The Vikings spent Monday sorting through the issues that have caused a team predicted to make a deep playoff run to start the season 1-3. Head coach Mike Tice was 47 minutes late for his press conference, sparking a round of speculation that he was being fired.
But when the usually punctual Tice entered the room, the first thing he did was apologize for his tardiness and set the record straight that he was meeting with his team and trying to figure out what has been going wrong in the team's poor start, "sorting out the whys."
"There is a number of whys out there," Tice said. "It is my job to address the whys and get it fixed. If I have identified the whys and I don't address the whys and get them fixed, then I have not done my job. It is plain and simple. It is pretty simple, really. Identify the issues, identify the why's, address them, get them fixed or get as many of them that you can fixed, and get things turned around."
At look at the Vikings' ranking among the NFL's other 31 teams helps to identify some of the key issues. The Vikings rank last in a few important categories, and some of them come in areas where high-priced defensive free agents were expected to help most.
The Vikings signed nose tackle Pat Williams to plug the interior and take heat off of Kevin Williams. To date, the Vikings defense ranks 32nd – that's dead last – in rushing defense. Before the apologists point out the scoring deficits they have gotten into early in games, making it more likely that the opposing offense will run against them, even when they know the run is coming they've been unable to prevent it. Witness the Vikings' 32nd ranking in rushing average (178 yards per game) against them. By contrast, Minnesota's backfield has averaged only 79 yards per game rushing.
Middle linebacker Sam Cowart said Monday he thought many of the problems with the defense can be attributed to players out of position.
Tice also put the defensive woes on the inconsistency among the players, where one player executes his assignment eight times in a row before making a mistake that is exposed. Then another player will falter after a series of good executions.
"You look at talent and when there is talent in the room, that's fine, but when that talent is not playing together as a unit, as an 11-man unit, that is not fine," Tice said. "Everything rests with the top guy to make sure that the talent that you believe you have in the room is working together to execute the call, whatever call it may be, good call, bad call, mediocre call, executing that call to the letter of its intent or to the letter of its design. Once that scheme is executed to the letter of its intent or design then you become a good football team. Until you do that, you are not good."
The defense is 29th in total yards yielded and 25th in passing yards given up.
The area where the defensive free agents have helped so far is in defending the pass. With Fred Smoot contributing after an injury-riddled preseason and Darren Sharper helping out in the back for the first two games before a knee injury, the pass defense has yielded only 200 yards per game.
Of course, it is hard to really judge the pass defense when teams like Cincinnati and Atlanta are building 37-0 and 27-0 leads before naturally turning to a running game to take time off the game clock.
Offensively, where the Vikings' bread has been buttered in the recent past, they have been lousy, even though wide receiver Travis Taylor said he didn't think the offense was struggling, pointing out that his former Baltimore Ravens team went through a stretch of three games without a touchdown. Taylor often cited Daunte Culpepper as a big reason the wide receiver decided to come to Minnesota via free agency. However, Culpepper is a prime reason the Vikings are struggling.
But Tice said that while he hasn't hesitated to pull running backs and linemen, Culpepper's situation requires more patience.
"It is so much harder with the quarterback when you look at the reasons why, and you like to keep the quarterback in the flow and give him the opportunity into victory no matter what the circumstances are," Tice said. "I think that the quarterback position is a unique position and one you have to look at differently, I really do. Whether people agree with me or don't agree with me, I believe that is the way it should be looked at. Right now, none of us are unflawed."
Culpepper hasn't always stayed upright, taking nine sacks against Atlanta and many more hits. He has responded with the league's worst interception percentage and second-worst ranking on the number of sacks per passing play.
Guard Adam Goldberg said the problems the offensive line had against Atlanta didn't look any different than the problems they experienced in earlier games. He was surprised, however, to learn the statistical extent of the damage.
"When you're an offensive lineman and reporters come up to you after the game and ask, ‘What do you think about the nine sacks,' you're eyes get wide and you're like, ‘There were nine sacks?' I look at the grades … and the grades, they weren't bad," Goldberg said. "If you just saw the grades, you wouldn't think there were nine sacks. I guess it was a good week for the bye to solve those problems."
The pressure on Culpepper has led to a league-worst giveaway/takeaway differential of minus-8, tying Green Bay.
The Vikings haven't proven to be a tough team either, especially on offense. The offensive line has struggled ever since Pro Bowl center Matt Birk left the playing field for the operating room in January, and the Vikings have had trouble getting into the end zone. When they are inside the 20-yard line, the red zone, only Cleveland and Arizona have been worse at capitalizing, with the Vikings scoring a touchdown on only 27.3 percent of their red zone forays.
What about special teams, an area that has been the bane of the Vikings during the Tice tenure? Punter Chris Kluwe and kicker Paul Edinger fell into the Vikings' collective laps after hitting the waiver wire at different points before the start of the regular season. Edinger has been decent on field goals and Kluwe, a rookie, leads the league in net and gross punting.
The rest of the kicking teams have struggled. Minnesota claims the 29th-ranked kickoff return team with a 22.8-yard average and have struggled to cover kickoffs as well, averaging a 27th-ranked 29.7 yards yielded on returns.
The problems with the Vikings running deep, yet Tice said they aren't far away from being good. But if they don't start proving it with wins, he knows his job is on the line.
"That goes with losing. If I am not doing my job, then they should call for my head. Right now, I'm not doing my job because we are 1-3. I need to continue to work to do my job better," Tice said. "I think that is a fair answer, I think it is a fair question. As long as I work to do my job – it is a long season, we just finished the first quarter of the season – I believe when it is all said and done and evaluated at the end, I will have done my job. Right now, it is hard to say I am doing my job when we are 1-3."
Rankings, Comments Point To Problems
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