It’s never a good thing when your head coach gets fired halfway through the season, because it means you’re having a terrible season. This was certainly the case for the Vikings when Zygi Wilf elected to end Brad Childress’ tenure with 6 weeks remaining in 2010. At that point the Vikings were all-but-eliminated from playoff contention at 3-7. Just two weeks before they seemed to resurrect their season with a stunning late-game comeback against the Cardinals; unfortunately they followed that gutty victory up with consecutive pitiful losses to division rivals Chicago and Green Bay. The second loss, a 31-3 embarrassment at home at the hands of the soon-to-be-champions, was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Chilly. Wilf might’ve overlooked some of the earlier disasters, but being destroyed at home by the Packers? There are some things a man just can’t abide.
You might’ve expected Viking fans to be a little glum by this point, if not downright depressed. On the contrary, Viking fans could not have been more elated. To comprehend this seemingly bizarre reaction, you have to first understand the fans’ feelings toward Childress. To call Viking Nation’s attitude toward Childress negative would be selling it short. The fans flat-out hated Childress. This hatred had various sources, some rational, some not. Childress, over the course of his four-plus years as head coach, fed this hatred by a combination of personal abrasiveness and coaching ineptitude. Was the fans’ animosity toward Childress always fair? No. Was Childress as terrible a coach as his greatest detractors made him out to be? Probably not. There is no denying however that, when all was said-and-done, Childress earned the majority of the fans’ scorn. In the end the reality of Childress validated the sometimes seemingly overcooked perception.
From his first days as Vikings coach, fans took a dislike to Childress. There was just something about him: a patronizing know-it-all quality that immediately rubbed people the wrong way, coupled with a verbal style that seemed designed to lull your brain into a stupor. Somehow Chilly managed to be simultaneously incomprehensible and boring as hell – a puzzle with an answer that wasn’t worth knowing. He spoke in loopy analogies and weirdo psychobabble, like some kind of chrome-domed pseudo-philosopher. His bizarre formulations might’ve proved fascinating had they been delivered with any flair; instead Childress spoke in a dead-pan drone punctuated by “ums” and “ahs,” a voice so dull and uninflected, even Ben Stein would’ve been embarrassed to affect it. Even his physical appearance worked against Childress. Fans mocked the strange little man with his bald head and ever-changing facial hair, comparing him variously to Major Dad, Mr. Noodle and Tom Cruise’s Les Grossman character from Tropic Thunder.
Of course none of this had anything to do with Chilly’s on-the-field or in-the-locker-room coaching. Had Childress demonstrated himself to be a master of strategy, a keen in-game adjuster or a genius manager of personalities, fans would’ve forgiven him his eccentricities. Unfortunately it quickly became obvious that personality and media savvy weren’t the only things Childress lacked. The evidence piled up against him in short order. His offense was boring and predictable. He didn’t know how to use his best weapon Adrian Peterson. He micro-managed. He showed a troubling lack of people skills, ultimately alienating many of his players. Many of these gripes were subjective matters of course, and some were based on incomplete facts. As much as fans liked to think they knew Childress, they didn’t really know Childress, and they certainly didn’t know what went on between Childress and his players behind closed doors. Through much of the turbulence, it was easy to accuse fans of hating Chilly irrationally, or responding to things they didn’t really understand.
The perception of Childress became, fairly or unfairly, that he was a clueless nitwit who was in over his head as an NFL coach. Through it all, Chilly could at least hang his hat on one thing: he knew personnel. With himself and Rick Spielman at the helm, the Vikings overhauled their depleted roster, acquiring an array of stars via trades, signings and the draft. During the Childress era the Vikings added Steve Hutchinson, Chester Taylor, Chad Greenway, Ben Leber, Cedric Griffin, Sidney Rice, Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen, Visanthe Shiancoe and Percy Harvin. The Hutch deal, with its controversial poison pill provision, proved Chilly and the revamped Vikings’ front-office could play the game at a high and highly devious level. The Taylor, Leber and Shiancoe signings proved they could identify back-up players who were ready to ascend to stardom. The Allen trade and signing, and later the Harvin drafting, showed they were willing to prudently gamble on players with baggage. The Greenway, Griffin, Rice, Peterson and Harvin selections proved they could score big in the draft.
In hindsight though, maybe Chilly’s reputation as a personnel guy was a bit over-blown. Hutch was a no-brainer. Peterson, Allen and Harvin fell in his lap. Taylor, Greenway, Leber, Griffin, Rice and Shiancoe, though solid throughout their tenures as Vikings, were none of them among the elite at their positions. We must also re-emphasize that Childress was not alone responsible for any of these moves. Some of these were as much Rick Spielman as Childress, maybe more Spielman than Childress. There was, however, one move that Childress gets all the credit for – or maybe we should say blame instead of credit. This move would prove to nag him more than any other personnel decision made during his tenure. It became, rightly or wrongly, the true defining decision of Childress’ reign as head coach.
