purple Alert at this time."

Up Next: Finding the Haystack Surrounding the Needle.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Straw Men Guide Vikings to Another Road Loss

In the wake of last week's road drubbing at the hands of the Carolina Panthers, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress lamented the fact that he failed to provide his highly paid left tackle with help blocking his man. Instead, Childress stopped the bleeding that was Bryant McKinnie by pulling him in favor of a player that never plays the position. The far-less-player modestly outperformed the starter.

McKinnie acknowledged his awful performance last week stating that he did not blame the coach for pulling him. "I wasn't doing my job," McKinnie admitted. McKinnie laid the blame not on his coach--at least not directly--but on a problem he acknowledged two weeks earlier. "I'm so focused on getting my feet in the right position on every play that it's taking all of my attention--there's too much to think about," McKinnie confided.

In the wake of the NFL's revelation that it would be looking to examine the brains of deceased NFL players for concussion damage, McKinnie's comment was either telling or highly ironic. In the wake of last night's overtime loss to the Chicago Bears, it will be interesting to see if the NFL considers expanding its review to deceased head coaches.

Despite his acknowledgment of the blocking problems last week--problems that, in truth, have existed for the better part of Childress' run in Minnesota--the Vikings opened Monday night's contest with cover for their offensive tackle, but not the left tackle. Instead, the Vikings provided cover for right tackle Phil Loadholt. That still left McKinnie to defend his man straight up on most plays, a task McKinnie decidedly was not up to.

The Vikings continued this theme throughout much of the first half and into the second, favoring cover for Loadholt in the hope that that would help suddenly leaky right guard Anthony Herrera. It did not. Instead, it merely highlighted the Vikings' serious offensive line woes.

At the end of last season, the Vikings had three primary concerns. The most glaring was who would play quarterback. Brett Favre entered the picture and has played well beyond the Vikings' wildest expectations. But that has not been sufficient to overcome either the weaknesses along the offensive line or the in-the-face-of-difficulty decision-making of the Vikings' coaching staff. Add to that the team's persistent problems at safety and the now glaring hole at middle linebacker and the Vikings actually look more in need of retooling now than they did at the end of last season.

The offensive line issues continue because the Vikings are attempting to make do with one high-level offensive lineman in Steve Hutchinson, two average to below average linemen in McKinnie and Herrera, and two often overwhelmed rookies in center John Sullivan and Loadholt. But the problems are exacerbated by the coaching staff's inexplicable inability to adjust to game situations, even when presented a repeating pattern of results.

By the fourth quarter last night, Vikings' coaches finally hit on a successful blocking technique. Rather than merely covering one tackle, they either covered both with a tight end on one end or on both ends, or a tight end on one end and a late-releasing back out of the backfield, or they covered one tackle and pulled the running back to pick up the all-but-certain free roam of the defensive end on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage. It was an intelligent move. Alas, the Vikings only employed it long enough to catch the Bears. With the game on the line, the Vikings reverted to their tactics of the first three quarters, leaving Favre open to slaughter.

Clearly, the Vikings have identified at least one effective method for blocking mediocre defensive lines. If they stick with that method for an entire game, they should be able to forge their way through a horrendously weak NFC. I'd suggest where they go from there, but, right now, it is fanciful to consider the Vikings moving beyond even the first round of the playoffs.

That's because, in addition to the offensive line problems, the Vikings now essentially are playing with eight defensive players. Jasper Brinkley is a mess at linebacker and the safeties are invisible.

Brinkley played a role in virtually every Chicago scoring drive on Monday, save, perhaps, for the final dagger. He misread plays, misdirected teammates, and demonstrated zero ability to cover the tight end--a short-coming which he frequently exhibited against the Bears. Playing the nickel the entire game would be preferable to employing the anguish that is Brinkley.

While Brinkley was mostly awful, he at least made an effort. The same cannot be said for either of the Vikings' safeties, neither of whom even appeared on-screen on any of the Bears' passing plays. Had the Vikings played without their safeties, likely nobody would have noticed.

