The Vikings continue their Florida swing today by facing the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team many, myself included, expected to see contending for the Super Bowl this year. Instead, the Jags find themselves barely breathing – at 4-6, they are 6 games behind the undefeated Titans and just about eliminated from Wild Card contention too. Can you say “must-win game?” The Jags have to approach today’s contest with just that mentality. And coach Jack Del Rio in particular has to feel like this one is make-or-break for him. He has come under increasing fire in Jacksonville for not running a tight enough ship – a feeling his assistant Mike Tice knows only too well. If the Jags don’t recover and at least make the playoffs, ownership in Jacksonville will certainly dump Del Rio and look for someone who can “change the culture.”
Speaking of changing cultures…Brad Childress was charged with that exact task for the Vikings after Mike Tice was jettisoned at the end of a 9-7 season – unfortunately, nothing seems to have changed much in Minnesota, where on-field and off-field discipline problems still regularly rear their heads. The failures of the Chilly regime have led many to reassess the Mike Tice era, a time characterized by excessive player misbehavior (Randy Moss‘s problems and Love Boat leap to mind) and occasional shoddy in-game coaching but, truth be told, more success in the standings. The would-be revisionists, working off of speculation more than fact, say that Tice was screwed by skinflint owner Red McCombs – say Tice would’ve built a winner had he been given the players and coaching staff Zygi Wilf has so generously bestowed upon Childress. They tend to forget the downside of Tice – his erratic emotional state. There were post-loss press conferences where I was certain Tice was going to whip a gun out of a manilla envelope and do himself right in front of Sid Hartman and the rest of the assembled ass-kissers. The conventional wisdom at the time was that Tice’s manic-depressive tendencies rubbed off on the team too much, making them skittish when they should’ve been calm – hence all those late-season meltdowns. Wilf seemed to remedy this worry by hiring Childress, the most even-tempered fellow you’d ever care to meet. Unfortunately, Childress’s evenness often reads more like some bizarre form of repression – and that sort of thing can’t possibly be good for the team either. In other words, we wish Childress would be more like Tice – less Ned Flanders, more Homer Simpson.
But getting back to the present…the Vikings may not need today’s game as badly as the Jags do, but that’s only because of the state of the NFC North, which currently has three teams at 5-5 and one at 0-10. The Vikes could slip a game under .500 and, come Tuesday morning, still find themselves tied for first. A better scenario, of course, would be for the Vikes to go a game over .500 and wake up Tuesday happy and healthy and leading the division by a game over the Packers and Bears. To do so, they will need to play much, much better than they did against Tampa Bay. In all areas. Especially on offense. They seemed to be clicking on that side of the ball up until last week when both the passing and running game were completely shut down in the second half. Of course, we didn’t get to see much of our pass and rush attacks, since the defense couldn’t stop Jeff Garcia and give us the ball back. David Garrard would seem to present a less mobile target, which is good news since Jared Allen and the Williamses are all probably tuckered from spending a week shuttling back and forth between Winter Park and the league office in New York where their various issues were being adjudicated. The Jags feature a one-two running combo in Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor and figure to go at the middle of the line hard all day – further taxing K-Will and Big Pat.
One guy who figures not to be a factor in today’s game is Troy Williamson, who has vindicated all the haters by doing next-to-nothing in a Jags uniform this year. The most news Troy has made all season came this week when he challenged Brad Childress to some kind of pugilistic duel in the middle of the field, a notion Childress laughed off as much as he ever laughs anything off. I’m guessing the Vikes didn’t spend too much extra time in meetings this week preparing for Troy. It would’ve been hard for them to find any recent tape on the guy anyway – he’s only dented the statsheet in five games this season, racking up an astonishing 4 catches for 27 yards. Maybe they looked at some of Troy’s plays from past years – all those drops of easy first-down receptions and plays where he ran straight down the field and had a perfectly-thrown ball go right through his hands. I’m sure Brad Childress thanks the Lord every day that at least there’s one thing no one can blame him for – he didn’t draft that loser, and he was the one who finally got rid of him. That’s something to stick at the top of his resume when his own time in purple finally – and some would say mercifully – comes to an end.