You might think I’m talking about the Randy Moss trade, or possibly the Brett Favre signing. Of course those were important, but when I think of the one move that encapsulates everything Chilly about the Chilly era, I think of the decision to trade up in the draft and take Tarvaris Jackson. In the final analysis, the Favre move was another lucky break like Peterson or Allen; and the Moss move was nothing but a final act of desperation by a coach who knew the writing was on the wall. If you want to talk about moves that resonated from the very beginning of Chilly’s tenure to the end, that colored our whole perception of him as a coach/personnel guru, you have to begin and end with T-Jack.
With hindsight, the T-Jack drafting looks more than anything like an act of hubris. Chilly, the alleged quarterback guru, identified an unknown player he believed he could mold and shape into a championship quarterback, thereby validating his supposed QB wonk reputation. Never mind that he was taken two rounds before he had any business being taken; never mind that two third round picks had to be surrendered to move up and get him. Chilly saw his man and snapped him up. You could almost admire the decisiveness at the time, but looking back, it now seems utterly silly that Spielman went along with this.
Had Spielman known what would ensue, he might’ve fought harder to keep Childress from having his way. Five years later, observers look back on the T-Jack experiment as a folly. Not only did it make no sense to draft him in the 2nd after coughing up picks, it further made no sense to declare him the starter after only limited game action, and have nothing behind him on the bench besides journeymen. Childress himself seemed to admit the foolishness of hanging his hat on T-Jack when, early in 2008, he benched his protege in favor of another journeyman, Gus Frerotte. Indeed, the very next season, Childress and Spielman made sure to acquire insurance in the form of Sage Rosenfels. Then Brett Favre became available and all other QB questions were rendered moot.
Actually, that’s not quite true about QB questions being rendered moot. They were rendered moot for 2009 because Favre played brilliantly. But in 2010 they reared their ugly heads again, and this time they were uglier than ever. Favre returned but played terribly. By this time Rosenfels had been traded, perhaps because he dissed Childress anonymously to the press. T-Jack found himself back on the field but for only a brief time. By season’s end, the only healthy Viking QB left on the roster from the preseason was Joe Webb, a green rookie. Childress himself was long-gone by this time, but his legacy was alive and well and making a mess for the Vikings. With T-Jack now out of favor and Favre retired, the Vikes went into the offseason with the QB position in utter disarray, and they had Chilly to thank for it – because Chilly never addressed the QB situation in the draft the way he should have, instead putting all his eggs in a T-Jack basket that proved full of holes. In the end, the QB guru Chilly had made more of a mess of that position than any other on the team.
The last two Childress seasons were characterized by moves calculated to provide short-term benefit without regard for long-term consequences. Signing Brett Favre was all about getting the team to the next level – a level Tarvaris had no chance of bringing them to himself – without regard for where it would leave them a year or two down the road. The Vikes should’ve been content with the one magical year they got out of Favre, but instead they went to the well again in 2010, setting the stage for disaster. Childress, in a fashion reminiscent of some of his seemingly panicked in-game moves, allowed desperation to get the better of him again when he traded a third round pick – he sure liked giving away those third round picks – for Randy Moss.
This move would prove to be Childress’ last major decision as Vikings coach. Moss would immediately pick up on the tension in the Vikings locker room, identify Childress as the cause and commence disrespecting Chilly in public and private while not bothering to give much of an effort on the field. Shockingly, even to Moss himself, Chilly sent the former Vikings hero packing after only four games. The last straw for Childress was a bizarre post-game presser in which Moss sang the praises of his old team the Patriots while seeming to indirectly tear down Chilly. You couldn’t blame Chilly for reacting the way he did, and in fact, it was probably the right move to let Moss go. What you could blame Chilly for was the short-sighted thinking that led to the Moss acquisition in the first place, and the apparent disregard for chain-of-command that prompted him to cut Moss loose without bothering to consult his owner (who bore as much of the blame for the team’s myopic personnel philosophy as the coach himself).
There again was that famous Chilly arrogance. The same arrogance that, people believed, led him to think he could groom the overwhelmed Tarvaris Jackson in the first place. The arrogance that prompted him to openly denigrate the abilities of Marcus Robinson at the same time he was cutting him from the team (on Christmas Eve no less). The arrogance that in the end even rubbed mild-mannered team-players like Matt Birk, Brad Johnson and Gus Frerotte the wrong way. The arrogance that reportedly prompted Brett Favre to label Childress clueless. Childress once famously told Tony Kornheiser that he knew coaching the Vikings was his one shot at the big time so he was going to do it his way no matter what people said. This was taken by some as a sign of great confidence, but now it looks more like evidence of an unyielding, perhaps even foolish attitude. It’s appropriate that this stubborn streak of Chilly’s ultimately contributed to, or perhaps was even the main cause of, his demise.
But of course there was more to it than just Chilly being mulish. Like I said before, had he shown himself to be a great coach, he would’ve gotten away with his obstinacy and lack of sensitivity toward his players. Sadly for Chilly he was far from a great coach. He managed to skate by on lucky personnel moves and a decent grasp of offense, if not always a great command of how to implement his offense from play-to-play, but in the end his faults caught up with him. He will not be missed either by the fans or, apparently, most of his players.
The full season in review:
#1 – Brad Childress Fired