Sunday, January 4, 2009
The story of the 2008 Minnesota Vikings was, by and large, a positive one. But as so often happens in the playoffs, if you have weaknesses they will be exposed and if you can't make plays when it counts, you will lose.
So was the case this Sunday as the Vikings were sent to another off-season earlier than they had hoped, losing to the Philadelphia Eagles 26-14.
Unlike the two previous seasons under the guidance of head coach Brad Childress, this Vikings team did what it needed to do in the regular season to earn a playoff berth. And for the most part an offense that was nothing short of inept finally found its stride as the season wore on.
Under the white hot glare of the post season however it was the same old story for a team trying to win without a high-quality head coach and without stability or consistency at the most important position in all of team sports, quarterback.
For Childress, the missteps in judgment were glaring, with the focus mostly on sporadic and often puzzling play calling decisions. Twice in the Vikes loss to the Eagles, the defense which was solid as always, forced potentially game-changing turnovers only to see those opportunities wasted because of an overly conservative approach by Childress.
One would have thought, given his strong performance late in the season, that Childress would have finally been comfortable enough with third year quarterback Tarvaris Jackson to take the training wheels off. On this Sunday however it was as if he was more concerned with trying not to lose as opposed to trying to win. That approach has clearly rubbed off on the young signal caller, never more so than against Philly.
Ever since Jackson joined the team in 2006 and was subsequently tossed into the fire late in the season you could see the hesitation in his play. At first many thought it was simply rookie nerves, and they may have been right.
But as time wore on and Jackson continued to live in his playbook, it became clear to those of us who know what to look for that the leash on the obviously talented Jackson might be just a bit too tight. With each errant pass and questionable decision you could feel that leash growing shorter and shorter, choking the life out of the young quarterback.
Then came his eventual benching in favor of veteran quarterback Gus Frerotte and it seemed it might be all over for the player once viewed as the future of the team under center. Freed of the expectation and clearly more comfortable in his role as second option, Jackson played with renewed confidence and authority when Frerotte was injured late in the year.
But just as things seemed to be clicking for Jackson, Childress found a way to stifle that progress by failing to trust in his quarterback's ability. Indeed you could almost hear Childress in Jackson's in-helmet speaker saying, "Take care of the ball. Don't make any mistakes. Just be careful."
See the thing with young players, in particular young quarterbacks, is that they need to know they can make a mistake from time to time and that trusting their instincts is a good thing, not something to be questioned at every turn. This is especially true of Jackson who has worked diligently to learn the playbook, solidify his footwork and get comfortable making multiple reads.
Now Jackson is by no means a great quarterback. He still needs work on all of the points mentioned above, but anyone with two eyes can see the arm strength and the athleticism he possesses and anyone who watched him skillfully guide his team down the stretch of the regular season can see that he is capable of making plays.
Of course it isn't all Childress' fault. He isn't making the reads or throwing the passes, that responsibility ultimately falls on Jackson. But after three seasons of eerily similar offensive results in the biggest games, it's clear to me that while Childress is a good man and a quality offensive mind, he doesn't quite have what it takes to be a head coach. He struggles to make the correct adjustments and backs that up with questionable motivational skills, not a good combination.
The saddest part of the way the Vikings' season ended is that ultimately their run to the playoffs may have saved Childress' job for at least one more season. Meanwhile it's much less certain that Jackson may ever get another shot to be the starting quarterback for the Vikings or anyone else.
Vikings' fans can be happy with the improvement in 2008. Free agent signings Jared Allen and Bernard Berrian were tremendous successes and the defense continued to dominate. Adrian Peterson cemented his status as the best running back in the league and winning the NFC North is nothing to sneeze at.
However, until they find a more capable in-game manager to wear the headset and finally settle on a quarterback who they will commit to, simply reaching the playoffs may be the best they can hope for.