Think 0-3 is depressing? Try this on for size: In 16 second half possessions over three games, two of the Vikings’ four longest drives have ended with desperation laterals that turned into fumbles (well, one lateral and one inexplicable forward pass 25 yards beyond the line of scrimmage). For the record, the Vikings four longest second half drives in 2011 so far:
-12 plays, 69 yards, 5 first downs; ended with a field goal
-3 plays, 35 yards, 1 first down; ended with fumble (final play of game)
-9 plays, 52 yards, 3 first downs; ended with a field goal
-1 play, 24 yards, 1 first down; ended with fumble (final play of game)
In a face-to-face conversation, this is where I would look away while you wept into your hands for a few minutes.
So, how is this happening? Thanks to meticulously-detailed NFL Gamebooks, the utter failure of the Vikings second half offense is easy to sum up. For the purpose of this article, let’s disregard the final play of regulation in the Lions game; we’ll keep the last possession against the Bucs since it actually lasted three plays. So, the Vikings have had the ball 15 times in the second half this year. Those 15 possessions have netted a paltry 212 yards, 14 first downs, and just six points. (Lets agree never to speak of the Vikings’ second half third down conversion rate. Is anybody else scared that Minnesota will find a way to dip below zero?)
The point I really want to stress with the barrage of information below is that this 0-3 start has really been a total team effort. No single player or unit could account for these numbers. I know that Donovan McNabb, Leslie Frazier, Bill Musgrave, the offensive line, and the secondary have all gotten their fair share of abuse in the last couple weeks. I think they deserve most of it, but when Frazier says it’s not all the quarterback’s fault, it’s not just a press conference cliché.
How to Blow a Second Half Lead Three Weeks in a Row:
Field position: In the 15 possessions we’re working with, the Vikings average starting field position is their own 23. They’ve started in opponent territory just once, at the Detroit 37 (they failed to score that time). A good way to start at your own 20 is to give up a score. The Vikings have received 12 second half kickoffs this year, and only one of those was the opening kick of the second half. That’s not a good stat for any defense. Another way to lose the field position battle: On eight separate second half possessions the Vikings have failed to net ten yards. I think it’s fair to say that the offense is doing the defense no favors, and vice versa.
Time of Possession: The Vikings’ average time of possession in the second half has been 2:21. All three third quarter possessions against Detroit ended in under 1:26. Again, talk about making things hard on your defense. The defensive line has looked very tired at the end of games; maybe it’s because they are having to run back and forth from the sideline so often.
Requisite Play Calling Criticism: It’s easy to point to individual plays where Musgrave has looked like an idiot (Why run Joe Webb on a QB draw when San Diego knows that Webb is not in the game to throw the ball? Why pitch the ball wide to Peterson when running between the tackles has been money all game? Why run a trap on 4th and 1 when you need less than a yard? Why throw the ball deep to Bernard Berrian on a 3rd and 5 when you’ve been able to get Michael Jenkins open on short passes most of the game?). But maybe the bigger problem is the change in approach. In first halves, Minnesota has called 30 first down runs against 18 first down passes. A nice balance for a team with the best running back in the league. Against Tampa Bay, the distribution was 11 runs to nine passes—the offense was really clicking and the run was setting up the pass. So, once we’ve hit the second half, each time with a two-score lead, what are we doing on first downs? Just five runs against 10 passes. What? Compounding this problem is that four of those ten first down passes have been incomplete. Nothing like a fresh 2nd and 10 for a team that can’t get anybody open down the field.
Two points on play calling: A) Running on first down is a good way to keep the clock moving; no NFL team can (or should try to) simply sit on the ball for an entire half, but holding on to the ball for three or four minutes per possession is going to increase your chances (I have no data to back this up, but it’s common sense, right?). B) The Vikings have averaged 7.1, 7.4, and 7.7 yards per run play (not including McNabb’s scrambles) in first halves so far. When something is working in an NFL game, why would you go away from it? Actually, we know that Musgrave understands this concept: In the first quarter against Tampa Bay, Minnesota used play action on a 1st and 10 from the Bucs’ 25 yard line. Jenkins ran a short out on the right side and McNabb rolled right and hit him for seven yards. On the very next play, Minnesota flipped the formation, ran play action, and this time McNabb rolled left and hit Percy Harvin on the same pattern for 11 yards and a first down. Same. Exact. Play. It works. Hopefully Musgrave can start to consistently apply this concept.
Line play: On offense, this goes hand in hand with time of possession. Remember those staggering yards per carry numbers I mentioned about ten lines above? In second halves, Minnesota’s run plays have averaged 5.2, 2.7, and 0.8 yards. Yikes. Sportscenter put up a weird stat last night that somehow measured the percentage of a team’s pass plays in which the quarterback is “under duress.” I can’t tell you what exactly that means (sacks, pressures, hits?), but I can tell you that McNabb was listed second to Vick for the league’s highest percentage. So, we can’t run and McNabb doesn’t have time to see how completely covered Bernard Berrian is. Bad combination.
I think it would be fair to attribute the defensive line’s bad second halves to fatigue. As I’ve already said, they’ve been on the field too long, plus teams have been throwing a lot due to the aforementioned two-score leads, plus the line was shorthanded when Kevin Williams sat out the first two games. I’ve always wondered if Jared Allen should take more plays off; in the 4th quarter, a fresh pass rusher can win games.
Penalty/turnover sidenote: I started this post with a reference to how depressing this season has been so far. Perhaps the only reason for a little optimism is that when Frazier and McNabb say the Vikings’ problems are fixable, they’re not exactly wrong. For example, penalties and turnovers are usually the easiest ways to explain losses, but neither has not played a huge role in the offense’s collapses. The only turnovers? Two fumbles lost on the final play of regulation and a failed 4th down attempt. The holding call on Jenkins in the fourth quarter against Detroit hurt, but McNabb hit Harvin for 21 yards on the next play, plus the Vikings second half net penalty yardage is only -12 on offense.
OK, on defense, penalties have hurt. But, the horse-collar flag on Eric Frampton in San Diego was bogus, the roughing the passer call against Allen in Week 2 was bogus (even in slow motion Allen was less than half a second late), and the horse-collar call on Chad Greenway against Detroit was questionable (isn’t the front of the shoulder pad area fair game?).
Teams that commit a lot of penalties and turnovers tend not to fix those problems. Call me the optimist; I think you can fix bad play calling and a tired defense. It’ll take more than accuracy from McNabb; the whole team has to figure it out.