The problem with the Vikings' safeties is not entirely a personnel problem, however. Rather, as was evidenced by the poor performances of both Cedric Griffin and Antoine Winfield, the Vikings' secondary is not reading and reacting to plays. Instead, they appear to be stuck to assigned spots on the field. This might help ensure that no offensive threat is ever left uncovered, but it also ensures that no offensive threat is ever fully covered. It's one thing to give up the yards in front when you have safeties behind and a stout linebacker in the middle. It's quite another when you employ at those three positions the players that the Vikings currently employ.

In his parting shot at the Vikings, New Orleans Saints' safety Darren Sharper lamented the fact that he was not allowed to roam. This year's Vikings' secondary suggests the short-comings of not allowing the secondary sufficient read-and-react discretion. With players not making plays anyway, there is little reason not to introduce such flexibility into the system post haste.

Falling behind by 17 to a Bears' team that had done nothing on offense for almost one month and was playing without several defensive starters is not a good harbinger for a team intent on making a playoff run. With the talent on the Vikings' team, however, there still remains zero excuse for not making a playoff push. That push, of course, requires effort by all involved--not the least of those being the Vikings' coaching staff.

Up Next: Forgetting the Small Things.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Childress Still Turning Coal Into Diamonds

The well-reported dispute involving Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress and quarterback Brett Favre on Sunday took on a slightly different hue on Wednesday when reports surfaced regarding the focal point of the dispute. While Childress had discussed pulling Favre from the Carolina game, ostensibly to protect his highly paid quarterback from handling Bryant McKinnie's and Phil Loadholt's missed assignments, what truly appears to have piqued Childress was not the loathsome play of his tubby tackles, but Favre's continuing desire to check out of dump-offs to Nafahu Tahi.

"Calling six audibles is going overboard," Childress sternly chided. "He [Favre] might think he looks at the game film closely, but I can assure you he does not look at that film closer than the coaches."

Leaving aside the questions of whether Favre needs to review game films to believe what his eyes tell him he is up against on the field and whether Favre's experience enables him to read and process game film more quickly and efficiently than either a head coach with no NFL playing experience, in his first head-coaching gig or an offensive coordinator with no NFL playing experience in his first NFL coordinator gig, the greater concern is the message that Childress is sending.

There is no question but that Childress' message in publicly chastising his quarterback for changing plays is that the head coach knows better than the quarterback what plays to call. And that applies, in Childress' mind, not only to the vast majority of plays, but, really, to all but the exceptional few.

What's mind-boggling is that Childress cannot see what even the casual fan knows to be true. Namely, what is called from the sideline very often does not match what the opposition offers in terms of scheme. Why stick with a play call that calls for a timing route when the opposition is blitzing or stick with a run up the middle when the opposition brings all of its players up to the line? The answer, in Minnesota, is because coach said so.

It's surely the stuff of childhood playground shenanigans. One kid brings the ball and, when things start going against him, proclaims that he's taking his ball and going home. That's Childress. Only, in this situation, he has the power to take the ball and give it to someone else.

Unfortunately for Vikings' fans, Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf repeated his earlier mistake of signing Childress to a long-term deal when he had proven nothing in the NFL by signing Childress to a long-term extension on the strength of beating a slew of sub-.500 teams. And, while Childress, with the extensive help of the Vikings' PR corps and outside interventionists, had taken on a far more likable public persona from the one that he donned upon first arriving in Minnesota, his recent brush with Favre only confirms that he may never understand that asphyxiation can be self-administered.

That's not only Childress' misfortune, but, sadly, also likely the misfortune of an otherwise talented Minnesota team and yet another blow to long-teased Minnesota fans.

Up Next: New Vikings' Stadium Would Mean Big Bucks to NFL.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Curing the Vikings' Woes

At 11-3, the Minnesota Vikings face three possible playoff scenarios. Two more wins and two New Orleans' losses and the Vikings finish with the top seed in the NFC and home-field advantage for as long as they can remain alive in the playoffs. Two more losses and two Philadelphia Eagles' wins and the Vikings finish with the third seed in the playoffs and homefield for the first round, but a road trip in round two. Any other scenario and the Vikings likely finish with the second seed in the NFC and a first round bye but with no guarantee of home field through the NFC playoffs.

