The Vikings coaching staff returns mostly unchanged from the 2008 season, though now with an NFC North division title and a playoff game under their belts, one would hope a little wiser.
Even with their success of a year ago, the sword still hangs over the coaches this season, with the roster as talent laden as it’s been since the Viking’s 15-1 1998 season, and with owner Ziggy Wilf clearly ready to do whatever it takes to put his team into the Super Bowl. Here’s a look at the coordinators, and the hills they’ll have to climb this season.
Head Coach Hired: 2006
2008 Record: 10-6, 0-1
Head coach Brad Childress is entering his fourth season with the Vikings, and expectations have never been higher. Having one of the NFL’s best defenses, the best running back in Adrian Peterson, and some other very talented (and very expensive) players on the field, the 2008 Vikings had to claw and scratch their way into the playoffs last season.
Once they got there, they ended up losing a lopsided game to the Eagles So the question now becomes, is he the right man to take this team further?
Childress has been somewhat maligned in Minnesota for his inability to call games strategically. He routinely runs Adrian Peterson on dives up the middle, where his game breaking speed is limited by the traffic.
He calls short slant passes on third and long, not really giving receivers the ability to make plays for the first. He sticks to a handful of players who he considers to be “his guys”, despite the fact that they’ve underperformed on the field. Look at fullback Nafahu Tahi, tackle Ryan Cook, and quarterback Tarvaris Jackson for examples.
Most importantly, however, Childress is uncreative. The Vikings rarely run any interesting formations, or force defenses to react to different schemes. They’ve consistently ran the same vanilla flavor of the West Coast offense since 2006, and defenses aren’t fooled by any of it.
Now, this might not seem particularly damning at first glance, but remember that Childress came to the Vikings after being the offensive coordinators of one of the league’s best offenses in Philadelphia.
There, among other things, he developed Donovan McNabb into a perennial Pro Bowler and, with the exception of one season with Terrell Owens, built a championship caliber team with almost no receivers. So what gives?
The truth of the matter is, Andy Reid was the real driving force behind that offense, and while Childress deserves a lot of credit for developing McNabb into a great quarterback, he never really had to do much as a talent evaluator in Philly.
So he’s just now starting to learn the ropes of what it takes to build a program like this from scratch. And the results are starting to show.
Since 2006, the Vikings have improved every year, from 6-10 to 8-8 in 2007 to last year’s 10-6 campaign. He’s also started turning over some of his faltering staff, drafting Phil Loadholt and Percy Harvin to compete for jobs on offense, and experimenting with other options at quarterback to see if he can’t jump start an anemic passing offense.
Consistent improvement is great, but ultimately Childress is 24-24 as a head coach, which is not a bad record all things considered, but it’s not good either.
The window of opportunity for a team like this is only going to be a few years, so Brad Childress either needs to be able to strike soon, or Ziggy Wilf will be calling the Mike Shannahans and Bill Cowhers of the world sooner rather than later.
Key Stats: 12th Points Scored (23.7), 25th Passing Yards Per Game (184.8), 5th Rushing Yards Per Game (146.1)
Darell Bevell is another curious case. While he’s widely regarded as a quarterbacks guru, his only real time spent working with a quarterback directly was from 2000-2005, working with Brett Favre in Green Bay. Given that it was Favre, Bevell really didn’t do anything but cheerlead.
Bevell is an interesting story, in that he’s basically been attached to Brad Childress’ hip since he first got to college. Childress was his coordinator for his freshman year at Northern Arizona University, then, when Childress took a job at Wisconsin a few years later, Bevell followed him there.
After a few years with Green Bay, Childress got the Minnesota job, and Bevell came along for the ride.
During the 2007 season, Coach Childress told the media that he was going to let Bevell take over the offensive play calling for the Vikings so that he could spend more time focusing on the whole team. However, Bevell hasn’t been able to get them out of their current rut.
Part of that is mired in the Brad Childress offensive plan.
Sure, Bevell might be calling most of the plays, but he’s still pulling them from the same playbook the Vikings have used for the past three years, a very uninspiring, vanilla offense that consistently has them ranked near the bottom of the league in passing, despite the fact that opposing defenses play geared entirely against the run.
The addition of Percy Harvin should open things up a little more, but Bevell either needs to wrest more control over the playbook from Childress to make the passing game more dynamic, or at least start varying his play calling to make the offense more dynamic.
Perhaps he can’t be blamed for the Vikings current passing woes, but in his fourth season as offensive coordinator, he certainly has to start making some headway.
Other Key Staff: Eric Bieniemy (Running Backs), Kevin Rogers (Quarterbacks)
Eric Bieniemy has one of the easiest and hardest jobs in football. As the running backs coach for the Vikings, he pretty much just has to let Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor do their things. Both backs are so naturally talented, that there isn’t much a coach can show them that won’t screw up their natural momentum.
On the other hand, Bieniemy is constantly in the spot light, and when one of the backs screws up, fingers are often pointed in his direction.
Adrian Peterson had a number of very preventable fumbles last year that a coach needs to take a bit of ownership over, and fullback Nafahu Tahi has become something of a reclamation project after a poor 2008. He’ll have plenty to work on this season.
