Trailing by 10 points, the coach needed two scores to tie or win the game. For the last two weeks his team had been boisterously jeered and lampooned at home as a clear favorite to become the most unsightly Vikings ever in the franchise’s 51-year history.
Those miseries spread to the coach, Leslie Frazier, Sunday in Atlanta and the baying critics may be coming closer to vindication. The melodrama of the fourth quarter in the Vikings 24-14 loss to the Falcons might not have been Leslie Frazier’s only contribution Sunday to the spreading debacle of the Viking season. There was passable evidence that Percy Harvin actually got into the end zone in the late Viking surge, but no effort to throw the replay flag was in evidence on the Viking bench. Harvin insisted he reached the goal line.
He didn’t blame the coach, whose sideline crew apparently had received no information of credible TV replay evidence that Harvin had scored a touchdown — which would have climaxed an extraordinary day — again — for this multi-skilled football player.
The Vikings trailed 24-14 and were within a couple of yards of scoring after Harvin had carried a kickoff 104 yards before being overtaken two strides from the Atlanta goal line. The Vikings were still a yard short on fourth down despite the TV evidence that Harvin on one of the Viking carries had either pushed the ball to the goal line before being shoved back — or almost had.
Frazier made a decision to shoot first for a touchdown rather than an easy field goal — and took the blame when the Falcons smothered Toby Gerhart a few feet from the end zone.
When it was over, Frazier told reporters, “This one [the blame] is on me.” He’d said the same to his team earlier. “I made a mistake.” He said it had cost the team, which he praised for its performance in the face of mounting adversity and injuries that had sidelined their best player, Adrian Peterson, conscripted the sack-hungry Jared Allen to center the ball on punts and kicks and reduced the Viking secondary to a rotating sick call.
Frazier was talking primarily about his decision to go first for a touchdown rather than a field goal in the final minutes when the team needed two scores to tie or win in their comeback drive against the Falcons. The strategy didn’t work, which didn’t necessarily make it wrong.
So where does that leave this floundering football team for the rest of the season?
While the big majority of the players appreciate Frazier’s character and value systems, they must now have some genuine doubts about their leadership. The coach’s mea culpas Sunday joined two months worth of their own. Nobody seems ready to win in this group, at least in 2011. And the Viking players probably accept Frazier’s candid admissions to match some of their own in this most ugly of seasons for the Vikings, now showing two wins and nine losses, with five more games left to explore even scarier terrain.
They do get some arguable relief this Sunday. The Vikings opponent is Denver of the American Football Conference, the Denver of Tim Tebow as the quarterback, the Denver of five sudden victories behind Tebow as the starting quarterback, the All-American Boy who was supposed to be a bust in the pro league because he looks odd throwing the football. It doesn’t seem to matter. The Broncos are now a legitimate playoff threat, defeated San Diego in San Diego Sunday and come to the Metrodome with regiments of high-powered media oracles ready to flock here to get a first-hand look at the developing marvel.
The irony of the Vikings loss Sunday was this troubled football team’s remarkable effort in the face of all of the ridicule it has absorbed, the lineup changes, the shift in quarterbacks and especially the loss through injury of some of some of its most significant players, and the chaos in its secondary, primarily because of injury.
So it came down to the fourth quarter in Atlanta. Vikings trail 24-14. They hadn’t won a game for a month. Economists and a few psychologists were wondering about the effect of all this on owner Zygi Wilf’s campaign to create a new football Shangri La around a stadium in Arden Hills. But in Atlanta Sunday the team seemed to be playing with a new tenacity, rooted in all of those embarrassments. It came with new momentum in the second half after trailing 17-0. This time there was no obvious fold from the Viking side. It stood 17-7 after Toby Gerhart scored from close in near the end the third quarter, and then Christian Ponder, facing fourth down and 13, hit Harvin for 39 yards to bring the Vikings within three at 17-14. The fourth quarter was still young, and the Vikings were now a nearly even bet for an upset, seemingly in defiance of all laws of nature.
But Atlanta pushed it to 24-14 on Matt Ryan’s throws, first to Roddy White and then a 3-yard touchdown pass to Michael Palmer.It stood this way: Six minutes left. Falcons lead 24-14. Matt Bryant kicks off for Atlanta, deep to Percy Harvin.
A mistake. This was the Harvin who’d already caught eight passes and ran whenever needed. He took the kick seven yards deep in the Viking the end zone and streaked through, around and at times virtually under the oncoming Atlanta pursuit.
It ended after 104 yards with Christopher Owens’ diving tackle at the Atlanta 3.
The Vikings were now down by 10 points. They took their shots at the Falcon defense and couldn’t have been thrilled with their progress. Frazier might have ordered an easy field goal on fourth down with several minutes still left. Yes, it would have been easy despite the fact that the long snapper for the Vikings punts and placement kicks, Cullen Loeffler, was injured covering a punt and forced to leave the game. His replacement, the rollicking sackmaster, Jared Allen, two-platooned for the rest of the game as the pass-rushing defensive end and the long snapper for punts and placement kicks.
The field-goal strategy would have cut the Atlanta Lead to 24-17. It would have required the Vikings to stop Ryan and the Atlanta offense in the dying minutes to regain the ball. The Vikings might have been into an onside kickoff attempt to regain the ball, score a touchdown and win the game either outright or in overtime. But Frazier needed a touchdown either way, and a touchdown from a yard out and subsequent field goal looked a lot more negotiable to the coach than a field goal first.
“It was a bad mistake on my part,” Leslie Frazier said afterwards. “I thought we could go for the win [either in regulation or overtime]. The team played a great game and did everything we asked them to do. It was a bad mistake on my part.”
But to an outsider it may not have been that bad a mistake. It was a decision. It didn’t work. It didn’t cost the game
It didn’t work in part because there was no Adrian Peterson lined up behind Ponder to threaten the Atlanta defense. His replacement, Toby Gerhart, played his guts out but in the end was no Peterson. So in the most crucial sequence of the game, with Gerhart pounding the line, the Falcons powered into the emerging scrum and stopped Gerhart cold near the 2 yard line. And on fourth down moments later, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon bolted through the Viking line on the snap from center and nailed Gerhart for loss of two yards before Gerhart could build up momentum.
Leslie Frazier made a choice, and afterward took the rap.
There was no Adrian Peterson to absorb the Atlanta defense. The choice for Leslie Frazier, the increasingly harassed Viking head coach, was either (a) to kick a field goal to reduce the Atlanta lead to seven points, then with several minutes remaining force an Atlanta punt that would open the gates to a Vikings’ tying touchdown or (b) shoot for a touchdown that would leave the Vikings only a field goal short of tying the game.
The Falcons stacked the goal line and stopped Toby Gerhart for a loss, plowing new ground in infamy for the troubled purple heads. Gerhart hit hard. Atlanta’s Sean Witherspoon hit harder.