Monday, September 12, 2011

Purple People Needn't Panic ... Yet

In a typical NFL Week 1, fans will go into a collective panic after seeing their favorite team lose. I expected reactions to be even less tempered after such a long lockout left people starving for action.

When that action came, some teams flourished (Baltimore, Chicago, Buffalo???). Some rookies outperformed expectations (Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Randall Cobb).

Other teams didn't get the job done. Kansas City fans are probably full-throat on this day, all over head coach Todd Haley after his team was embarrassed at home by the Bills, 41-7. There is probably not as much panic -- but still some gripping -- in Atlanta and Pittsburgh after their teams performed poorly. Surely, Tony Romo isn't a favorite son in Dallas anymore, after he coughed up the Cowboys' opener against the Jets.

In Minnesota, the sports-talk phone lines were burning Monday, full of fans wondering exactly how the Vikings' prized offseason acquisition could throw for 39 yards, or 383 fewer than Newton did in his NFL debut for Carolina.

39 yards was all Donovan McNabb could muster in 15 attempts, as the Vikings' offense sputtered badly in a 24-17 loss to San Diego. As radio voice Paul Allen noted on his show page, you really can't put this one on the defense, outside of making the generic "You have to get off the field" argument. It's on McNabb, and to a lesser extent offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave.

Watching the game back on DirecTV, the play-calling was simply miserable. The only thing worse was the execution. One thing that the game tape doesn't show you is what the play design was on a particular call. That's where the McNabb/Musgrave line becomes a bit cloudy. If McNabb was shooting at a five-yard dumpoff on a play designed to go 15-20 yards down the field, that's on either the receiver for not getting open, or on McNabb for not executing the play as drawn up.

When McNabb did throw the ball a bit downfield, he ended up missing low. A lot. He threw more bounce passes than Ricky Rubio. It was eerily similar to last season in Washington, where McNabb's accuracy suffered and he turned in his worst season as a pro.

This one is early, though. McNabb still has a strong arm, and he still has good mobility, as he showed on a couple nice runs Sunday. What has to change are a few things, starting with his throwing accuracy. McNabb has never been known for his pinpoint accuracy -- to the point that even Video Game Cris Collinsworth likes to call him out on it -- and he probably isn't going to start now. But he can be better than he was on Sunday, where his timing and accuracy both suffered on some of his throws.

He also has to get better timing. He held the ball too long on a deep shot at Bernard Berrian in the fourth, one that almost surely would have been a touchdown had the throw been on time and accurate. By throwing it late, McNabb allowed himself to be pressured, and it hurt his throw.

In the end, the Vikings had a few positives their fans could take out of the game. For starters, the defense competed their tails off for four quarters. No, they couldn't make a critical second-half stop, but they made a number of huge stops in the first half, keeping a very good offense to just seven points when they had a ton of yards. They got in Philip Rivers' face, forced bad throws, and had the quarterback frustrated as hell going into halftime.

Adrian Peterson looked strong, gaining 98 yards on just 16 carries. The Vikings need to feed him the ball more, even if it's at the expense of the Blazer set (Wildcat, Webb-cat, whatever). The Blazer had no business seeing the field when it did Sunday, and that has to be a lesson for Musgrave. Just because you have a toy doesn't mean you play with it. From a timing standpoint, it was akin to taking the motorcycle out for a ride in January. We know you want to show it off, but you should wait until the summer, and you know it.

Peterson needed more of the ball in the second half, and dusting off Joe Webb for a couple plays killed the offense's momentum and rhythm. I'm not an anti-Wildcat guy, but there is a time and place, and "third quarter of a close game where your offense can't do anything and your best player isn't getting enough touches" isn't it.

Musgrave is a capable coach, so he'll learn from it, and so will the team. I expect Webb to be effective in this package, because he is a throwing threat and that will make the whole deal more dangerous. At that point, maybe fans won't be so mad when it gets rolled out at a random point in a game.

All in all, it was not a bad performance by the Purple, and it was a close game against a good team. The next two games (Tampa Bay and Detroit) will tell us a lot. The Lions had a field day against what I thought was a good Tampa defense Sunday, and the Buccaneers struggled more on offense than I expected them to. But neither team is a world-beater, and if Minnesota is 2-1 after Week 3, all will be forgiven in the Twin Cities.

Chicago looked strong Sunday, but they benefited from some bounces, and I'm not sold that Atlanta is that good anyway. That said, it was a convincing win over an NFL team, and it sets the Bears up for a potentially interesting season if they can keep that momentum going. This isn't a cut-and-dried division race by any means, and Minnesota still has a chance to make some headway.

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