The Minnesota Vikings began the year suggesting that there was a new sheriff in town and that things would be run differently. For Vikings' fans who have lived through this sort of mess in the past--see circa Les Steckel, Denny Green, Mike Tice, Brad Childress--the promise seemed more hortatory than certain. But with so many holes to fill and so little pressure on the team to make the playoffs, there was at least a measure of promise that things would not be run to rote.
Things did change for the Vikings in 2011, just not in any of the ways that Vikings' fans had hoped.
In place of Bryant McKinnie at left tackle was a lesser version of Bryant McKinnie, in the form of Charlie Johnson; in place of an injured, undersized, and ineffective John Sullivan at center, was a healthy, undersized, and ineffective John Sullivan; in place of a very slowly improving Phil Loadholt at right tackle was Phil Loadholt, easily underperforming McKinnie's least productive days on his most productive days. The play of Johnson, Sullivan, and Loadholt overshadowed the general ineffectiveness of Steve Hutchinson, for whom the best days are clearly behind, and veteran guard Joe Berger.
At wide-receiver, the Vikings stuck with Bernard Berrian two years and five games longer than they should have, finally releasing the purported receiver after the number one wide-out on the team had hauled in seven receptions for ninety-one yards--at the time placing him outside of the top 100 receivers in the league, regardless of salary.
Ousting Berrian left the Vikings with "possession" receiver Greg Camarillo (4 receptions for 62 yards), receiver Michael Jenkins (36 receptions for 441 yards), Devin Aromashodu (8 receptions for 195 yards), and the poorly utilized, sometimes injured Percy Harvin (43 receptions for 459 yards). Camarillo, Jenkins, Aromashodu, and Harvin have combined for five receiving touchdowns this season. Twenty-five individual NFL receivers have at least as many. New England tight end, Rob Gronkowski, has double the number of receiving touchdowns and nearly the same yardage, as the entire Vikings' receiving corps.
At running back, things are humming along just as well as ever, if by "humming" one means that Adrian Peterson is given the ball on most first-down and short-yardage plays, is stuffed or held to a short gain by an anticipating defense, and finishes the game with about 87 yards rushing on 18 carries--good for seventh in the league and $11, 494 per yard. Peterson has added eleven rushing touchdowns. Most of these have been gratuitous short-yardage touchdowns, however, the type that Green Bay's John Kuhn, at 1/32 the cost, routinely chips in for the the Packers.
The Vikings would be delighted if these were the only personnel issues on the team and if the personnel issues did not extend so clearly to the coaching staff. Predictable play-calling, underuse of some players, overuse of others, and inclusion of awful players make clear, however, that the Vikings' coaching staff is, at best, in its infancy. Certainly, head coach Leslie Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave would look infinitely better surrounded by more talent, but there is every reason to believe that talent is not the primary issue for either Frazier or Musgrave.
For a team with Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, Kyle Rudolph, Visanthe Shiancoe, and Joe Webb, much more should be expected than what the Vikings' have produced in 2011. Numerous examples highlight the dysfunction that has been this offense in 2011. The team is among the league leaders in sacks allowed, quarterback hits, and missed blocks and, with the introduction of Christian Ponder at quarterback, is slowly inching up the board on interceptions ceded, despite employing what Vikings' coaches term a "controlled" passing attack.
The good news is that there are fixes for the Vikings' ills. The bad news is that this staff might not make them out.
The most pressing problem clearly is along the offensive line. The Vikings are several starters away from solid play along the line. The best bet for the team is to move Hutchinson to right guard, Loadholt to left guard, draft two tackles in the first two rounds of the 2012 draft and find a center in free-agency. Given where the Vikings likely will finish and the ample cash that the team will have on hand, that ought not be too difficult a task.
Nor should it be difficult to identify one or two free-agent receivers that produce more than the Vikings 2-4 receivers. Justin Blackmon would be a nice receiver to have in any offense, but the Vikings do not have the luxury of drafting an outside speed demon as the offensive line will undermine the passing game until it is rectified. That means that it would behoove the Vikings to decide whether Webb is, in fact, the receiver that the coaches claim him to be--rather than the quarterback that some of us maintain he ought to be.
At running back, the Vikings' have long had the wrong approach. Peterson needs more touches in the flat and over the middle and needs to be part of a oft-used two-back system, teamed, not with Toby Gerhart, but with Percy Harvin. Putting Peterson and Harvin in the same backfield would be a logistical nightmare for opposing defenses and give the Vikings the flexibility of running virtually any play on any down. That flexibility would give the Vikings the opportunity to use the wide-outs more effectively, regardless of speed, and should permit the team to make use of Rudolph.
Up Next: "Tweaking" the Defense.