Thursday, January 28, 2010

Was 2009 Vikings' Last Best Chance?

It seems improbable that the NFL would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs made possible by revenue sharing and salary caps and floors, but nothing is impossible. And, given that the league is already well on the way to an uncapped 2010 season, the nearly impossible is that much closer to becoming a reality.

All of which raises the question of what a league without current spending and revenue-sharing parameters might mean for the Minnesota Vikings. In the long run, Minnesota likely would face a similar scenario to that faced by all but a handful of MLB teams, but, presumably, with far more significant television revenue streams. That essentially would mean that a premium would remain on making intelligent personnel decisions, but, also, that teams like Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, and other teams that have shown a desire to spend sparingly even under the current floor-ceiling cap structure would fall further down the rung of financially competitive teams.

In the short term, the consequences could be far more damaging to the Vikings, however.

Minnesota leaves the 2009-2010 post-season on a sour note not only for failing to take advantage of the best opportunity the team has had to win the Super Bowl since facing Kansas City in Super Bowl IV, but also because of what the short-term potentially offers the Vikings.

Of the Vikings' 22 current starters on offense and defense, the Vikings have serious concerns about no less than 12, and that fails to take into account the very possible departure of Chester Taylor, a player that the Vikings inexplicably have failed to extend at this point.

On defense, the Viking have injury concerns over EJ Henderson, Antoine Winfield, Pat Williams, and Cedric Griffin, and have decisions to make regarding Williams, Griffin, Ray Edwards, Ben Leber, and the teams' woefully under-performing safeties. Under the best of circumstances, Henderson and Griffin appear destined to begin the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list. That means that Minnesota will need to identify at least one new capable starting cornerback and a middle linebacker capable of tackling and covering opposing tight ends; it is not clear that either of these entities currently are on the Vikings' roster.

As many questions as the Vikings have on defense, they almost certainly have more pressing concerns on offense. Percy Harvin's continuing migraines notwithstanding, Minnesota still does not know who will be at quarterback next season. Though Brett Favre seems a better than even-odds bet to return next season, should he decide to call it a career, the Vikings would be left with either Sage Rosenfels or Tarvaris Jackson as starting quarterback options. And if Rosenfels truly is no better than the third-string quarterback that he was designated for every game this season, seeing exactly zero snaps in his first season with Minnesota, Vikings' fans clearly can pack it in for next year, barring the signing of a substantial upgrade over Jackson.

Even without their quarterback concerns, the Vikings have grave concerns on offense. Adrian Peterson not only has shown a propensity to fumble, but seems insufficiently concerned about the problem, noting recently that he'll "correct it for next season." If the solution were that simple, presumably Peterson would have corrected the problem prior to the NFC Championship game. The problem, unfortunately, appears more deeply rooted.

The Peterson problem would be compounded by the departure of the under-appreciated Taylor. Barring the acquisition of a pass-blocking, pass-catching, elusive running back, Taylor's departure would force the Vikings to use Peterson almost exclusively. Two years ago, those words would have elicited glee among Vikings' fans. Now, they, instead, conjure deep concern.

Assuming Favre returns and the Vikings figure out their running back issues, there is still the massive problem that is the offensive line. Steve Hutchinson played the better portion of the 2009 season with an injured shoulder, John Sullivan remains a work-in-progress, Bryant McKinnie is holding on for dear life and the Vikings seem unable to rely on anyone on the right side of the line, even with rookie Phil Loadholt showing promise, notwithstanding his constant need for tight end cover.

Add these concerns to the fact that the Vikings currently are without a legitimate deep-ball threat--a threat that they thought they had in the mysteriously disappearing Bernard Berrian--and Minnesota has several significant offensive questions to address in the off-season.

In an off-season with the heretofore standard cap rules in place, the Vikings would be in relatively good shape, free to fill holes with the mounds of cap cash that they have saved by spending up-front dollars on players. But if 2010 is uncapped, the Vikings face an uphill battle that most fans knew nothing about entering the 2009 season.

Under the current 2010 uncapped season rules, the final four playoff teams face free-agency restrictions that the remaining teams in the league do not. The most significant restriction is that each of the eight teams is prohibited from signing an unrestricted free agent without first losing an unrestricted free agent of their own.

