Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Brad Childress - An Incompetent Leader

The 2010 Minnesota Vikings were supposed to challenge for a Super Bowl once Brett Favre finally agreed to return for his 20th season. That's certainly not how things look now, just beyond the halfway point of the season. The Vikings are 3-6, and looking up at divisional rivals Green Bay and Chicago with matching 6-3 records. Once Brett hopped on that purple and white private plane from Mississippi to Minnesota to join the Vikings in August, Minnesotans likely changed their 2010 outlook from "fringe playoff team" to "bonafide playoff team and possible title contender." But, no one could foresee the upheaval that their head coach has created.

Look at the talent on this team - they are absolutely loaded  with unique talents at positions all over the field. Adrian Peterson is arguably the best running back in football. He runs hard, catches the ball out of the backfield, and has seemingly corrected a case of "fumbleitis" that plagued him last year. Jared Allen has been one of the premier pass rushing defensive ends over the last few seasons. His numbers are down a bit this season, but he's still in prime condition and has a nonstop motor. The Williams Wall (Pat and Kevin) keep runners looking to the outside because the middle is occupied with those two hole-pluggers. Of course, we all know Brett Favre.. He's old, but still can throw passes most other NFL quarterbacks cannot. Favre's problem this season has been consistency. Perhaps that can be attributed to his late reporting to camp or the injuries at the wide receiver position (Sidney Rice, the team's #1 WR, has missed the entire season to date). Visanthe Shiancoe quietly has become one of the NFL's elite tight ends. He catches everything that is thrown in his direction and has become Favre's favorite target, especially in the red zone.  Steve Hutchinson and Bryant McKinnie have made Pro Bowls on the offensive line, too!

Before examining the current state of the Vikings further, let's take a step back and look at Childress' career. He has experienced many successes since coming into the NFL, and even in the college ranks. The crowning jewels in Brad Childress' coaching career have been:
1. Running backs coach at Wisconsin when Ron Dayne ruled the college football landscape.
2. Quarterbacks coach / offensive coordinator for the Eagles, overseeing the development of Donovan McNabb in a West Coast offense.
3. Head coaching Brett Favre to his finest season as a professional in 2009 with 33 TD passes and only 7 interceptions.

I believe that Brad Childress can be a very effective coach when focused on one specialized area. However, his ability to provide leadership to 53 players and nearly a dozen coaches is what I am calling into question. When Childress was an offensive coordinator with the Eagles (1999-2005), he did no playcalling. That responsibility was handled by head coach, Andy Reid. Childress may have helped to hone McNabb's craft as a quarterback, but he never managed the game. And, he never managed an entire team before filling the Minnesota Vikings head coaching vacancy in 2006. He was selected by owner Zygi Wilf, after a brief interviewing process of candidates that included three other NFL assistants. But, Zygi Wilf is admittedly not a "football person" and more of a businessman.

The quarterback braintrust (featuring McNabb) with Childress during his Philly days.

Each year, the team was on the rise, with increasing win totals each of the last four years under Childress (2006: 6-10, 2007: 8-8, 2008: 10-6, 2009: 12-4). They made the playoffs behind the shaky arm of Tarvaris Jackson in 2008. As the Vikings prepared for the 2009 season, it reminded me of Randy Quaid's line in Major League - "You're old Mother Hubbard and only Vaughn's in the cupboard!!" The Vikings were on the cusp of being an elite team, except at the QB position. Jackson just couldn't make all the throws and Childress knew it. So, the Vikings enticed Favre out of yet another retirement. Tarvaris was "Mild Thing" Ricky Vaughn, Favre was "Wild Thing" Vaughn with the bad hair cut, black-rimmed glasses, and earring. The Vikings fell only one game short of the Super Bowl primarily due to turning over the ball five times against the New Orleans Saints.

The head coach looked to be deserving of his contract extension through 2013 that was signed last season. At the time, owner Zygi Wilf said, “Brad has done a tremendous job leading this football team and we value the positive environment he has created for the Minnesota Vikings on and off the field, He has continued to positively impact this team and create a strong foundation for future success." Wow...what a difference a year makes.

Childress, speaking at a press conference, with his dry brand of humor (that no one gets).

Often times, teams experience a Super Bowl hangover. Teams that lose in the conference championship game usually come back hungrier than ever, especially if they are able to retain key players from the previous season's playoff run and avoid injuries.

