Brad Johnson isn't putting up Peyton Manning numbers. He's not even putting up Daunte Culpepper numbers, not even the Culpepper numbers from earlier this year when the quarterback was getting yardage … and throwing interceptions.
But this offense – this 2005 offense now executed by Johnson – is different and it's time for coaches, fans and the media to accept it.
"I think you need to let last year go. It's a different team. Just let it go, move on," Johnson said Tuesday.
He's right, and head coach Mike Tice agrees.
"Times have changed," Tice said. "As long as we are winning it doesn't bother me at all. I am kind of liking this new way. It works pretty good on the road it looks like. If we are going to do it this way, players and coaches have to be patient offensively because we are not going to get the huge, huge chunks of yardage down the field as much as we have. With that said, we created seven explosive plays (against the Packers) and actually eight because we had a 25-yard run called back. That is not a bad day's work anytime you can do that."
The Vikings still have to concern themselves with outscoring their opponents, but the offense doesn't have to put up huge numbers to get that done.
In order to "let it go," as Johnson puts it, we first need to reflect on the loss of the once-explosive offense with remembrance. But in remembering, we find that the scoring hasn't really gone down, the team is just finding different ways to score rather than just through offense.
Last year, the Vikings averaged 25.3 points per game. In 2003, it was 26 points per game, and they've held pretty steady between 24 and 26 points per game ever since their record-setting scoring season of 1998, when they scored an NFL-record 556 points, a whopping 34.75 average.
This year? Well, the Vikings are still averaging 24.8 points per game through 10 games, but it's not all offensive scores that have allowed the Vikings to climb back to a .500 record.
"Our defense has to eliminate the big plays, get off the field, create turnovers for you. Special teams has got to make your kicks, pin people down in the holes," Johnson said. "We're winning football games in a lot of different ways and hopefully we'll keep that up."
While the scoring isn't down dramatically, the offensive yardage is. In 6-1/2 games of service – before tearing his ACL, MCL and PCL ligaments in Carolina – Daunte Culpepper averaged 240 yards of passing per game. In the last 3-1/2 games, Brad Johnson has averaged 182 yards – but most importantly three wins.
"I think that we have more guys buying into what we are doing. I think we have more guys believing that we can win. We have always worked hard. We have worked hard since the first day I got here. They practice hard too. In fact, I think they enjoy practicing. We have more guys making plays on game day because they are believing," Tice said. "I think we are playing faster because we have some better knowledge of what we are trying to do on the field, which allows players to play faster. We are playing very physical on special teams. We have some young guys stepping up and playing well. I think the team has hung together. I think they are growing together. They are seeing some results from their hard work. We were able to go on the road and win two road games in two very difficult places to win, New York and Lambeau Field. So that is going to build some confidence and they are starting to gain some confidence."
Now the Vikings are 5-5 and feeling better about themselves, even if the offense is no longer producing 35-point games.
"Obviously, we dug ourselves a big hole at the beginning of the season. We've won our last four out of five and three in a row, with three game-winning field goals in the last four weeks," Johnson said. "We've just got to find ways to keep winning. Our defense has been playing tremendous, especially on third down, and creating turnovers for us."
The biggest difference between the first five games (when they went 1-4) and the last five (when they went 4-1) has been the minimization of turnovers on offense. In their first five games, the team committed 17 turnovers. In their most recent five-game stretch, they have committed five.
Johnson is a big reason for that turnaround. He has thrown just one interception and lost two fumbles since he became the starting quarterback. In his 6-1/2 games of duty, Culpepper threw 12 interceptions and lost three fumbles.
But it's not just the quarterback switch that has made a difference. Against Green Bay on Monday night, the running game stepped up. Mewelde Moore returned from a sprained right wrist and delivered his second 100-yard game of the season.
"We were running the ball extremely well, and it really opened up some things in the second half with the play-action passing game. We were able to take some deeper shots, and we used some seven-man protection schemes over the six-man schemes that we had," Johnson said.
That happened despite the season-long game of musical offensive linemen. The Vikings reverted to starting center Cory Withrow because Melvin Fowler's strained oblique muscle was limiting him. Toniu Fonoti started his first game for the Vikings at left guard, but when he strained a groin muscle, Anthony Herrera saw his most extensive action of the season. And, finally, the Vikings replaced right tackle Mike Rosenthal with rookie Marcus Johnson.
"It's something that you really don't want to go through as a team, but the thing I like about it most is those guys believe in each other and are fighting and they believe in the system," Johnson said of the offensive line. "We'll keep at it and we'll get better, all of us from the skill position guys to the guys up front. Those guys created some huge holes two out of the last three weeks with the running game and got the play-action going."
It's all adding up to wins, however unconventional those wins might be for the Minnesota Vikings.
Apparently Packer fans are growing more restless and frustrated with their team's 2-8 record. This from WBAY-TV, the ABC affiliate in the Green Bay area:
"Green Bay police say Monday night's Packers-Vikings game had the highest number of arrests and ejections of any game this season. Fifteen people were arrested and 52 ejected from Lambeau Field," the television's web site reported. "The arrests were for a variety of crimes, including drug possession, underage drinking, and unlawful conduct. Most of the ejections were for unruly behavior. Ashwaubenon Public Safety reported 61 calls related to the Packers game, resulting in nine arrests. Two people were charged for domestic violence and three were arrested for fighting. Two were arrested for drunken driving, including a person being charged with their seventh Operating While Intoxicated offense."
Tight end Jim Kleinsasser will be limited in practice this week because of a sore groin, but Tice said Kleinsasser definitely will play Sunday against Cleveland.
Guard Toniu Fonoti (strained groin) probably will not play, Tice said. Anthony Herrera would be the likely starter, with former starter Chris Liwienski back in the mix.
Center Melvin Fowler's (strained oblique muscle) status is up in the air. Fowler was acquired in a trade with Cleveland in October. "We'll see how Fowler is health-wise," Tice said. "You would think he would want to play against his old team, but we'll see. Maybe he doesn't want to play against his old team so I'll make a decision there also."
Wide receiver Nate Burleson is expected to play Sunday, and Tice said Burleson's status on Monday night was "truly a game-time decision."
It was still unclear if Rosenthal was replaced at right tackle based on his struggles or if an injury factored in Monday night. Either way, Marcus Johnson could get the start Sunday. "I think I am going to stay with Marcus Johnson," Tice said. "I liked what he did out there. … I probably won't make a decision until (Wednesday) morning about who is going to start there."
Wide receiver Troy Williamson has a bruised AC joint (shoulder) and is expected to play.
Defensive lineman Spencer Johnson (knees) "seems to be doing better," according to Tice. Johnson said he expects to play.
Running back Mewelde Moore sprained both ankles Monday night but will play against Cleveland.
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