Monday, September 29, 2008

Meet the new coach, same as the old coach

Maybe Tennessee really is a good team, after all. But it certainly didn't hurt them that the Vikings made one mistake after another to practically hand them the victory. Oh, and the stellar play-calling from Brad Childress, who once again decided to ignore the running game for long stretches, didn't help matters any.

Let's start with the turnovers. The Vikings coughed the ball up three times in their own territory, each resulting in a Tennessee touchdown. The final turnover, a Gus Frerotte interception, came as the quarterback got drilled and desperately tried to launch a pass out of his own end zone on third down -- not the worst result, really. More distressing were the three fumbles, two of them occurring at the Minnesota 33 and 15. I'm not going to launch into useless platitudes of "they just need to protect the ball more," because it's not like you (usually) have a choice when you're running as to whether or not you want to take a risk and increase your chances of fumbling (unlike throwing an interception, which often is a risk-reward situation). But man, it's frustrating.

Then there were the penalties. Someday, when I have the time and can find the resources, I want to do an analysis of penalties in the NFL over the last few years because, for whatever reason, the Vikings always seem to be among the worst teams in the league at being penalized, and they always (anecdotally, I know) seem to wipe out a positive play. They were flagged seven times for 50 yards Sunday, far oustripping the Titans' four for 18 yards. The most grievous were probably the two five-yarders on the team's opening drive of the second half, which prevented any sort of positive gain coming out of the locker room down by just 10 points.

And you know what else prevented the team from doing well at the start of the second half? Brad Childress' continued unwillingness to rely on the running game. OK, so we replaced Tarvaris Jackson with Gus Frerotte and can actually throw a bit now. I get that, and it's great. But why on earth do you drop back to throw on your first six snaps of the second half? Again, penalties pushed the team back some, but here were the Vikings' down-and-distance for those six snaps (after taking penalties into account):

1st and 15
2nd and 14
3rd and 8
1st and 15
2nd and 9
3rd and 1

I only consider two of those -- the 2nd and 14 and 3rd and 8 -- as obvious passing downs. With the running game the Vikings have, you can run on 1st and anything and 2nd and long, a concept Childress is simply incapable of thinking. After years of passing all the time in Philadelphia, he wants to pass on every down more than I want to see Scarlett Johansson naked, and that's saying a lot. In all, Vikings QBs dropped back 48 times in the game, while handing off just 19 times, despite never being down by more than two scores. Even with four minutes left in the game and the ball at their own two-yard line and down by just six points, Childress called three straight pass plays, including the final turnover which essentially ended the competitive portion of the game.

Or did it? Facing a 4th and 13 from their own 18 with just two minutes left and down 30-17 (and, I believe, no timeouts), the Vikings punted. What on earth was that? Yes, the chances of winning at that point are miniscule, but there's still a reasonable amount of time left (even if Tarvaris Jackson just got sacked on the last two plays). Why not go for it, maybe heave up a prayer, and hope for something good to happen? Nothing bad can happen at that point. A man can go insane trying to figure out what goes through Brad Childress' mind during a game and I, for one, am going to stop trying.

Even with all that the offense does wrong, though, the defense can't be held entirely blameless.
Seems difficult to believe, what with Kerry Collins quarterbacking the team and all, but it was the running game, led by rookie Chris Johnson, that fueled the Titans' attack (along with the three Vikings turnovers). Johnson only had 61 yards on 17 carries, a 3.6 average, and his long gain was nine yards, but after watching the Minnesota defense completely swallow up running backs for two-plus seasons, it was alarming to see Johnson dance through the line and, more often than not, gain positive yardage. Meanwhile, Kerry Collins didn't even have to wash his jersey after the game, usually having plenty of time to complete his passes and not being sacked once. The only defensive turnover came on a botched snap -- hardly the result of skilled defensive pressure.

For one week, Brad Childress looked like a man who knew what to do with the talent he was given on his team. Long drives, short passes, a heavy dose of the run. But as soon as the team fell behind in Tennessee, he virtually abandoned the running game and went all pass-happy for most of the second half. It's beyond hope to think he'll change at this points. He desperately wants to pass on every single down, so I think the Vikings should give him that chance. There's got to be a college team out that wants to adopt the spread offense. I think Childress should be given the opportunity to find that team and preach his gospel there. Who's with me?

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