Kevin Rogers is the third line in the Viking’s “Quarterback Guru” triumvirate. Rogers coached Donovan McNabb at Syracuse, and Childress was clearly hoping that a double dose of that teaching would turn somebody like Tarvaris Jackson into a star.
So far, though, Roger’s quarterbacking knowledge hasn’t seemed to help, as the Viking’s best games under Roger’s command came last season under long time veteran Gus Frerotte.
Key Stats: 13th Points Allowed (20.8), 18th Passing Yards Allowed Per Game (215.6), 1st Rushing Yards Allowed Per Game (76.9)
While Leslie Frazier might not exactly be a household name, he will probably become one within the next few years.
Consider that he turned a Cincinnati Bengals unit that was ranked near the bottom of the league in most measurable categories in 2003, to a mid-tier defense in 2004, and that he’s done the same for a woeful Vikings pass defense since he took over for Mike Tomlin in 2007.
There’s no doubting Frazier’s knowledge of the defensive side of the ball.
While one might think it’s easy to generate defensive stats with Pro Bowlers Jared Allen, Pat and Kevin Williams, and Antoine Winfield on the field, consider that Frazier didn’t have his defensive leader, and arguably most talented player, E.J. Henderson available for most of last year due to an injury.
Or that he had to fill in for Pat Williams, safety Madieu Williams, Jared Allen, and Ray Edwards at various points last year. That the Vikings were able to maintain a high level of performance minus four or five starters for several games is pretty remarkable.
Frazier has the benefit of having the most autonomy over his job than any other coach on the staff. The fortunate thing about this is that the Viking’s defense is consistently improving, and the blitz packages and coverage schemes are getting more and more complex as the players get more comfortable with their roles on defense.
The negative, at least during Frazier’s tenure, is that the Tampa 2 coverage scheme that Frazier and his predecessor Tomlin run is becoming wildly outdated in today’s NFL. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers don’t even run it anymore.
For the past few years, teams have been able to take advantage of the large gaps in the Cover 2 scheme, most notably, that the “bubble” in the middle of the field that line backers are supposed to cover is rife with opportunities for slanting receivers and tight ends.
The Vikings have been burned time and time again by this flaw in their system, but haven’t been able to correct it, partly because of personnel (Ben Leber is not athletic enough to cover most of today’s top tight ends, much less receivers), and partly because the flaw is just part of the system, so to correct it would me a whole scheme change.
That having been said, the pass defense is improving, mostly thanks to the pass rush being generated by Jared Allen. With Henderson, who is a superb blitzer coming back, Kenechi Udeze returning, and the continued development of end rushers Ray Edwards and Brain Robison, the passing stats should continue to decline in 2009.
Frazier has long been considered a prime head coaching candidate, and it’s very likely that he’ll get there sooner rather than later. He’s very popular amongst his players, and if Mike Tomlin and Tony Dungy’s success has been any indication, the Vikings defensive coordinator’s job is a good grooming experience for NFL head coaches.
Other Key Staff Fred Pagac (Linebackers), Karl Dunbar (Defensive Line)
Pagac was considered the heir apparent to the Vikings defense when Tomlin left in the 2007 season, but his home is with the linebackers. Under his direction, E.J. Henderson went from being a career second line player to a force at middle linebacker, and Chad Greenway has developed into a great two way player, both against the run and the pass.
It was an odd career trajectory for Pagac, who spent his playing career as a tight end, but he’s really become a force as a linebacker coach, and he’ll definitely be considered again for the coordinator position once Frazier becomes a head coach.
Similarly, Karl Dunbar is considered a shoe-in for a coordinator position somewhere. Like Eric Bieniemy, he’s got an easy job corralling Jared Allen and the Williams, but for a guy in charge of a superstar group like that, he’s got the complete respect and admiration of his unit.
Dunbar should also be credited for the development of some young players, including Ray Edwards and Brian Robison, both of whom are solid edge rushers and will be seeing plenty of playing time this season, and Fred Evans, who struggled to find his place in Miami, but has developed into a solid back-up in Minnesota.
Special Teams Coordinator
Key Stats: 20th Kick Return Average (22.4), 24th Punt Return Average (8.0), 21st Kick Return Against Average (23.5), 32nd Punt Return Against Average (14.9)
No coach on the Vikings has a bigger uphill battle than Brian Murphy. Paul Ferraro left the Vikings after a disastrous 2008 campaign which saw them give up an NFL record seven special teams touchdowns.
In addition, the Viking’s return games is one of the worst in the league, ranked 20th in kick returns and 24th in punt returns. You can’t expect to win too many games giving up that much yardage and not getting any of it back.
Murphy is another guy on this staff with a long standing relationship with Brad Childress. He served as an academic advisor to the 1993 Wisconsin Badgers team, when Childress was coordinator and Bevell was quarterback.
Most troubling, for Vikings fans anyway, is that Murphy was an assistant on Ferraro’s staff last season, so it doesn’t bode well for the sweeping changes it appears this unit will need.
While punter Chris Kluwe and kicker Ryan Longwell have seemed to have earned their spots on the roster next season, it’s clear that the return and coverage teams need big changes.
The Vikings hope that former Carolina special teams standout Karl Paymah and draft pick Percy Harvin will be able to secure the return game, but it’s up to Murphy to implement a system that brings the special teams coverage to at least respectable levels, or he’s going to be putting a lot of undo pressure on their vaunted defense.