Of the team's 2010 unrestricted free agents, the Vikings presumably would prefer to keep all but, perhaps, Naufahu Tahi and Artis Hicks. And even these two, as Childress signees, might be safe, no matter the cost to Minnesota's free-agent fortunes.

But even with departures of their own free agents, the Vikings could be left holding the bag. For without the actual loss of a free agent--something determined only by the signing of that free agent--the Vikings cannot make a free-agent acquisition. That means that the only way the Vikings are likely to make a meaningful free-agent signing in the uncapped season is by having someone sign Taylor and sign Taylor early. And that merely resolves one position concern by creating another.

Clearly, this year was a golden opportunity missed by the Vikings. A strong team, facing a historically soft schedule and two mediocre playoff opponents simply was unable to get out of its own way, however. Barring a new CBA for 2010, and the certain departure of key players from this year's team, either in 2010 or 2011, it is very possible that Vikings' fans will be looking ahead not to 2010, but 2020, or beyond.

Up Next: In A Perfect World Filled With Vikings' Imperfections. Plus, what the CBA mess means for the Vikings' stadium fortunes.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Twelfth Man Kills Vikings

Despite six fumbles and a pick--two of the turnovers inside the Saints' 10-yard line--the Minnesota Vikings still had an opportunity to defeat the New Orleans Saints on Sunday night. With the ball on the Saints' 30 yard line and nineteen seconds remaining in the game, however, the Vikings did what they always seem to do when faced with an opportunity to secure the franchise's first NFL championship in a half century.

With nineteen seconds showing on the game clock, all the Vikings had to do was trot out the field goal squad to attempt what would have been a routine field goal attempt for placekicker Ryan Longwell. It seemed tailor made for securing redemption for Gary Anderson's missed kick against the Atlanta Falcons. And it seemed true to the script for the entire season.

The Vikings began the sequence appropriately enough, calling a timeout. That's the last thing that went right for Minnesota--either for the team or for its long-suffering fans.

Following the timeout, the Vikings inexplicably had twelve men in the huddle. The resulting penalty set the Vikings back five yards.

Miscue notwithstanding, the Vikings were still well within Longwell's range, facing what would have been a 52-yard field goal attempt. The Vikings' coaching staff apparently felt otherwise, however, calling for a roll-out right and a short pass to Bernard Berrian in the flat.

Unfortunately, the Saints covered Berrian and Favre eschewed an easy five-yard pickup on the ground in favor of an impossible pass back across the field to a double-covered Sidney Rice. More unfortunately, the pass resulted in a pick.

The Saints won the ensuing coin flip and the Vikings never again saw the ball, losing to a team that, by most objective measures, they otherwise outplayed on the day.

The Vikings and their fans will look for silver linings in this loss, but there are none. To make matters worse, the Vikings face an off-season in which they might lose defensive tackle Pat Williams, running back Chester Taylor, and Favre. And if the Vikings struggled to the Super Bowl this year, imagine another year of the Saints improving with all of their key players back, the Packers improving, and the Vikings almost assuredly facing a much tougher schedule.

Following the Vikings' loss on Sunday, the offices at Winter Park became noticeably less drafty. Presumably, that was the result of some windows being closed after the recent warm spell.

Up Next: What Vikings Must Do To Succeed in 2010.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Purple Reign in New Orleans

Prince could have stopped when he was ahead. His 80's hit, Purple Rain, would have been far more fitting--and far better, if still unfitting, an ode to the Minnesota Vikings--than whatever it was that he released last week to boost the play of his beloved hometown team. Prince's decision will be forgotten, however, and his earlier title remembered, following the Vikings' game today against the New Orleans Saints.

The Vikings enter Sunday's game boasting the second worst opposition record in the league. The Saints enter the game with the worst opposition record in the league. In short, it is a pairing of two teams that have had to show little to win games for the better part of the season. That makes defining prospects for each team more tenuous, but not impossible.

The Saints have shown flashes of brilliance this season, both on offense and on defense. Offensively, the team ranks at or near the top of the league in most passing statistics. Defensively, they rank near the top the league in interceptions, with former Viking Darren Sharper leading the way.

