There are a ton of clichés that get thrown around in the discussion of football. The line between winning and losing comes down to the thinnest of margins, so the clichés are a natural crutch: A game of inches. A momentum-shifter. Crunch time. Next man up. Any discussion of a "mindset." It's a list that is a cliché in its own right.
Among that storied list is that the NFL is a three-phase game – offense, defense and special teams.
Sadly, the first three Vikings games of the season have been reviewed like Adam Sandler movies. We've seen that character before. The setting is always different, but the story remains pretty much the same.
Through three games, the Vikings could be 3-0. It should be noted that, of their three games, the Vikes were dominated and gashed on both sides of the ball more by Detroit than either of their more recent opponents. To say the Vikings should have won the Lions game is a bit of a stretch. The Vikings had no business having a 14-6 lead, much less pulling off a late win, but the opportunity was there.
Behind by three points with five minutes off the clock in the fourth quarter, the Vikings had two situations where Detroit was facing a third-down situation – one being third-and-19. In both cases, Matthew Stafford threw incompletions. In both cases, the Vikings committed penalties that kept the drive alive and ended in a Detroit touchdown.
Against Chicago, the Vikings defense couldn't make the final kill shot on a Bears team that had no timeouts and faced a pair of third-down situations that they converted to keep the drive alive. It was easy to assign blame on the defense, but the offense and the special teams were equal-opportunity offenders.
Sunday against Cleveland was the Vikings' preparation at its absolute worst. The storyline coming into the game was that the Browns were packing it in for 2013. Viking Update cautioned that a team with nothing to lose is dangerous. You never know what they're going to do. A coaching staff without a win will pull out all the stops. That point was manifested by the Browns giving the Vikings special teams a collective wedgie – not once, but twice.
A fake punt burned them for 34 yards. A fake field goal resulted in one of the easiest touchdowns to have been scored in some time. There were two officials closer to Jordan Cameron when the ball left punter Spencer Lanning's hand on the touchdown pass he threw on a fake field goal than any Vikings covering him. Knowing how desperate the coaching staff was going to be in trying to convince their players that they were going to put their best foot forward to win games, how often have you ever seen a team attempt both a fake field goal and a fake punt in the same game? If one of them failed, they lose.
Simply stated, the Vikings were facing a desperate team that was willing to throw in the back pages of the playbook to win a game and send a message that will resonate with their players. Rob Chudzinski is the toast of Ohio today. Sunday's win may be their last for a long time, but they got their players to "buy in."
Here's a puzzler for you: When is the last time the Vikings did something remotely similar to what Cleveland pulled off Sunday? When's the last time that the Vikings attempted an onside kick when it wasn't obvious? It was before Ryan Longwell showed up and even veteran media wags can't remember the last time one was attempted on a surprise – successfully or as a failure.
When's the last time the Vikings threw a pass after lignin up for a field goal attempt when the snap wasn't botched and forced the issue? At least before Chris Kluwe showed up because his only career passes came when the ball went through his hands and he was pressed into action. Again, the 20-year veterans of Vikings history couldn't point one out.
One would think that, during the 3-13 season two years ago the Vikings would have been to the point of reaching the deep recesses of the playbook with the crazy "let's just take a chance" plays.
What makes the situation worse is that the Vikings knew the desperation level the Browns were at. The fans knew it. The media types knew it. Everybody knew it. The kitchen sink was in play when it came to calling plays. To get burned twice – not caught unawares once, but twice? – is inconceivable. It borders on unforgivable. Fool me once …
Last year, the Vikings gave up more than 30 points three times in 16 games – and they won one of them. Through three games, the Vikings have given up more than 30 points in all three – and lost them all. There is no free pass being given the defense, much less giving up 31 points to a third-string quarterback with a limited skill set.
There is no free pass being given the offense. If they put together a touchdown drive in the fourth quarter in either of the last two games, the last-minute touchdowns by the Bears or Browns would have led to an ensuing onside kick, not a citywide celebration. The fan response to Christian Ponder spoke volumes Sunday. The booing started early and rarely let up.
A defense that has helped allow 96 points to be scored is to blame. An offense that has turned the ball over too often to put defensive players in a "no-win" situation has contributed to the problem. But, if you're looking for the reason the Vikings are 0-3, the special teams is front and center.
Throughout his glorious history as an electrifying return man, Devin Hester never had the kind of day he had last week – a game in which the Vikings would have won had the game been 59 minutes long. As brutal as the offense and defense played Sunday, had the game been 59 minutes long, the Vikings would have won. They didn't in either case and the third phase of the game is as big a culprit as any – if not Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with a lead pipe.
Football is played in three phases – offense, defense and special teams. If you look at the execution of the offense, you can blame that unit. If you've watched the fourth quarter of any or all of the first three games, you can blame defense. But, if you're looking to the heart of the matter as to why the Vikings are 0-3, look at the special teams.
It has been far from special.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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