For any of the Vikings' playoff scenarios to be relevant, however, the Vikings must become relevant. Until the their listless performance in Arizona, the Vikings looked as good as, or better than, any team in the NFL. The running game wasn't functioning at a high level, the offensive line was missing blocks and failing to block in the running game too often, and the secondary was inconsistent, but, overall, the team had shown better than had most any other NFL team.

The Arizona game exposed the Vikings' flaws, however, as the Cardinals' defensive ends blew past the Vikings' sloth-footed tackles, the Cardinals' receivers exploited the Vikings' nearly invisible safeties, and the Vikings failed to offer any semblance of a balanced offensive attack even before the game turned into a route.

Two games later, one a sound victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, the other a blowout loss to the woeful Carolina Panthers, and the Arizona performance seems more a trend than was the recovery against the Bengals.

There is hope for the Vikings, however, assuming the Vikings' coaching staff figures out quickly what time it is--time to start thinking out of the box, or at least outside of head coach Brad Childress' box.

With the Vikings leading 7-6 on Sunday night, Childress made an unusual proposal offer to his starting quarterback, suggesting that Brett Favre sit for the rest of the night to avoid the pummeling he had been taking courtesy the windmills otherwise known as Phil Loadholt and Bryant McKinnie. Favre would hear none of it, insisting that the call to bring in Tarvaris Jackson to save him from injury was absurd. After a brief sideline back and forth, Childress relented.

The irony of the story is that Childress would have made the right call in pulling Favre. With zero protection, Favre could do nothing in the pocket and, with Shiancoe and Berrian opting not to play and Harvin mostly on the sidelines, the game had been reduced to an ineffective running game and an occasional attempt to pass to Sidney Rice in double coverage. Unfortunately, Childress caved to Favre's obstinance.

The result was predictable. Favre got pummeled some more and soon began making awful to bizarre passes. The Vikings' fate was sealed.

It's not as though Jackson would have resurrected the Vikings' fortunes on Sunday night. Given the poor performances by virtually all members of the team, there was little that could be expected of a backup quarterback. But at least Jackson would have been able to run for his life and avoid most of the blitzing defenders that sieved into the Vikings' backfield.

Replacing Favre with Jackson would have been a wise though entirely precautionary move. It also would have been a concession that the Vikings' coaching staff did not properly prepare the team to play on Sunday.

Bolder moves are required to resurrect the Vikings' suddenly moribund offense, however. A good starting point is to use a two tight-end set to cover the two tackles. The Vikings can then either go with an empty backfield or a three-receiver set that includes Percy Harvin.

Adding a running back to the backfield in the two tight-end set reduces the Vikings' options for receivers, but gives the team balancing options for running and passing. The tight ends should help stabilize blocking and provide a particular advantage for running around the ends.

The Vikings also have the option of using two backs out of the backfield with the two tight-end set and using one wide receiver. Clearly, such a formation favors the short game. But that should suit the Vikings well as they look to re-establish what should have been the core of their offensive system this year.

In goalline situations, there remains no reason not to overload one side of the offensive line with two tight ends and to use a fullback along with a running back in the backfield.

Clearly, these are not standard out of the box suggestions. Rather, they are primary in-the-box maneuvers for most NFL teams. For whatever reason, however, the Vikings seem insistent on eschewing the tried and true in favor of going down the path that has proven most vulnerable--keying on the passing game and forgetting about the running game. If changing that mindset means thinking outside of the box, then that is what the Vikings need to do to resurrect their playoff hopes.

Up Next: NFL's Interest in the Vikings.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Vikings' Second Dismal Performance in Three Weeks on Coach's Shoulders

Twenty-nine, five, fourteen, twenty-six, two, and three.

These are the numbers that sum up the Vikings' 26-7 Sunday night loss to the previously 5-8 Carolina Panthers and suggest more trouble on the horizon for the team from Minnesota.