Those strenghts would make for a long day for a Vikings' team that has increasingly relied on the pass in recent weeks and that has had difficulty stopping the pass, at times. But, as is often the case in the game sample-challenged NFL, things are not necessarily as they appear. Adding to that things that are as they appear for the Vikings, and the Vikings ought to be in position to end the Saints' season this week.

Offensively, the Saints continue to have their moments, but some late season struggles at home on both sides of the ball make it difficult to place too much confidence in last week's white-washing of the Arizona Cardinals as a sign that the Saints have all the kinks worked out.

On the season, only two teams failed to score fewer than 20 points in a game against the Saints--the Tampa Bay Bucanneers in week 11 and the New England Patriots in week 12. The Bucs are, well, the Bucs, and the Patriots were playing with an injured Brady and no running game, an otherwise perfect foil to the Saints' near-league worst rushing defense. And even the Bucs managed to avenge their low point total in week 11 by defeating the Saints, in New Orleans, in week 16, 20-17.

The Saints' 27 points allowed to the Lions, Giants, and Falcons, 34 points allowed to the Dolphins, 23 to the Rams, and 30(!) to Washington--a feat of near impossibility--thus shine brighter than do the 14 points that the listless Cardinals put on New Orleans last week.

Complicating matters for the Saints today is the fact that they struggled to score at the same clip at the end of the season as they were scoring at the beginning of the season. Prior to last week's 45-point outburst, the Saints had managed just 17 points a game over their last four games. Last week, they ran into a team that had surrendered 45 points to the Green Bay Packers, at home, one week earlier. That makes the Saints' 45 points last week a bit less inspiring.

The Vikings, meanwhile, are moving in the opposite direction, fortifying their offense over the past three weeks and turning in their most impressive defensive performance in several years last week, throttling a Dallas team that beat the Saints 24-17 three weeks ago.

That the Saints have come back to Earth in defending against the pass since their early season run of picks against several of the league's bottom feeders is not their greatest concern against Brett Favre and the Vikings. Rather, the greatest concern is that the Saints rank 29th in the league against the run and the Vikings have three very good options in the backfield in Adrian Peterson, Chester Taylor, and Percy Harvin. And those options, combined with Favre's ability to read the defense, should mean another long day for the Saints' defense against the run and the screen--and, ultimately, against the quick hit to Rice, Visanthe Shiancoe, Harvin, or, even Bernarnd Berrian.

All of this assumes, of course, that the Vikings stay the course. That is, it assumes that head coach Brad Childress and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevill do not attempt to reinvent the wheel this week. If Childress controls his impulses and does whatever it was that he did last week and the week before, and if Leslie Frazier has his defense anywhere near as ready to play this week as they were last week, this should be a fat Vikings' victory.

Prediction: Minnesota 34 over New Orleans 21

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Head-Coaching Snubs, Dungy's Offensive Provide Vikings' Frazier Ethereal Edge

Last week, the Seattle Seahawks announced that they were hiring USC head football coach Pete Carroll to replace fired head coach Jim Mora. Mora was canned after a single season as Seahawks' head coach. Prior to announcing Carroll's hiring, the Seahawks hastily requested "an immediate" interview with Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier.

Seattle's intention in interviewing Frazier was transparent. Looking to land Carroll before he changed his mind but intent on complying with the letter, if not the spirit, of the NFL's Rooney Rule--a rule that requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for coaching vacancies--the Seahawks saw their opportunity in Frazier.

Virtually immediately after Frazier interviewed with the team, Seattle announced its hiring of Carroll. The hiring marks a return to the NFL for Carroll, who last served in the league in an unremarkable role as head coach of the New York Jets.

It's possible that Carroll will succeed this time around in the NFL. It's also possible that his prior track record is indicative of future prospects.

Clearly, Seattle is gambling that Carroll will thrive--hence the large salary. What is disconcerting about the Seahawks' process, however, is that those doing the hiring believed that Carroll's prospects as a one-time, unsuccessful NFL head coach were greater than either Leslie Frazier's or numerous other minority and non-minority candidates.

The Seahawks' decision to hire Carroll points out not the racism in the NFL, but the cronyism. And it's the type of cronyism that still greatly and negatively effects the prospects of those on the outside. As someone who remained on the outside well after proving that he belonged on the inside, Tony Dungy rightfully took exception to the Seahawks' hiring decision, going a bit further in stating that, had he been in charge of making the decision, he would have hired Frazier.

