Monday, September 22, 2008

All aboard the Gus Bus

It was about midway through the third quarter of yesterday's Vikings game that I noticed something. Gus Frerotte dropped back and my heart did not instantly leap up into my throat. For the first time in two years, I was not deathly afraid of something awful happening when a Vikings quarterback dropped back to pass. Oh sure, it wasn't all because of Frerotte that the team won its first game of the season, nor was it entirely Tarvaris Jackson's fault that they lose their first two. And Frerotte is a short-term band-aid, at best. But for one week at least -- and hopefully a few more to come -- the passing game wasn't a weakness of a team with one of the best running games and defenses in the league.

The mantra at the start of the season, quoted by coaches, media, and fans was that the Vikings didn't need much from the quarterback position. They just needed a "game manager" (one of my least favorite terms, as it's synonymous with "quarterback who's not good enough to actually win games"). But through his first two starts, Jackson was flinging the ball all around the field, trying to force the ball deep when short passes would have sufficed and seemingly never finding the open receiver -- and when he did, often firing above him, behind him, or at his feet. And coach Brad Childress was going to have to call plays that adhered to this philosophy, running often and throwing safe, short passes to keep the clock moving and meticulously drive the ball down the field.

After the Vikings' first two drives, where they passed the ball six times (with the only running play being called back by a penalty), and ending with Frerotte whizzing a high bullet through Bernard Berrian's hands and into Chris Gamble's, I thought we were in for more of the same. Then came the 14-play, eight-minute second-quarter drive where Frerotte marched the team down the field with a mix of runs and easy passes that was a delight to watch.

As good as that drive was, the Vikings had an even better drive in the late third/early fourth quarter, an 18-play behemoth that consumed over 11 1/2 minutes. Even though each drive only netted a field goal, and I'm usually not a huge fan of ball-control, dink-and-dunk offenses (since it prevents your offense from running more plays just as much as it does the opponents') but these couple of drives were just what this team needed to show that it could run an efficient offense with its new quarterback, who showed the willingness to simply move the chains instead of trying to go for a play beyond his talent level.

The defense did its fair share, as well. It seemed like it took Antoine Winfield -- not the world's fastest cornerback -- about 10 minutes to get to Jake Delhomme on that second-quarter sack/fumble/touchdown. Delhomme was harassed all day, sacked five times, and the running game was, as usual, stuffed to the tune of 47 yards on 20 carries. Thanks to the pressure up front, Delhomme was only able to find the returning Steve Smith four times to the tune of 70 yards. The strong defensive showing, combined with the revitalized passing game led to an oddity on recent Vikings teams: Discounting sacks, the Vikings had more raw passing yards (204) than the Panthers (191) yesterday. That happened exactly once last year, in the second Chicago game, and you'd have to go back to December 3, 2006 -- another Chicago game -- for the last time before that.

To be certain, the game wasn't perfect. Too many penalties stunted drives, though the Panthers were just as complicit and were actually penalized more times (12 to 9) than the Vikings, though for less total yardage (67 to 100). The officials were a little flag-happy, though, and some of the flags seemed nitpicky, so maybe it wasn't entirely the team's fault. Still, it's always nicer to have a win than a loss and Brad Childress is already feeling the love, up to 32% in this week's poll. Next up is a Tennessee team looking very much like our own: a tough defense, good two-headed running game, and a veteran quarterback who took over for a young scrambler. Should be an interesting matchup, even if the over/under on total points is about 20.

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