A few days after the Vikings burst into the upper crust of the NFL’s Super Bowl contenders by beating Green Bay in the Brett Favre Vengeance Bowl last week, ESPN published its weekly approval ratings of the NFL coaches based on a poll of the fans.
With his team bracketed with Indianapolis and New Orleans as the best in pro football, Brad Childress was rated — be kind — 12th in the hearts of the American football public. Eight coaches whose teams had lost more games than the Vikings scored higher in popularity with the fans.
So what is this? Is Childress some kind of bearded pariah as a big-time coach in the judgment of the amalgamated bloggers of Minnesota and the USA?
Tom Szarzynski is a Minneapolis small businessman, a literate and experienced football watcher and unsinkable Viking fan. He examined those figures without surprise. “Brad Childress is a hard sell with a lot of Viking fans,” he said. “Part of it is demeanor. He looks worried on the sidelines, indecisive. The other thing is play-calling. In one sequence at Green Bay near the goal line, he kept running Adrian Peterson into the line until they failed on fourth down. That was a crucial game. They had to come away with at least a field goal.”
They didn’t, but you have to know that (a) giving the ball to Adrian Peterson is not usually considered an act of desperation (b) the Vikings won the game handily and (c) armies of bloggers would have creamed Childress as hopelessly medieval if he passed up a touchdown and settled for a field goal.
Not following in Tice and Green’s footsteps
He arrived in Minnesota four years ago after the previous coach, Mike Tice crafted a team that competed more strenuously for space on the police blotter than in the league playoffs. The coach before that, the enigmatic Denny Green, won games but later occupied himself filing fierce communiqués from his private bunker threatening to sue the owners.
Childress had been a valued offensive coordinator with Andy Reid and the Philadelphia Eagles, an annual title contender. But his arrival presented a baffling read for the ice-fishing colonies in Minnesota. He came across as scholarly and precise, balding and mustached, resembling a visitor from British M5 intelligence. He also arrived in the wake of the Vikings’ shabby Loveboat burlesque on Lake Minnetonka. Later, the injured and embittered Pro Bowl quarterback, Daunte Culpepper, rejected medical care by the Vikings and left the team to nurse himself into oblivion.
None of this stirred the Viking public into high expectations when the new coach was introduced. Childress lost 10 games out of 16 in his first season. He went 8 and 8 the next year, then 10 and 6 and the playoffs in 2008. Today, his net production in his fourth year reads like this: With Green Bay’s loss to Tampa Bay Sunday, his team has a stranglehold on the NFC North championship and playoff berth; add his major involvement in bringing the electrifying rookie, Percy Harvin, to the Viking offense; add a critical role in orchestrating the Brett Favre coup that turned a good team into one that may be headed for the Super Bowl.
As part of the research for “Always on Sunday,” a book out this fall with important contributions from Bud Grant, I looked at two eras of pro football, comparing the one I covered off and on for three decades and the colossus the game is today. In an hour’s conversation with Childress in the late spring, before the Favre epic, I wasn’t especially interested in his lack of love from the Viking masses or the lynch-law behavior of the blogosphere when the locals lost a game. That’s a trade-off for the annual million dollar-plus salaries of big-time coaching. I did want to know something about his football values.
Childress’ value system
Childress was a psychology major in college. Early in his Viking coaching, he asked his players to probe their own value systems and identify their interests and priorities on small file cards. “It gives me a window with these players when they come into this office,” he said. “It doesn’t make any difference how they got here. I’d like to see values like the ones I admire. It’s taken me 30 years to get into this place. I think I bring principles that guide me in bringing in good people, who know right from wrong. If you’re that that kind of guy, and have that kind of fiber, you’re a guy I’d like to have on this team. It’s a fiber you want to see in your players.
“And so when the going gets tough, I know what I’m going to get from that guy. Integrity is a great word. You can build a culture with that in the locker room. When you first come in (as a new coach) it’s what you look for. It takes time. You see things you don’t like. Three years ago, there were dogs coming through this locker room and guys you never saw before walking through it. You’d ask somebody, ‘Who’s that, and what’s he doing in this locker room?’ There was dog crap in the place, and I had to say, ‘Guys, this is your office. You can bring your young sons in here, but not the guy from your home town. This is our place, the team’s.’
“One thing I remember about Bill Walsh, a great man and coach, and I share it with players: ‘Don’t be the guy who doesn’t get it,’ Bill Walsh would say. ‘Don’t be the guy, when we travel, who buys a Playboy magazine in a news shop and pulls it out and stands there looking at the centerfold and there’s a 4-year-kid looking at him. Don’t be that guy.’
“Don’t be the guy who walks out of this building and gets a DUI on Hwy 494. I can’t be impressed about a guy’s athleticism on tape if I’m worried that he’s going to rob a store on his way home.
“So I’ve tried to be as direct as I could be with guys who should know where they stand. You add and subtract, building a team. And I think we have a good team. We won 10 games in 2008, and some big games to get into the playoffs.”
And now 7 and 1. I told him the story about the Redskins’ George Allen phoning from the cot in his Washington office at 3 a.m. the day before big playoff game with the Vikings in Minnesota. He had worked himself hoarse getting ready, coaching, watching film, making calls, drawing up Xs and Os. He did it every week. But talking to the writers was part of the load. So half asleep, he pushed the job right into sunrise.
Achieving a balanced life
Childress laughed but acknowledged a private guilt. “I can’t top that, but I did overnight in the office when I was in Philadelphia. That (cot-in-the-office) takes its toll. I did it here with the Vikings in my first year. Then I said, ‘Wait a minute, you need to take time off to go home and sleep in your bed.’ I missed a ton of things that are important to the kids when I was not being an 8-to-5 dad. You miss those times when one of your children would come and sit next to you, and you’d put the feet back and you’d just sit there together.
“I can tell you this for sure: When you live that kind of life, one thing you need is a tremendously strong wife.”
Is he a good coach? The record says yes. You’ll get strong endorsements from his peers around the league and growing respect from people like Hall of Famer Bud Grant. Childress now banters easily with the more avowed nature boys on the team like Jared Allen and sometimes with his inquisitors, although he still conducts most of his media briefings with the animation of a guy reading the obituaries. But the psychologist in him probably concluded that it’s time to loosen up — which might explain the beard and the flight attendant’s threads he wore on a pre-Halloween team flight last month.
But he also reads Shakespeare, who once wrote that it makes sense to be yourself. Shakespeare, of course, didn’t have to deal with blogospheres and screaming call-ins.