Year    AFC Championship Loser             NFC Championship Loser
            (next season's record)                     (next season's record)

2009    New York Jets (7-2)                         Minnesota Vikings (3-6)
2008    Baltimore Ravens (9-7)*                 Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)*
2007    San Diego Chargers (8-8)*            Green Bay Packers (6-10)#1
2006    New England Patriots (16-0)*       New Orleans Saints (7-9 )
2005    Denver Broncos (9-7)                     Carolina Panthers (8-8)#2
2004    Pittsburgh Steelers (15-1)*           Atlanta Falcons (8-8)
2003    Indianapolis Colts (12-4)*             Philadelphia Eagles (13-3)*
2002    Tennessee Titans (12-4)*             Philadelphia Eagles (12-4)*
2001    Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5-1)*        Philadelphia Eagles (12-4)*
2000    Oakland Raiders (10-6)*                Minnesota Vikings (5-11)#3
1999    Jacksonville Jaguars (7-9)             Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6)*

* Made the playoffs
#1 The Green Bay Packers experienced the end of the Brett Favre era and the beginning of the Aaron Rodgers regime in 2007. There were growing pains in year one.
#2 Steve Smith was injured early in the 2005 season, and never regained the form of his breakout 2004 season for the Carolina Panthers.
#3 The 2000 Minnesota Vikings were forced to deal with the tragic death of offensive lineman, Korey Stringer, due to heat stroke during training camp. A cloud hung over the team all season.

Between 2000-2009, the average winning percentage of teams the year after they experienced a conference championship defeat is 62% (200-123-1). Of those 20 teams, 13 made the playoffs, and 11 won at least one playoff game. 

So, why didn't Minnesota come out with the fire that so many others in their situation did? It is evident to me that the Minnesota Vikings' soap opera season has been the primary contributor to their win/loss total this season. After all, they had the ultra-talented roster in place. So, what is going wrong with the "Bold and the (Not So) Beautiful Vikings" these days?

1. Brad Childress has let Brett Favre walk all over him. Favre left the Vikings dangling two straight years in training camp. Would he or wouldn't he sign? The saga led to a fantastic 2009 season, but add another year to Favre's aging body and the gunslinger in him couldn't be suppressed for two straight years - too many mistakes, too inconsistent. Childress never set a timetable demanding a decision from Favre. That was a necessary step, not only to ensure that Favre develops chemistry with the offense, but to stand up and take the reins as head coach. Strike one.

2. Last time I checked, it's usually a good idea to check with your boss before you fire somebody that works for him. Although the Randy Moss experiment proved to be a failure in Minnesota, a head coach may want to run it by the man paying the bills before dropping one of the all-time great receivers for attitude problems. If Brad Childress had any kind of leadership whatsoever, perhaps working with Randy would be the way to go. In listening to Cris Carter (once teammate and mentor to Randy Moss), Moss has significant issues with male authority figures. I'm not saying that the 33-year old should be coddled. I'm suggesting that you treat him like a grown man and make him accountable for his play on the field and his post-game tirades. Strike two.

Moss decided that the media wasn't good enough to interview him, so he did it himself.

3. As recently as two weeks ago, Viking wide receiver Percy Harvin missed a Wednesday and Thursday practice with a sprained ankle. He was hobbling around the field on Friday, trying to get in some work so that he could play against Arizona. Childress went so far as to say that Harvin needed to be examined more thoroughly because he was unable to get around the field, questioning Harvin's effort in that practice. The coach and player nearly came to a fistfight, having to be separated by players before things went too far. Sources quoted at least one teammate telling Harvin, “You just did what a lot of us have been wanting to say for years.” Strike three, you're out??

The proverbial butting of heads between coach and player, but don't do it too hard (Harvin suffers migraines as it is).

As if that weren't enough, there are also discrepancies on injuries like that of Bernard Berrian this week. According to Childress, Berrian hurt himself during pre-game, so he did not play despite being active. Berrain used the almighty Twitter to respond by asking that his heart or toughness not be questioned. No matter where the truth lies, players have given up on Childress. It is evident by the words used by Vikings players in the media, and by their play on the field.

It is my belief that successful football franchises have the following fundamental principles in place: 
Clear communication from ownership / coaches - Meetings with players, press conferences with the media, and game-planning techniques. These need to be done with a singular purpose and an authoritative voice. Wishy-washy won't cut it at the professional level.
Strong on-field leadership - Whether it's offense or defense, there needs to be a 'coach on the field' who reads the opposition and makes instantaneous decisions that affect outcomes of games.
A winning attitude - Does a player celebrate a meaningless touchdown like he just hit the dance floor? Do the players stick up for one another like brothers?
Players who do not wilt in the spotlight - The right play can be called at the right time, but players need to execute when it matters the most.

The 2010 Minnesota Vikings have suffered through woeful leadership, as well as public (and almost assuredly, private) backstabbing. This has transcended across all phases of the game. Players are "playing for themselves first," as Brett Favre stated. It takes heroic comebacks to defeat the hapless Arizona Cardinals at home? Personnel decisions made by the head coach are questioned by the owner. Fights between coach and player occur, turning most players against the coach. The fundamental basics for successful football have been deteriorated beyond repair for this season. A fresh start with a common voice is needed. If Zygi Wilf continues to waffle in his stance regarding Childress' future, it will backfire. This can't be a week-to-week tryout for a man who has been in charge for nearly five years. Brad Childress is a known commodity. Wilf needs to disregard the financial aspect of firing Childress and do what it best for the team. To quote the immortal Seinfeld, "You should just do it like a Band-Aid. One motion, right off!"

Zygi Wilf watches on as Childress leads Minnesota against the Patriots (photo by Pioneer Press: Chris Polydoroff)

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