Twenty-nine is the number representing the NFL running backs that outgained Minnesota's Adrian Peterson on Sunday. Among those backs, for those seeking to correlate Peterson's abysmal production with the Vikings admittedly collegiate-level offensive line, were Jerome Harrison of the Cleveland Browns (286), Jamaal Charles of Kansas City (154), Maurice Morris of the Detroit Lions (126), Michael Bush of the Oakland Raiders (133), and Jonathan Stewart of the Carolina Panthers (109).'

Clearly, one of Sunday's themes was running backs playing for weak teams, behind weak to awful offensive lines, posting big numbers. Some, as in the case of Morris, Bush, and Stewart, accomplished considerable success against some of the league's best defensive lines. Others, such as Harrison and Charles, approached team and/or league records in rushing yardage against teams inviting the rush.

Against one of the league's least resistant run defenses, Minnesota's Adrian Peterson came in 30th in rushing on Sunday with a paltry 35 yards. That was fewer yards not only than 29 other running backs that played on Sunday had but also fewer yards than five backup running backs had on Sunday and marked the second time in three weeks that Peterson has been a virtual non-factor out of the backfield.

To what do the Vikings owe Peterson's transformation from one of the league's greatest running threats to that of a mere after-thought? Certainly, it is tempting to point the finger at an offensive line that gets worse as each week passes. Whether Bryant McKinnie is being shoved back ten yards or Phil Loadholt is being exploited to such a degree that the Vikings must consistently keep a tight end and wide receiver in to block on running plays, there is ample blame to assign this suddenly putrid unit.

But, as suggested above, other purported lesser backs made far greater hay out of much less inviting circumstances on Sunday, running behind equally challenged offensive linemen.

A far more compelling take is that the Vikings lack a sufficient enough will to get a handle on what they have at their disposal on offense. How else does one explain a seven point performance against a 5-8 team that ranks 26th in the league against the run, when the Vikings have the best running back tandem in the NFL? How else to explain 27 passing plays and 14 running plays in a game that was not decided until late in the fourth quarter?

It might just be coincidence or it might be the football Gods' way of making a statement, but the Vikings' troubles all began roughly three weeks ago when head coach Brad Childress, in the midst of a nice run against some of the lousiest competition any team he will ever coach will ever face, inked a nice, fat contract extension despite never really proving himself. Since that time, the Vikings have lost two of three, with the two losses virtually effortless performances.

At approximately the same time that Childress signed his extension, the head coach announced that it was "time to start working Bernard [Berrian] into the mix." No sooner did that edict come down than did Favre begin his attempt to follow orders, forcing bad pass after bad pass to the undeserving receiver. Those attempts far too often resulted in a bad play for the Vikings, leaving the team either with an offensive pass interference, an interception, or a disappointing effort by the receiver leading to second or third and long. And, not at all coincidentally, they meant fewer passes to Sidney Rice, Visanthe Shiancoe, Peterson, and Percy Harvin, and fewer running plays for Peterson.

With the Arizona game still fresh in the rear-view mirror, Sunday's debacle at Carolina cannot be viewed with the same optimistic "one off" attitude with which many in Vikingland viewed the game against the Cardinals. Rather, it should be viewed in light of the season-long difficulties establishing Peterson's running game, the near season-long struggles of the offensive line, and the reality that Berrian is simply a distraction rather than a compliment to the smooth functioning of the Vikings' offense.

There are numerous solutions to the Vikings' current predicament, many of which have been suggested on this site throughout the season. Those solutions include doing a better job of disguising run and pass plays by using Chester Taylor and Peterson in the same backfield, using Peterson more on screens, using Percy Harvin out of the backfield, and getting Peterson more than 12-16 carries a game. Those suggestions now include scouring the waiver wire for an offensive tackle that knows how to play and is willing to put up an effort at the NFL level.

Whatever the suggestions here or elsewhere, however, it is up to the head coach to make adjustments. And Childress' lack of attention to the offensive line and the running game this season, and his lack of awareness that the offense has lost its fluidity with the inane attempt to impose Berrian into the mix, has made a team that just three weeks ago seemed an odds-on favorite to reach the Super Bowl, one that now could very well find itself on the same losing end of a first-round playoff game that it found itself on last season.