Dungy's statement smacks a bit of cronyism of another sort, but it garners some sympathy when a team like the Buffalo Bills subsequently hires Chan Gailey rather than going with someone like Frazier, who, by mere definition of not being Gailey, is more promising than Gailey.

For the Vikings, the Seahawks' clear manipulation and the Bills' by-passing of Frazier means one thing. Leslie Frazier will have even more motivation to prove himself in the playoffs than he had in devising his best defensive scheme yet against the Dallas Cowboys. In the end, that will pay off both for the Vikings and Frazier.

Up Next: No Reason for Nerves.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Childress Peaking At Right Time

On Sunday afternoon, the Minnesota Vikings took the Dallas Cowboys out to the proverbial woodshed. The offense put up 34 points against the week's fashionable defensive pick and the defense mostly dominated an offense that many pundits, on the strength of two consecutive victories over a hapless Eagles' team, picked to shine through Super Bowl Sunday. That much-ballyhooed offense mustered a scant three points against the Vikings.

Given the change in operational perspective at Winter Park following the Vikings' pitiful loss to the Chicago Bears three weeks ago, the Vikings' offensive showing on Sunday was not entirely surprising. Nor, given Tony Romo's penchant for disappearing in meaningful games and the Cowboys' difficulty establishing a consistent rushing threat all season long, was it entirely surprising that Vikings' defense ultimately had its way with the Cowboys' offense.

What was a bit surprising, and thoroughly welcomed by probably almost all Vikings' fans, however, was the decidedly changed approach that Vikings' head coach Brad Childress took both to the game and to the post-game podium. Rather than relying on the most conservative game plan both capable of producing a Vikings' victory and keeping the head coach in good standing with his quarterback, Childress moved a bit closer to the realm of making use of all of the talent on his squad.

Childress' seeming epiphany--part of his now ten-quarter metamorphosis--resulted in the Vikings using Chester Taylor rather than Adrian Peterson on more meaningful running plays early in the game, using Peterson as a target on at least one important screen play and Taylor on several others, and exploiting the Cowboys' suspect secondary at virtually every opportune moment.

It was entirely un-Childress like. But lest Vikings' fans get the notion that this was all about an injury to Nafahu Tahi that kept Childress' favorite short-and-long-for-short target out of the game against Dallas, there was more.

Late in the game, the Vikings twice had the ball deep in the Cowboys' end. On the first of the two drives, the Vikings opted to throw into the endzone rather than attempt a mid-range field goal. The move seemed sensible and very Childress-like. It was the cautious approach--no need to have an errant kick blocked and returned for a touchdown with time dwindling off the game clock. A pass into the endzone was a hit or miss proposition, particularly with how Favre threw the pass.

The series ended with a turnover on downs and most Vikings' fans thought that was that. But the Cowboys turned the ball over on downs, themselves, deep in their own territory. And, rather than run the clock out, as he well could have done, Childress decided to make a point--the kind that the even-keeled, never-show-emotion, coach previously would have eschewed.

On Sunday, Childress moved past the dagger--something the Vikings' defense provided when Ben Leber picked Tony Romo--and to point-making, opting for a touchdown pass to a poorly covered Visanthe Shiancoe over running out the game clock. It was an utter Bill Belichek move. And it was precisely what the Vikings owed themselves, their fans, and the previously far-too-haughty-for-accomplishing-nothing Cowboys.

Childress followed up his on-field statement with another uncharacteristic post-game statement, suggesting in fairly certain terms that the final touchdown was motivated, in part, by Dallas' own pre-game, sophomoric bravado. He made clear, more importantly, however, that that touchdown represented the approach that the Vikings intended to take going forward. Something for the New Orleans Saints to deliberate in the coming week.

For the Vikings to win the Super Bowl this year, they need continued strong play from their offense and the kind of pressure on the quarterback that the defensive line applied against Romo. They also need, however, a head coach willing to do in the next two games what he did against Dallas--play to win. Childress' penchant for conservatism might be the biggest obstacle of all for this Vikings' team. But, if Sunday was any indication, it might not be much of an obstacle for the remainder of the season.

