Winless Vikings nearing historic territory, one loss away from their only 0-5 start

Does head coach Leslie Frazier have enough leadership zeal and butt-kicking realism to make the hard choices?
REUTERS/Andrew Cameron
Does head coach Leslie Frazier have enough leadership zeal and butt-kicking realism to make the hard choices?

It reached this level of ignominy for the Minnesota Vikings Sunday:

For a few unsightly moments in the first half in Kansas City, the quarterback and coach of the  Kansas City Chiefs seemed on the verge of duking it out on the sidelines in front of a national television audience. Volunteers on their bench almost had to step in to preserve peace.

The Chiefs, as advertised, were looking that disorganized.

And in the end the Vikings lost again, 22-17, for the fourth time in as many attempts.

There seemed serious hope until late in the action. The team avoided the tease of their previous three weeks when they built a lead through the first half and saw it dissolve when reality took over. This time they surprised the Kansas City crowd and their own audiences back home by falling behind 9-7 at the half to the Chief’s Ryan Succop, an other-worldly placement kicker who ultimately kicked five field goals, including one of 54 yards and another of 51.

All of which established that the Vikings of 2011 can lose unconditionally, to teams that would rather run, teams that would rather pass and now to a team that started the season just as aimlessly they did.

For all of their brooding followers, there’s no amusement in all of this. The Vikings of 2011 come with players of considerable quality that its coaching staff, for whatever reason, has been unable to galvanize into a credible football team.

The fans’ early scapegoat was and, by popular vote, probably still is Donovan McNabb, the elderly quarterback who has not found the way with this, his third NFL team in three years. But despite an odd throw to the sideline in the midst of the Vikings last-gasp rally, McNabb was hardly a unanimous goat Sunday.

He threw well at some critical times, including a 34-yard touchdown pass to the airborne Devin Aromashodu and another to Michael Jenkins with five minutes remaining to bring the Vikings to within five points with five minutes left. He overcame a fourth-and-20 with one of his throws but mysteriously threw another wildly when he could have scrambled for a first down.

But those are part of the easy post-mortems of any game and McNabb was hardly the lone offender. And it certainly wasn’t the irrepressible Percy Harvin, with his hair-raising end around sweeps and his reckless commitment that seems to risk injury whenever he runs full throttle, which is all the time. The Vikings tried again to make Adrian Peterson the difference, but the defenses are wise to it and stack their front with enough people to force pro football’s best running back into contortions to break free. He ran for 80 yards. That figured out to a little better than three yards a carry, which is probably not going to win many football games.

So is it McNabb who’s burying the Vikings?

The coach, Leslie Frazier, says no and was asked after the game again whether he might be considering a change at quarterback, meaning the rookie Christian Ponder.
    
He said no again. He seemed emphatic. If they fail again next Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals and match the franchise-worst of five losses to open the season, the answer might be different, not because that is the logic of the situation but because when the panic of a winless season in this multibillion-dollar industry sets in, the quarterback is in the eye of the needle.

The simple answer is that this is not the team that came within one five-yard penalty of reaching the Super Bowl two years ago. The big linemen are two years older, the receiving corps is mediocre and, when your most reliable players of the 2011 season, apart from Peterson and Harvin, are Chris Kluwe, the punter, and Ryan Longwell, the field goal kicker, why should anybody be shocked that the Vikings haven’t won?

The other quality players, including Jared Allen, Chad Greenway, Steve Hutchinson, Antoine Winfield, and E.J. Henderson have either been banged up or double teamed.

A lot of these people have been successful for years, including some of the best holdovers from the Brad Childress years. But most of those stars are less than they were.

Leslie Frazier? There’s not much doubt about the toll these four games have taken on this highly civilized and accomplished football man. In his brief appearance after the game Sunday, he took the few questions courteously if gravely, declining to amplify much on what is the spreading disaster of the Viking season.

The ugly and embarrassing start of the season — only the second 0-for-4 start in the Vikings 51 years has been a wrenching trial for a man widely appreciated when he stepped in after the Childress firing last season.

If he has been disappointed in the handling of the Viking offense by Bill Musgrave, the Vikings’ new offensive coordinator, he gives no suggestion of that to the public. Is he privately surprised and bothered? Obviously. You don’t get many shots at head coach of a team in the NFL.

If there is some truth to the notion that the Viking offense was especially vulnerable to the squeezed practice time forced by the NFL summer lockout, Frazier hasn’t made a big deal out of it.. As the head coach, promoted after managing the Viking defense for several years, he’s responsible for hiring the new staff and Musgrave is part of that.

The questions are dominating the noisy kangaroo court called the blogosphere: Does this offense truly maximize Peterson’s versatility? Obviously not. He’s rarely used as a receiving threat. Is the team making the smartest use of McNabb’s experience and his several, if diminishing, quarterback skills?

And the kangaroos clearly don’t spare Frazier himself. Is he the guy after all? Does he have enough leadership zeal and butt-kicking realism to make hard choices that seem to be multiplying in the Viking camp daily in the midst of a year when the Vikings need all of the public love they can find to ram a new stadium into Arden Hills.

There’s no question about the principles that guide Frazier’s career, or about his genuine value as a defensive coordinator in the Childress years. They were strong enough to attract serious interest from other NFL teams searching for a new coach.

But —

This is now. The Vikings are not going to make the playoffs. They pretty well confirmed that in Kansas City. Oddly, they appeared on their way. The former understudy to Tom Brady in New England, Matt Cassell, looked terribly out of whack to open the game. His struggles became so operatic in the first half that, after throwing the ball away on a broken play, he stalked to the bench and got into an argument with the coach, Todd Haley.

That promising little war ended abruptly when Cassel started completing passes. By the fourth quarter, the Chiefs and Vikings were locked in some tense survival football culminating in Cassel’s 52-yard strike to Dwayne Bowe for a 22-10 lead. McNabb got the Vikings closer with a touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins, but a final drive downfield in the last minutes ended with McNabb missing on four straight passes.

There’s moderately good news for next Sunday at the Dome. The opponents are the beatable Arizona Cardinals. The good news is that Larry Fitzgerald will be back in town, where he grew up. The bad news is that Larry Fitzgerald is the best receiver in pro football.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/03/2011 - 12:24 pm.

    Trivia, not history.

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