Only this season, nobody will be required to prove anything the following year--a particularly ominous cloud given the potential of an uncapped 2010 season.

Up Next: Getting Outside the Box.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

NFL Unlikely to Concede Williamses' Case

This Fall, the NFL petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit requesting a full bench hearing on its appeal of a U.S. District Court decision finding that Minnesota labor and employment laws pertaining to drug testing govern the NFL's case against Minnesota Vikings' defensive tackles Kevin and Pat Williams.

What the NFL sought, and the Eighth Circuit rejected, was a finding of federal preemption for drug-testing procedures derived through collective bargaining agreements in national businesses such as the NFL. The issue is highly significant to the NFL, because, even if it wins its case against the Williamses in the Minnesota court next Spring, the Eighth Circuit has now established precedent for every other NFL player accused by the league of violating the NFL's drug-testing policy to challenge the league's ruling in state court.

Not only are most state courts far friendlier toward employees than the federal courts serving the relevant state, but, given the nature of the NFL--where players play and live and where the league operates--it is quite conceivable that players will be afforded ample opportunity to forum shop, picking a state with which they have a sufficient connection, and that has lenient drug-testing laws, in which to file their appeal of the league's attempted suspension of them.

Even if the NFL is able to control forum shopping, they have little to no chance of halting what is certain to be a constant theme of sympathetic state court judges finding in favor of the local team's star player(s)--a symptom particularly likely in states, like Minnesota, where state court judges stand for re-election.

The NFL is not yet out of options, as they still could elect to appeal the Eighth Circuit's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Given the involvement of a CBA covering a league comprised mostly of players with limited ties to the states in which they play and the close rulings that the current Supreme Court has had on commerce cases, there is a glimmer of hope, yet, for the NFL. But that glimmer is faint.

Ultimately, the NFL is only moderately interested in the disposition of the Williamses' case for the sake of the Williamses, and far more concerned about the outcome of the case given what it will mean for the NFL as the overseer of a cogent and uniform drug policy for each of its constituent teams. That might mean that, as much as the NFL might wish that the Williamses' case never arose, they will do whatever they can do to see every avenue of litigation through to the end. And that could mean no resolution of the case even beyond the 2010 season.

Up Next: Is It Time to Reduce AP's Playing Time on Merit?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Another Costly Tell for the Vikings?

Last week, game analysts for the Minnesota Vikings' game against the Arizona Cardinals noted that Vikings' left tackle Bryant McKinnie was providing opposing defenses a crippling "tell" by lining up one way for pass plays and a different and distinct way for running plays. McKinnie acknowledged not only the gaffe, but his awareness of the gaffe, lamely lamenting that he "didn't think the defense would pick up on it."

While it is not surprising that a guy who settled a barroom dispute by taking a metal pipe to someone's head might be lazy enough not to correct a tell, it is difficult to fathom how McKinnie could believe that defensive coaches paid specifically to scour the oppositions' nuances to find such tells might overlook what those in the play-by-play booth were able to spot.

Against that backdrop, it appears the Vikings might have yet another problematic tell with which to deal--one that ought to be far more apparent to every member of the defense because it requires little other than knowing what just happened. That tell is what the Vikings do on offense following an offensive penalty.

Over the past six games, the Vikings have committed 24 offensive penalties that the opponent has elected to have enforced against Minnesota. On subsequent plays, the Vikings have given the ball to Adrian Peterson 10 times. That, alone, is a high enough percentage to allow teams to gamble that, following an offensive penalty, the Vikings will give the ball to Peterson.

Even if opponents want to play a bit more conservative and hedge against a play other than one to Peterson following a Vikings' offensive penalty, however, they still have plenty of room for hedging. For, on that subsequent play, the Vikings have passed to Sidney Rice five times. That puts the odds at nearly 63% over the past six games of the Vikings going to one of just two players following an offensive penalty. Harvin was the target on four of those post-offensive penalty plays, putting the odds of a Peterson, Harvin, or Rice play following an offensive penalty over that span of games at 79%.

