When you lose a game 35-10 you know a lot of things went wrong, so isolating one key factor can be difficult. In the case of Sunday’s Vikings-Panthers game? There are a lot of things you can point your finger at. Gameplan. In-game adjustment or lack thereof. Execution. Level of personnel at certain key positions. If you want to go the excuse route you can blame it on the team being emotionally drained after a couple weeks of extra media attention thanks to the Josh Freeman and Adrian Peterson stories (Brian Billick threw both of those out there during the Fox broadcast and frankly I wanted to punch him through the TV).
But when you get down to it, beside all the other factors that certainly played a role, I think it was largely a case of one team rising to the occasion and one team not. It wasn’t like the Carolina Panthers did anything exceptionally well, but they just played like a much looser team than the Vikings. Both clubs came in 1-3 and badly needing a win. The Vikings responded by tightening up like Bob Costas in a room full of naked women; Carolina responded by saying, “the heck with it, we’ve got nothing to lose here, let’s just go for it.”
That “go for it” attitude was dictated early in the game by head coach Ron Rivera, a guy who is normally known for being almost as uptight as his good buddy Leslie Frazier. What changed things for Rivera? Two early fourth-down calls where Rivera put aside his conservative nature and elected to go for it.
It wasn’t just that Rivera made out-of-character decisions at key moments in the game, it was a whole mental approach that Rivera says will continue for him and his team from now on. “Well, it’s kind of what we’re going to do and we’re going to do the best we can to make things happen,” Rivera said. “These guys bought into it.”
Cam Newton certainly seems to have bought into it. “It means a lot,” Newton said. “Being in a hostile environment and knowing that we need an edge in this game, we went for it. For him to trust us means a lot and it speaks volumes.” Newton added, “I think that he is kind of breaking his mold to a degree, and giving the whole team confidence with him.”
Now of course these things happen and guys say things like that, and the very next week everything reverts back to the way it was before, but at least for one game the Panthers players felt good about their coach and what their coach was selling and they responded.
It wasn’t just those fourth-down calls, it was the whole game. The Panthers were more aggressive in their defensive playcalls than the Vikings were expecting, and the Vikings didn’t seem to know how to adjust. Offensively, the Panthers made up for their lack of a downfield attack by being creative in their short game, mixing in lots of different looks and exploiting a seemingly unprepared Viking defense. The game’s single biggest offensive play was a short pass to Brandon LaFell that became a touchdown because Josh Robinson just played it wrong (either because of bad coaching or because he is just terrible).
It’s interesting listening to guys talk about their coach showing trust in them and giving them confidence, and then thinking about how they played in the game and realizing they were just much looser and freer and seemed to have more energy and effort. The Vikings were the exact opposite. Everything about their performance cried “panic in the face of pressure.” Rather than take on that “what the heck” attitude, they let some early mistakes seemingly take them out of the game mentally, and it was all downhill from there.
I don’t know what Leslie Frazier does to change things at this point, when you have guys like Chad Greenway calling up the ghosts of 2011 in describing the snowballing feeling of terror the squad is currently experiencing. I would probably start by benching Josh Robinson and Letroy Guion, the latter of whom was called for an inexcusable taunting penalty that should’ve gotten him benched during the game, but personnel is only part of the problem. This team’s whole vibe right now is just fear-stricken and uptight.
When things start going wrong, no one seems able to right the ship. The right playcalling adjustments aren’t made, the execution gets sloppier, guys check out mentally. There’s a lack of leadership here, both from the veterans on the field and the people making the decisions on the sidelines.
On Sunday, Ron Rivera showed true leadership by instilling an attitude in his team that helped carry them through what should have been a much tougher game. Who knows if that attitude will stick, but for our purposes it doesn’t matter; it worked for one game, and that’s all any coach should be concerned about, the one game. What can Leslie Frazier do for Monday night’s game against the Giants besides make a change at quarterback and maybe pull a couple of the more mentally challenged defensive starters?
Can anyone stop this snowball from rolling downhill faster and faster, leaving a trail of crushed spirits in its wake? Josh Freeman might help and he might not. But at some point, you have to stop looking at the guys on the field and start looking at the guys making the decisions.
The eye of scrutiny must fall more and more on Leslie Frazier. I normally scoff at calls to fire the coach, dismissing them as mere fan goofiness, but one or two more games like Sunday’s and I might go full fan-goofy. That game was baloney.