Friday, January 15, 2016

Vikings' Loss Might Be Necessary Evil For Team

Mike Zimmer said it.  Blair Walsh agreed.  A twenty-seven-yard field goal simply must be made.  And in the NFL, they are, at a rate just shy of 100% of the time.  Unfortunately, Walsh's kick now helps comprise the "just shy of" portion of that percentage rate.  And that means that, for what seems like more than just once too often, the Vikings will be exiting the playoffs following a game that they should have won.

There are many fan bases around the NFL that will have little compassion for the Vikings' players or fans, and for good reason.  Despite never winning a Superbowl, the Vikings have been a relative mainstay in the playoffs for the better part of the franchise's career.  Since 1961, the team's first year of existence, the Vikings have made the playoffs twenty-seven times.  In that same time-frame, the Green Bay Packers have made the playoffs three fewer times, the Chicago Bears twelve fewer times, and the Detroit Lions sixteen fewer times.  Only the Dallas Cowboys have made the playoffs a greater percentage of the years in existence than have the Vikings.

That they have had relative success as a franchise, is unlikely to mollify either the Vikings or their fan base in the wake of a loss that, had it turned out differently, could have had Vikings' fans rightfully anticipating favorable match-ups throughout the remainder of the playoffs.  But a win last week might have papered over adjustments that the Vikings need to and can make this off-season--adjustments that could make the Vikings long-term championship contenders, rather than one-year wonders.  As such, Sunday's loss, as painful as it was, might be in the team's long-term interest.

The clear "villain" in Sunday's loss was the kicker who could not connect on a chip shot.  Lost in that myopia, however, is the fact that the game even came down to that play.  Long before that, the Vikings had opportunities to put the game away.  That they did not merely highlighted the near season-long offensive struggles.  Those struggles were the result of several factors, as they normally are, but the chief factors, as they also normally are, were the play of the quarterback and offensive line and offensive play-calling--in that order.

While Teddy Bridgewater showed some flashes of strong play in 2015, on the whole, the season can be regarded little more than a plateau period for him, particularly after what most observers regarded as a relatively strong finish to last season.  If the Vikings want to be a consistent championship contender, they need quarterback play that is consistently average, at worst.  That's not what they received from Bridgewater in 2015 and not what Bridgewater offered in the Vikings' two most important games to conclude the season.  Rather, in those two games, the Vikings relied on defense and hoped that the offense did not give the game away.  That, with a strong defense, is a recipe for making the playoffs, but also one prone to losing any given playoff game.

Too often this season, including several times Sunday, the Vikings entered the opposing team's red zone or close thereto, only to come away with a field goal.  On Sunday, the most glaring such failure came on the Vikings' second possession of the game.  With a first-and-goal from the seven, the Vikings failed to convert, running twice up the middle, before Bridgewater threw an ill-advised pass that was nearly picked.  That sequence cannot happen on a regular basis for a championship-contending team.  It did for the Vikings this year.  And that four-point differential on Sunday was the difference in the game.

To be certain, the offensive line played its own dastardly role in that second drive--and others throughout the game and season.  Had the line had better push or leveraged better, Peterson might have scored and there might have been more play-call options from the seven.  They did not, however, and the onus was placed on Bridgewater to convert.  As was too often the case this year, Bridgewater did not make the play.

Bridgewater might make strides next year, behind what the Vikings expect to be an improved offensive line.  The team has already signaled its concern over the offensive line's performance, jettisoning offensive line coach Jeff Davidson in favor of Tony Sparano.  Given the play of Joe Berger and the cap-friendly number of the improving T.J. Clemmings, the Vikings might be looking at their offensive line for 2016 and hoping that Sparano can line them up properly.  Vikings' fans know that an effective offensive line can be constructed of lesser material--see Mike Tice--and know, as well, that, to get a full read on Bridgewater, the team must address this area.  The loss to Seattle prompted a quick move that might not have been made had the Vikings advanced further into the playoffs.

Finally, the Vikings need to acknowledge that their offensive play-calling has substantial holes.  Unless Bridgewater is simply woeful, it is inexcusable not to better incorporate the wide-receivers into the offense.  Minnesota ranked 31st, 31st, and 32nd in the league in touchdown passes, passing yards, and passing attempts, respectively.  The team ranked 4th in the league in all comparable rushing categories. That shows both a distrust of Bridgewater and the offensive line's pass-blocking capabilities, but also an immensely conservative approach to play-calling.  That approach appears to be instilled in Bridgewater, who, too often, appears to make the cautious play, when a slightly less conservative play is available further down field.  Expecting more of Bridgewater in the offensive play-calling should, therefore, result in Bridgewater looking for opportunities down field, rather than deferring to the dump off.

If this sounds like deja vu' for Vikings' fans, it, of course, is.  From Tarvaris Jackson, to Christian Ponder, to Bridgewater, the Vikings have run conservative offenses, featuring the run, and asking the quarterback not to lose the game.  Jackson was out of his league in the NFL and Ponder showed some flashes but never became consistent.  Like Ponder, Bridgewater has been undermined by his own short-comings, but also by the low expectations of the offensive coordinator.  Those low expectations have reaped the expected return--a conservative quarterback who is timid until the game is absolutely on the line.  That likely will only change if the offensive coordinator raises the expectation level.  And that might be the second shoe--save for free-agency--that falls as a result of the Vikings' offensive woes against Seattle.


Childress of A Lesser God said...

You hit all the right issues regarding the offense. Whether Bridgewater failed to development or the OL simply could not pass block is a chicken-or-egg question. There were maybe a handful of occasions when Bridgewater fired the ball as he planted his back foot in his drop and hit a receiver in stride. That was simply not part of the offense. Rather, Bridgewater would take the snap, start scrambling and hope to God that someone got open as he was flushed. Bridgewater seemed to develop the "yips" and simply assume that he had to improvise on every pass play. Nothing seemed crisp or planned. I can't imagine that he did that in practice - but who knows. His mechanics also seemed to regress - perhaps for the same reasons - as the season went on. That fact was highlighted with the telestrator on several late season broadcasts. Although Bridgewater's strong and unflappable personality, are a popular narrative, he looked no more confident than Ponder for long stretches of the season. Maybe Sparano will improve the line which, in turn, will improve Bridgewater or maybe we simply have a bottom-tier starting QB? I guess time will tell.

Considering the offense's performance, its really amazing that the Vikings won 11 games, hosted a playoff game, and came within a missed FG of beating Seattle.

A real problem is finding someone that can be counted on to make a big play at a key moment. Bridgewater can't do it (last second fumbles in Denver and AZ). For all his greatness, Peterson doesn't step up when the chips are down and break a monster run. To the contrary, his game-changing moments in win-lose scenarios seem to be fumbles rather than TDs (Chicago in OT on Monday night in 2009, NFC championship in 2010 and last week). Cpt. Munnerlyn could have almost put the game away if he simply tackled Wilson as he gathered the botched snap. He whiffs and Seattle gets 40 yards and new life. And don't get me started on Walsh.

Off-season priorities: (1) Sparano instills a new attitude in the OL; (2) OL becomes more talented through free agency, draft and return of injured starters; (3) find another starting WR (what the hell happened to Johnson anyway???); and get a starting caliber safety.

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