The latter high statistic makes some sense, given that Peterson, Rice, and Harvin are the Vikings' three best offensive options and likely ought to be called upon in some fashion to pull the team out of the hole that is created by an offensive penalty. But the Vikings have compounded the probability of giving a tell on post-offensive penalty plays by running Peterson up the middle on every carry that he has had in such a situation. This allows teams debating between focusing on Peterson and focusing on a pass either to Rice or Harvin to sell out against the interior run and still get to the quarterback. Clearly, this allows opponents to overplay on defense in such situations.

What are the alternatives? The most obvious is to rotate plays and who gets the ball on a given play following an offensive penalty in a fashion that keeps the opposition guessing more than the opposition likely has had to guess over the past six games.

Does this mean passing to Bernard Berrian more? Hopefully not. But it could and should mean employing more screen plays and, presuming Hell already has frozen over, even using some combination of Taylor, Peterson, and Harvin out of the backfield.

In short, there are myriad possibilities for running offensive plays, and there is no reason to show such strong favoritism for a Peterson run up the middle or even a pass to Rice or Harvin following an offensive penalty. Should those options be removed from consideration under such circumstances? Of course not. But they should be buttressed with far more variation far more often.

Of course, if Phil Loadholt stopped getting offensive penalties...

Up Next: Lion in the Jungle.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Paisley Park


In the immediate aftermath of clearly the worst Vikings' effort since their home, playoff defeat at the hands of the underdog Philadelphia Eagles, there is no other equally appropriate initial response.

From the 9:47 mark of the first quarter when head coach Brad Childress successfully challenged a call of no touchdown, the Vikings did virtually nothing right in their first game against a winning team since they faced, and lost to, the now .500 and falling Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Vikings’ awful performance played out so slowly, so methodically from the Cardinals’ point of view, that vomiting was never implicated. Some nausea, yes, but no vomiting. Vomiting is reserved for games like the loss at Washington in Tice’s next-to-last season, the losses at Chicago and Arizona the year before that, and, of course, the 1998 loss to the Falcons.

Sunday’s loss to the Cardinals seemed too much like a replay of several games last season to support a sudden vomitous sensation. But the duration nearly qualified it anyway.

How bad was the game? The Vikings were favored by five and one-half points, lost by 13, and were saved from a more serious beating only by Arizona's late-game indifference.

The Vikings entered the week with the league's seventh-best rushing attack and faced the league's twelfth-best run defense. Against that opposition, an opposition that had yielded 104 rushing yards a game despite playing in the NFC West, the Vikings, with purportedly the best running back tandem in the NFL and the heir-apparent to Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, Emmitt Smith, Chuck Foreman, John Riggins, Earl Campbell, Barry Sanders, and Marshall Faulk, all rolled into one, mustered a mere 62-yards rushing and three rushing first downs.

Though tempting to excuse the Vikings' poor rushing totals as the function of the Cardinals large lead over Minnesota, the numbers suggest the culprit is more diverse--falling at the feet of Adrian Peterson's Greg Jennings/Vincent Jackson impersonation, the offensive line's increasing inability to open holes, and play-calling that, when bad, truly is gut-wrenching to watch.

Some in the Vikings' organization predicted that this nonsense was all behind the team--the Vikings would play hard on the road, execute sound game plans, read and react to the defense more in play-calling, and demonstrate both ability and patience along and behind the line of scrimmage. At a minimum, Vikings' fans had come to expect, those bad tendencies--the tendencies that led to the Vikings' ouster from the playoffs in the first round last year--would be stayed until the departure of quarterback Brett Favre.

We now have confirmation that that is not the case. When Favre is off, the Vikings are a mess on offense. McKinney's inability to move laterally is magnified, Sullivan's inability to open a hole is magnified, Cook's inability to play at the NFL level is magnified, injuries are magnified, Peterson's stunning regression is magnified, and the staff's inability to marshall the troops when things turn south is magnified. These are not the qualities that winning teams--Super Bowl aspiring teams--want to have magnified.

Where do the corrections begin? Clearly, they begin with returning Peterson to the role of dominate rusher that he was last season. But that appears increasingly more problematic.

