On Sunday at the Metrodome, the Minnesota Vikings put on a head-scratching display befitting their embattled head coach. For roughly fifty minutes, the Vikings played conservative on both sides of the ball, awful on special teams, and with seemingly no determination or grit. For the final 10 minutes of the game, the team did what the team did at the tail end of last season, thoroughly dominating the regardless-of-record hapless Cardinals en route to a 27-24 overtime victory.
During his post-game press conference, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress all but announced that Zygi Wilf and the rest of the Vikings' ownership group viewed yesterday's game as a measuring stick--a win would buy Childress time, a loss would result in his dismissal. Asked what Zygi said to the team following the Vikings surprising comeback, Childress said "he just said 'great heart,' and I think he meant that for everyone." Clearly, Childress' lingering doubt was over the extent of Zygi's support for him.
The predicament is not entirely surprising. Even when the Vikings were winning, improving on Childress' first miserable year as coach after adding talented player after talented player, year after year, the Vikings' organization was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on professional image builders to improve Childress presentation of self in public. With that image badly sullied in the wake of yet another of Childress' personal battles with a key player, Childress' decision to make an expensive decision on the owners' dime without first consulting the owners, and Childress' peculiar handling of Moss, all those hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of window dressing were about to unravel.
The first fifty minutes of the game on Sunday played out like virtually every Childress-led game in the pre-Brett Favre era with plodding offense, predictable running plays, lapses on defense, porous special teams play, and questionable coaching. From the constant runs up the middle, to Chad Greenway's failure to haul in an easy interception, to Percy Harvin's fumble and the Cardinals' return of a kickoff for a touchdown, to yet another unfulfilled Childress challenge, everything, including an eleven-point home deficit to a weak Arizona team suggested that Childress was taking his final steps along the Vikings' sidelines.
In the last ten minutes of a near-defeat, however, the Vikings reverted to the form that nearly brought the franchise a Super Bowl in 2009-2010. We saw a glimpse of what the Vikings could do on offense earlier, even without a stellar deep threat, when, earlier in the game, Bernard Berrian decided to make his annual appearance on the field, Childress deigned to call a screen to Peterson, and Percy Harvin did what he wanted to do. But the results were nearly non-existent until the final quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Favre took control of the offense, running the no-huddle, two-minute drill to perfection on successive drives. The result was a worn out Cardinal defense that could not stop Adrian Peterson, Visanthe Shiancoe, Favre, Harvin, Berrian, or any of the Vikings not named Jeff Dugan.
To make it to overtime, however, the Vikings needed not only a return to 2009-2010 playoff form by the offense but also a return to similar form by the defense. Held sackless for three straight games and outsacked on the season by the Detroit Lions' first-round draft pick in 2010, the Vikings' defense finally did what it has needed to do all season. With the game on the line, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier finally took off the gloves and blitzed, rushing linebackers, corners, and safeties. The result was six sacks and the ball, in overtime, with a chance to win. And where he did not have the opportunity against the New Orleans Saints in last year's NFC Championship game, Vikings' placekicker Ryan Longwell did have the opportunity to win the game yesterday--and, not surprisingly, he converted.
The Vikings' victory yesterday kept the team in the hunt for a playoff spot this year and bought Childress at least one more week to show that he can change fan perception of him. To accomplish the latter, Childress has to buy into the Vikings' offensive talent. That means more no-huddle offense, relinquishment of control of the game plan to the quarterback, more screen plays to Peterson, more passes over the middle to Shiancoe and Harvin, and, when he returns, more plays to Sidney Rice than the Vikings even attempted last year. It also means pressing Frazier to experiment on defense as he was forced to experiment with the blitz on Sunday.
The ultimate irony of yesterday's performance is not that the Vikings won the game by abandoning the control that Childress so often has difficulty relinquishing, but that Childress' most likely successor, should Childress not make it to the end of the current season, is a coach who finally, himself, figured out the 2009 season, Frazier. While Childress bought himself more time to show he can do what he ought to be able to do with a team this loaded with talent, Frazier might have ratcheted up the pressure on the ownership group to make a move even more than Childress quelled any such pressure.
Up Next: Not the Cowboys. Plus, Frazier and Childress Icing Approaching.