The odds have been against Bill Musgrave from the start this season.
He left his job as quarterbacks coach in Atlanta to become the offensive coordinator in Minnesota, but a lockout robbed him of the chance to get a head start on installing his system with rookie quarterback Christian Ponder and the rest of the Vikings offense.
Musgrave also planned to lean heavily on star running back Adrian Peterson, but he missed three games with a high ankle sprain. The Vikings also had high hopes for former Falcons receiver Michael Jenkins, the only player with a previous connection to Musgrave, but he was lost for the season Dec. 1 because of a knee injury.
Veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb was a bust, prompting the Vikings to hand the job to Ponder in Week 7.
All have contributed to the Vikings (2-12) sitting at No. 28 in passing offense heading into Saturday's game at Washington.
"There's more that we look forward to getting in in a more orthodox offseason, that's for sure," Musgrave said. "This has been a season like no other, but we still have made tremendous strides and we've learned a lot about our young players and our veterans. We've got two more games to get back on track and get the outcome that we want."
Throughout the season, it's appeared at times as if Musgrave is still searching for how to best use the personnel he has on the roster. There have been some head-scratching play calls that have drawn the ire of the fans, including in last weekend's 42-20 loss to the New Orleans Saints.
The Vikings had the ball in the second quarter at the New Orleans 13 after a 39-yard run from Peterson.
Backup quarterback/receiver Joe Webb lined up behind center with Ponder split to his right in the backfield. Two times in a row, Webb faked a handoff to Ponder to try and confuse the defense. He threw an incompletion to Percy Harvin and managed a 3-yard gain on an option on the next play.
"We've got an eight- or 10-play package there," Musgrave said. "We've only scratched the surface. We've got a number of other plays that we've been working on and we're looking forward to getting those on tape and getting good at them."
The Vikings scored on the next play, thanks to a savvy call from Musgrave in which Toby Gerhart scored on a shovel-pass from Ponder.
But later in the game, they faced a third-and-1 on their own 43. Rather than call for a power run to pick up the yard, the Vikings pitched it left to Peterson, who was met in the backfield by Will Smith and thrown for a 5-yard loss as boos rained down from the impatient crowd.
"We need to find something that we can hang our hat on these final two games and say, ‘You know what, that was good, let's build on that,'" coach Leslie Frazier said. "That's what we're trying to do in these last two games."
But Frazier does remain in Musgrave's corner, and he said Thursday he is convinced keeping everyone in place is the key to improving next season.
"I'm really excited about Bill, along with the rest of our offense," Frazier said. "I see things that I know we're going to have a quality offense once we get some other pieces in place and have a full offseason."
The Vikings rank fourth in the league in rush offense, but many fans wouldn't mind seeing Musgrave go.
"I always think it's a part of this profession," Musgrave said. "The key is focusing each and every week to do your best and correct the mistakes that you may have made in the previous weeks."
Changing offensive coordinators would be problematic because they would then likely be asking Ponder to learn his second offensive system in as many seasons. Young quarterbacks have struggled in those scenarios before, none more than 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, the former No. 1 overall pick who has had a different offensive coordinator in each of his first seven NFL seasons and only now is showing signs of putting it all together.
"It's a killer," Frazier said of coaching turnover. "Alex is a perfect example and there are others throughout history. You don't want to do that. If you want Christian to have any chance to have any immediate success, you'd like to have some consistency with the offense."
Ponder, who had a promising start after taking over the job, but has taken a step or two back in the past three games, thinks a full offseason with the coaches and his teammates would make all the difference.
"I'm going to spend a lot of time with Bill Musgrave and (offensive line coach) Jeff Davidson and learn everything, and just small details," he said.
Musgrave's offense a work in progress
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