Up Next: Taylor In, Peterson Out. Plus, Harvin In, Berrian Out.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Giants Show Way to Vikings' Victory

The Dallas Cowboys finished the 2009-2010 regular season at 11-5 and with an identical Conference record, 9-3, to that of the Minnesota Vikings. That's about where the similarities between the two playoff teams end, however.

Minnesota and Dallas had four common opponents this season--the New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, and Carolina Panthers. Against those opponents, Dallas fared better against only Carolina, a game played before Carolina realized that Jake Delhomme was no longer an NFL starting quarterback, the team remembered that it had Jonathan Stewart on the roster, and Steve Smith decided to play. Against the Giants, the Cowboys lost twice--once early in the season when the Giants were playing well and once, less forgivable, late in the season when the Giants were as feeble as any team in the league. Dallas also lost a mid-season game at Green Bay by a score of 17-7.

Dallas' strength this season has been its defense. Against the Eagles, Saints, Packers, and Chargers, four of the league's better offensive teams, the Cowboys surrendered a respectable 70 points over five games, for an average of 14 points allowed per game. The most points that Dallas allowed all season was 33 in week two to the Giants; the second-most points they allowed this season, interestingly, was also to the Giants, who scored 31 points in the early-December match-up.

Where Dallas has struggled this season has been on offense. Though scoring over 30 points four times this season and over 20 an additional six times, the Cowboys failed to surpass the 20-point mark six times this season. That's a remarkably high number for a team purportedly built around its offense.

Dallas' Achilles' on offense has been its running game. Only once this season did a Cowboy running back rush for over 100 yards. While some of this is the result of the Cowboys' use of multiple backs, it is a far cry from the standard the Cowboys had set in previous seasons using the same multi-back system, seasons in which Marion Barber routinely ran rough-shod through opposing defenses. Too often this season, the Cowboys have settled for lesser rushing yardage. That's worked against some of the league's dregs. But when opponents have shut down Miles Austin, that's spelled defeat for the 'Boys.

To defeat the Vikings, the Cowboys need a strong offensive showing and solid defense. That means exploiting the Vikings' secondary with Austin, but also shutting down a Vikings' offense that seems less predicated on Chilly-ball at this stage--a positive turn for Vikings' fans, at least in the Dome. And if Dallas' performances against the Giants are any indication, the Vikings ought to be able to put up far better numbers against the Cowboys than Austin is able to muster against a willing Vikings' secondary.

The question is not, then, whether the Minnesota Vikings can or even ought to beat the Dallas Cowboys today; the answer to those two questions most assuredly is in the affirmative. Rather, the question is whether the Vikings will exploit the Cowboys' weaknesses sufficiently to advance to the Conference championship game next week in the Bayou. That determination rests squarely with head coach Brad Childress.

The Vikings have two distinctly different game plans from which to select, either of which should suffice to defeat the Cowboys. One game plan is to do what they have done for the past six quarters--rely on a controlled passing game and run support to work the ball down the field. This ploy is prone to producing a close-scoring game against Dallas' 3-4 defense and, as the most conservative option other than reverting to a Tarvaris Jackson-led offense, likely will be the Vikings' choice on Sunday.

A stronger option, but one that Childress has never yet employed, is to use a two-back set in the backfield with one tight end and two receivers, with the two backs being Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson, Jim Kleinsasser covering Bryant McKinnie, Percy Harvin in the slot and Sidney Rice the other receiver.

Option two would allow the Vikings several distinct advantages over option one. Against Dallas' fast but lighter outside linebackers, screens to Peterson should be effective. Against Dallas' three-man front, running plays with the speedy and more elusive Taylor should have effect. And, against the frequently blitzing linebackers, Harvin should prove a terror.

Having Peterson and Taylor in the same backfield not only would disguise the Vikings' play, making it less certain whether the play is running or passing play, but also would allow the Vikings to adjust the play to the Cowboys' defensive scheme. Should the Cowboys show blitz, Favre could audible to a screen and take advantage of Peterson in space. Should the Cowboys stay back, Favre could audible to a running play to either Taylor or Peterson.

Despite being underdogs in both games this year against their division rival, the New York Giants twice defeated the Cowboys and twice did so on the strength of decent passing numbers and nearly 100 yards rushing. What we know from those games is that the Giants were able to do to Dallas almost precisely what the Vikings were able to do against the Giants, but that Dallas was not able to do against the Giants what the Vikings were able to do against the Giants. That bodes well for a Vikings' offense that has been fairly consistent when the head coach has permitted it to try.