While other running backs such as Chris Johnson, Cedric Benson, and DeAngelo Williams are on the upswing--despite playing for inferior teams with far fewer offensive options--Peterson looks broken down and incapable of doing the thing that most matters to his livelihood, holding on to the ball.

Last season, Peterson rushed for 1760 yards. This season, Peterson has 1103 yards through 12 games. And nobody outside of the Vikings' organization justifiably believes that Peterson will approach last season's mark even if the Vikings make an effort to given Peterson the ball more often.

If something's not wrong with Peterson, the Vikings might want to reconsider the guarded-approach they have to considering whether to re-sign Chester Taylor this off-season. And they may want to consider how number 11 looks coming out of the backfield.

Up Next: When It Rains...

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Kick-Ass, Favre-Driven, or Oppositional-Futility-Derived Offense?

In 2008, the Minnesota Vikings amassed 5,288 yards of offense and tallied 379 points, with 37 offensive touchdowns. Those totals placed the Vikings approximately in the middle of NFL teams in overall offense.

Through 11 games this season, the Vikings have accumulated 4,290 yards of offense and 342 points, with 38 offensive touchdowns. Over 16 games, the numbers project to 6,240 yards of offense, 498 points, and 55 touchdowns.

The natural question is whether this year's nearly 50% improvement over last season's numbers are the product of (a) Brad Childress' kick-ass offense, (b) vastly improved quarterback play, or (c) woeful opposition.

While the Vikings' ownership group clearly considers (a) the correct answer, looking upon the offense's success as justification for extending Childress even though the head coach had one year remaining on his initial contract, there is little evidence that the offensive schemes are any different than they were last season.

The bulk of the Vikings' scripted plays this season appear to be the same plays that the Vikings have been calling since Childress arrived in Minnesota, with a heavy dose of short passing plays and runs up the gut. That script has led to the usual results--mostly short yardage or even loss-of-yard plays.

Where the play-calling has differed, however, has been at the line of scrimmage. More frequently than not, Favre is in audible mode. And, more often than not, Favre's audibles have led to large gains through the air--a modus operandi anathema to Childress' heretofore, self-proclaimed preference for ball-control, caretaker quarterbacking that stuck to script.

Favre's success--25 touchdown passes against three interceptions--bolsters the theory that Favre, not Childress or offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, is responsible for the improvement of the Vikings' offense this season. This conclusion is buttressed by the strong seasons that Visanthe Shiancoe, Sidney Rice, an Percy Harvin are having, all in spite of Adrian Peterson's transcendence to that of mere star running back.

This raises the proverbial chicken and egg question of whether the Vikings' offensive weapons make Favre better or Favre makes the offensive weapons better? The answer clearly is that the two are symbiotic. But, as Favre did for years in Green Bay and for a season with the Jets, he is now doing in Minnesota by extracting more from receivers than anyone else was able to do and making stars out of players previously living on the brink of dismissal.

Though Favre's presence appears far more likely to be the catalyst spurring the surge in the Vikings' 2009 offense than is the inertia of Childress' offensive system, all of the Vikings' success in 2009 comes with one highly substantial caveat, that of strength of schedule.

In 2008, the Vikings had a strength of schedule of 1.2 versus a league average of 0, and an offensive ranking of 1.1 versus the same league average.

This season, the Vikings have a strength of schedule of -3.5 and an offensive ranking of 8.0 versus the league average of 0.

If one accepts the algorithms from which these statistics were derived, there is a clear, positive correlation between the Vikings' weak 2009 schedule and their vastly improved offense output. That correlation, however, does not explain the full extent of the offensive improvement from 2008 to 2009, leaving other factors, such as better average starting field position and other new players, to offer an explanation. Yet, given the correlation between quarterback play, the play of other players, and average starting field position, if one believes that Childress' offense really is no different this year than last year, the inescapable conclusion is that Favre is the primary reason for the Vikings' improvement from 2008 to this year.

Without pondering a future reverting back to a less capable quarterback, that ought to be a digestible conclusion for Vikings' fans.

Up Next: AP's On-Field Woes.