At the end of his first full year as the Minnesota Vikings owner, Zygi Wilf gave a number of interviews to local reporters. His team had just finished 6-10 amid a tumultuous first year under his handpicked coach, and Wilf wanted to make clear he supported Brad Childress on all levels.
Except for one.
Wilf said he disapproved of the way Childress handled the 2006 departure of receiver Marcus Robinson, the only critical sentiment Wilf has uttered publicly about any aspect of the franchise. Childress, incensed by critical comments published in a local newspaper from Robinson, abruptly and unilaterally released the player on Christmas Eve.
Wilf was in the process of building an organization to reflect his family real estate business in New Jersey, one based on internal communication and well-meshed personalities. He was horrified that Childress had acted with such vengeance and enraged he had done so without appropriate discussion among the team's football leadership. Shortly afterward, Wilf installed a system of checks and balances for all significant player moves to prevent another incident.
"In the future," Wilf said at the time, "I think that issues like this will be handled in a more consistent level and hopefully we will not let certain passions overcome us."
The episode remains relevant and instructive today as another impetuous Childress decision has again sent the franchise reeling. Wilf was reportedly angered by the decision to part ways with Randy Moss, in part because he and other members of the front office weren't consulted before Childress took action. Players are family members, not employees, in Wilf's world. And proper management follows a horizontal structure rather than emanating from a single entity.
It appears Wilf won't fire Childress for this incident, but Childress' future doesn't look promising. Independent of the Moss debacle, he has presided over one of the NFL's biggest disappointments this season. Wilf is paying out one of the league's highest payrolls and has two victories in seven games to show for it. So in an extended Free Head Exam format, let's look at three issues surrounding Childress that merit further examination:
1. Childress has demonstrated what we'll kindly call a unique relationship with the truth, at least when speaking publicly. All NFL coaches protect information for competitive purposes, but increasingly over time, Childress has clumsily expressed falsehoods that call into question the credibility of most everything he says.
The pattern began in his first season, when Childress said on his radio show that he had not decided on a starting quarterback for a game at Lambeau Field. As reporters later discovered, Childress had long before told the team that Tarvaris Jackson would be the starter.
Such episodes have accelerated this year. On Aug. 17, Childress instructed two assistant coaches to misrepresent the whereabouts of three star players who missed practice while they were recruiting quarterback Brett Favre to return to the team.
On Monday, Childress told reporters that he had given Moss permission to skip the team's return flight Sunday night from New England to visit his family. Childress said he expected Moss to return Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.
In fact, as the Star Tribune reported, Moss actually refused to return with the team. And Childress' description of Moss' timetable for returning came hours after he had already made the decision to waive him.
Again, half-truths and vague public answers are a part of coaching in the NFL. But Childress has been caught in so many misstatements that it's difficult to believe much of what he says. Players are well-aware of these incidents, and there is little doubt these episodes impact how they interpret Childress' words.
It's especially relevant in Childress' case because he went out of his way to portray himself as a truth-teller upon arriving in Minnesota. Here's what he said during an interview in July 2006:
Telling the truth "is the only way I know how to do it. I think people in the long run appreciate that. Just deal in the currency of truth. If I tell you a lie, the next time I can't remember what I told you the last time. If I tell you the truth, it's a lot easier to just keep telling the truth, over and over. Coaching these guys is no different than coaching anybody. As long as you're honest and direct, the guy knows where you stand, they appreciate it."
2. I have never been a fan of committee leadership structures in the NFL, but Wilf believes strongly in his and demands that his front office work together to make football decisions. Childress is expected to work hand-in-hand with Rick Spielman, the vice president of player personnel, and Rob Brzezinski, the vice president of football operations. Wilf positions himself to settle any disagreements.
Childress has now run astray of that structure at least twice, and he has on multiple occasions noted that his contract calls for him to have final say over the 53-man roster. His personal relationship with Spielman and Brzezinski is probably irrelevant, but I would suggest that Childress has positioned himself on an island within the front office and would have few allies defending him internally if Wilf considered a coaching change.
3. Childress has done a fine job hiring defensive coordinators during his tenure, starting with Mike Tomlin and continuing with Leslie Frazier. So we note with some irony that Frazier's presence provides Wilf a legitimate option for an in-season change, one that wouldn't be realistic with a less established or experienced coordinator.
If there were ever a coordinator capable of taking over a team in November, it's Frazier. He's among the NFL's most prepared men for the job, and Vikings players on both sides of the ball respect him. The potential for disruption would be minimal.
As recently as a couple of weeks ago, the idea of removing Childress seemed remote. He signed a three-year contract extension a year ago, and Wilf would have to eat a large chunk of its $15 million value if a change were made.
On its own, a 2-5 record wouldn't have been enough for Wilf to consider an in-season coaching swap. But Childress has recklessly given Wilf another reason. Wilf has proved to be a pretty patient employer, but you have to imagine he is reaching his tolerance limit. You never want to hand your boss extra fodder for an exit strategy.