On defense, Minnesota will do what it has done most of the season--attempt to put pressure on the quarterback with a four-man rush, maintain zones, and keep the pass plays in front of them. With the gimpy Antoine Winfield moving to the nickel, that should be a more effective game plan today than it was against the Chicago Bears. And while the Vikings' secondary very likely will give up one or two longer plays and the linebackers likely will concede some receptions to Cowboys' tight end Jason Witten, the Vikings ought to be able to hold Dallas' offense enough in check to make what should be a reasonably successful offensive output more than sufficient for a Vikings' victory.

Prediction: Vikings 31, Dallas 17.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

More Support for Vikings' Pass-Oriented Game Plan

It's not a pass-happy or even a pass-first philosophy. Rather, what many Minnesota Vikings' fans and commentators have been calling for since the Mike Tice era and, even more particularly, in the Brett Favre era, is a passing-rhythm offense. The difference between the three forms of passing offense is that while the pass-first and pass-happy are readily defended, the passing-rhythm offense is extremely difficult to defend if the quarterback is making the proper reads and delivering the ball to receivers, all of which Vikings' quarterback Brett Favre has done this year when allowed to stay in a rhythm.

When the Vikings try to "get the running game going," however, things begin to break down. That's not an argument against running the ball, particularly for a team with two gifted running backs. Instead, it is an argument for using the running play judiciously--in somewhat the same manner that Vikings' head coach Brad Childress, in his heart of hearts, would prefer that his team employ the passing game.

In addition to the clear anecdotal evidence supporting the passing rhythm offense, however, there is statistical evidence arguing against the run-first offense, at least for this year's Vikings' team.

From week three through week twelve, the Vikings' offense was almost unstoppable, stalled only against the Steelers on the back of turnovers and penalties. Following a loss to the Cardinals, there was a sea-change in offensive game plans for the Vikings, however, with conservative play-calling clearly winning the day. Those plans led directly to two more losses in the team's subsequent three games.

Against Carolina, it appeared that the issue had come to a head between quarterback Brett Favre and Childress, with the two spotted arguing on the sidelines. Both parties later confirmed the dispute, a disagreement centering on the role of the quarterback within a system mostly dead-on-the-vine in the passing game prior to Favre's arrival.

What was not resolved against Carolina certainly was in the second half of the Chicago game, with Favre twice waving off substitutes. The team began last week's game against the Giants in much the same fashion as it had finished the game against the Bears--throwing passes to different receivers at different points on the field, including beyond the sticks on third down, spreading the offense in goal-line situations, mixing cadence and snap count, and hurrying to the line to keep the defense scrambling. It was how the West Coast offense was meant to be run and it was how the Vikings, with Percy Harvin, Sidney Rice, Visanthe Shiancoe, Chester Taylor, and Adrian Peterson, ought to be able to perform against any current NFL defense, at least when the offense is orchestrated by Favre.

Not lost in the new philosophy that one hopes the Vikings have adopted is the diminished role of Adrian Peterson. Contrary to most reports, it is a role that Peterson has earned--at least in part.

Far too often unable to find holes that his counterparts in the league seem capable of finding when running behind weak offensive lines and against eight-men boxes--Jamaal Charles, Jerome Harrison, Steven Jackson, Cedric Benson, Thomas Jones, Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, and Jonathan Stewart, immediately come to mind--Peterson simply has not been the threat this season that he was in his rookie season. Though finishing with 1,383 rushing yards this season, Peterson settled well behind league leader Chris Johnson, who finished the season with over 2,000 rushing yards, fumbled more times than any other running back in the league, and scored the bulk of his touchdowns in goal-line situations.

By the end of the season, there were at least twelve running backs that merited greater concern on the field than Peterson. That does not diminish Peterson's abilities, it merely points out his limitations in the current environment--one in which he is rarely used in the open field.

Clearly, where Peterson will be most valuable going forward is either behind a massive and nimble offensive line--of which there are few if any in the NFL--or in the short passing game, where he is nearly unstoppable. If the Vikings continue with their rhythm passing offense and incorporate Peterson more greatly into that game plan, they, too, might be unstoppable in this year's playoffs, and Peterson's running abilities will be viewed as a substantial complement to his even more impressive short-yardage receiving skills.

Up Next: The NFL's Stake in a New Vikings' Stadium.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Vikings' Coaches Reach Oz

The Minnesota Vikings got a measure of revenge against the New York Giants for a nearly decade-ago beating that they took at they hand of yesterday's adversary. While the Vikings' dressing-down of the disinterested New Yorkers was not quite the same as the Giants' shellacking of the favored Vikings in the 2000 playoffs, the significance of the Vikings' victory on Sunday looms large.

After two weeks of fiddling with both the offense and the defense, the Vikings' coaches finally conceded what they ought to have conceded three weeks ago. Namely, the Vikings are at their best when the team uses the pass to establish the run. That's the no-brainer that we've been preaching since head coach Brad Childress arrived in Minnesota and, frankly, since this site has existed. In the modern NFL, teams need to be able to run the ball, but they need even more to establish the passing game. That demonstration ensures that teams will be able to run the ball well.

This maxim is, of course, a reversal of the 1980's mantra of establishing the run to establish the pass and a completely new way of thinking for coaches, like Childress, who hark back to the 1970's philosophy of using the run to establish the run. It likely is also yet another bitter ego pill for the Vikings' head coach to swallow--assuming he has taken his medicine in full--coming on the heals of his admission at the start of the season that the Vikings were not equipped to improve on their 10-6, one-and-done playoff run of last season with Tarvaris Jackson as the starting quarterback. After all, it was only last season that Childress proudly pointed to his passing game as akin to "a long hand-off."

The second half of last week's loss at Chicago indelibly demonstrated the need for a new direction in the Vikings' offensive coaching philosophy. It's not that the markings were not already scrawled upon every wall confronting Childress and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevill, it's just that they preferred not to take note. Against the Bears, Favre finally forced his coaches' hands, twice waving off goal-line personnel in favor of a spread- and hurry-up offense; the first time, the coaches disregarded Favre's gestures and the Vikings' offense predictably came up short. The second time, the coaches acquiesced and the Vikings scored.

On Sunday, against the Giants, the Vikings went the Favre route, passing first and running second. The result was the type of victory that the Vikings should have claimed over the Bears one week earlier. Adrian Peterson finished the game with 54 yards rushing and one touchdown, but not because the line could not unbottle the defensive front. Rather, Peterson finished with one of his best per-carry averages of the season--just under 10 yards per rush--because the offensive line did not have to run block against an eight-man front that knew that the Vikings would run the ball. That Peterson did not have well over 100 yards was a function of the team's passing philosophy and the Vikings pulling Peterson for most of the second half after establishing an insurmountable half-time lead.

In addition to using the pass to establish the run, the Vikings made other long-needed adjustments, using tight ends more in protection, switching Antoine Winfield to nickel and taking him out of the base defense and off the edge, trying some new faces at safety, and limiting Jasper Brinkley's defensive duties. The result was a much-needed, large-margin victory on the eve of the Vikings' Conference semi-final playoff match.

Up Next: Why Not Sage? Why Not Now? Plus, Things to Like About Childress.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Time to Change the Bath Water

In 2007, the Minnesota Vikings faced a cross-road at linebacker. Confronted with the prospect of losing free-agent Napoleon Harris--a modest player by most standards, but, by far, the best middle linebacker on the squad, the team made a decision to allow half of their bounty in the Randy Moss trade to walk and to replace Harris with outside linebacker E.J. Henderson.

That decision was particularly precarious not only because the Vikings had no clear replacement for Henderson at outside linebacker, but also because Henderson had excelled at outside linebacker after a brief, utterly forgettable previous run at middle linebacker.

After a few missteps, however, Henderson became a surprising revelation at middle linebacker, solidifying the position until his injury in 2008.

The Vikings were unable to find a suitable fill-in for Henderson last season, and, with the linebacker again on IR this year, the team finds itself in a similar predicament. Rookie Jasper Brinkley, though certainly as aggressive as any Vikings' defender, clearly lacks the knowledge to play middle linebacker at the present time.
On Monday night, the Chicago Bears routinely took advantage of Brinkley's presence.

While Brinkley optimistically, if not naively, maintains that the Bears did not exploit his inexperience, if it was not inexperience that they were exploiting it was his outright inability. As middle linebacker, Brinkley is responsible for covering the tight end. Against Minnesota, Chicago threw to tight ends thirteen times, completing eight of those passes for 86 yards and two touchdowns--78 yards and 2 touchdowns more than they managed one week earlier in a loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Desmond Clark had five of those receptions for 39 yards and a touchdown, by far the most productive outing of a season in which he has produced but 19 receptions and one touchdown.

The Vikings can stick their heads in the sand and attempt to convince themselves that Brinkley is capable of handling the middle linebacker duties in 2009, but the game film and results do not lie in this case. Clearly, the Vikings are in need of a change in their linebacking corps.

What's mystifying about the Brinkley situation is not that a rookie would underwhelm as the playcaller on defense, but that the have Vikings opted to go with Brinkley over other more viable options. Several players on the current roster have both more experience in the NFL and at middle linebacker and have demonstrated at least the prospect of an ability to play the position.

Among the viable alternatives to replace Brinkley are Chad Greenway, Ben Leber, and Heath Farwell. Should the Vikings use either Greenway or Leber at middle linebacker, that would open the door for either Farwell or Erin Henderson to fill the void on the edge. Surely, those options are preferable to the current vacuum in the linebacking corps.

If those options do not suit the Vikings' tastes, they always have the option of playing in nickel formation--something that their poor secondary play likely will require anyway. That would mean needing to identify only two capable linebackers and playing without a middle linebacker. At this point, Greenway and Farwell might be the two top prospects in such an alignment, with Leber spelling either.

Of course the nickel package presents its own dilemma for a team suddenly utterly unable to stop the passing game. Antoine Winfield is recalling the worst of the Waswa Serwanga era, unable to pivot on what assuredly is a still-injured ankle, and the safeties are playing like safeties have always played in this overly soft version of the cover-two defense.

One solution is to insert Karl Paymah into the lineup for Winfield and to use Benny Sapp in the nickel. Another is to use rookie Asher Allen in place of Winfield and Paymah in the nickel and to move Sapp to safety in place of disappointing second-year player Tyrell Johnson.

While the Vikings have personnel issues that they need to address on defense, they also have glaring personnel issues on offense. Assuming that Ryan Cook cannot be converted to a tight-end and line up on either side of the line and that the Vikings will persist in their refusal to use Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson in the same backfield, there is one notable move that the Vikings clearly need to make sooner rather than later.

Whether the result of injury, inability, or indifference, it is clear that Bernard Berrian is on a regression curve from which he is unlikely to rebound in time to help the team this season. Despite being targeted 23 times and catching 15 passes over the past four games, Berrian has a paltry 152 receiving yards and zero touchdowns to show for his efforts. That's not what the Vikings had in mind when they signed Berrian as a deep-threat option two seasons ago, nor what they expected following the addition of Favre to the offense. It is, however, what the Vikings currently have. And it merits a change.

The Vikings are not without options at receiver, but they must make use of those options if they are to have any meaning. On Monday, the Vikings routinely refused to employ Percy Harvin in the offensive game plan until it was too late. Harvin, clearly the most dangerous receiving threat on the team, finished the game with four receptions for 40 yards, having been targeted eight times--all in the second half of the game.

Using the two-tight end set to protect McKinnie and Loadholt would leave the Vikings with one running back and two receivers. Those two receivers should be Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin, not Rice and Berrian. In addition to the threat that Harvin provides, in a two-receiver set, Berrian and Rice merely congest the playing field rather than spread the defense. Gaining virtually all of his yards on short slant routes, Berrian must give way to Harvin. And, even with one tight end and three receivers, Berrian must currently be viewed as a fourth- or fifth-best option, behind the speedier Jaymar Johnson and Darius Reynaud.

Making changes at linebacker, in the secondary, and at wide receiver are both necessary and possible for the Vikings at this point in the season. The changes suggested above could prove the difference between another one-and-done in the playoffs and a playoff run. What remains to be seen, however, is whether inertia-prone head coach Brad Childress will both recognize the need for change and make the necessary changes. This is not a bet for the faint of heart.

Up Next: Playoff Posture.