MINNEAPOLIS -- The next few days will provide a fascinating illustration of how the Minnesota Vikings view their 0-2 start. After another punchless outing from their offense, will the Vikings push the panic button and give up a premium draft pick to rent San Diego Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson for 12 games? Or will they determine that their problems are too widespread for one Pro Bowl receiver to fix, and instead go back to work with the talented roster they already possess?
I don’t know if the Vikings will agree with me, but I’m siding with the latter strategy. To be clear, I don’t think there’s any doubt they miss Sidney Rice, their injured Pro Bowl receiver. In Sunday’s 14-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins, two of quarterback Brett Favre’s three interceptions came on difficult passes that Rice often converted last season. Like Rice, Jackson is a big receiver with strong ball skills.
But could Jackson or Rice have made a third-quarter block on Dolphins linebacker Cameron Wake, who blew past tight end Visanthe Shiancoe and right tackle Phil Loadholt to sack Favre? (Dolphins linebacker Koa Misi recovered the ensuing fumble for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown.)
Could Jackson or Rice have helped tailback Adrian Peterson into the end zone on a fourth-down play with 2 minutes, 21 seconds remaining? (Peterson, who had already rushed for 145 yards by then, was stopped cold by Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby.)
Would Vikings coach Brad Childress have been any more inclined to kick a 43-yard field goal at the end of his team’s first possession instead of pushing for a tough 4th-and-2 conversion at the Dolphins’ 26-yard line? (Childress said he was “just trying to be aggressive” and “send a message to our team” by making that call. Favre’s pass was batted down by Dolphins defensive lineman Randy Starks.)
Jackson would make the Vikings a better team. But is he good enough to make a season-changing difference? That’s the question the Vikings must answer before a Wednesday deadline that would push his current four-game suspension up to six games.
I doubt anyone in the Vikings locker room would oppose Jackson’s arrival, but when you listened to players who have been around for a long time, you realized there is no magic elixir. Defensive tackle Kevin Williams, for one, hinted the Vikings might have taken too much for granted when they started the season.
“You’ve got to play the game,” Williams said Sunday. “You can’t just show up, no matter how many guys you have returning, who’s at quarterback, who’s on the defensive line, who’s at running back. It don’t fricking matter. You’ve got to play the game. When we realize that, we’ll be a lot better. We can’t just show up and think we’re going to win games.”
I don’t think Williams was questioning the Vikings’ effort so much as their mindset. Childress agreed that the “urgency will definitely pick up” now that the Vikings are 0-2. As we noted earlier, only 13 percent of the teams that have started 0-2 over the past 20 years have made the playoffs. Is Jackson good enough to help them overcome an obstacle that 87 percent of teams over that span have not?
Frankly, I don’t know about that. But I will say this: The Vikings played Sunday as if they thought Jackson (or Rice) was on the field.
Favre committed four turnovers, the fumble and three interceptions. One of the interceptions came on a pass behind Percy Harvin at the goal line in the second quarter, but the other two came on passes toward Bernard Berrian where Favre, as Childress said, “threw the ball up in an effort to have … guys make some plays.”
At his best, Berrian is a speed merchant and a good open-field runner. His 6-foot-1 frame isn’t ideal for hauling in jump balls or winning a physical battle against cornerbacks, but that’s precisely what Favre was asking him to do twice in the second half.
The first came with 3:01 remaining in the third quarter. On second down from the Dolphins’ 13-yard line, Favre fired what he hoped would be a back-shoulder pass to Berrian, who was running 1-on-1 down the left sideline with cornerback Jason Allen. At the goal line, Allen turned around and was in perfect position to make the interception.
Rice or Jackson might have found a way to maneuver for the ball, but that is not Berrian’s strength. Compounding the play was Favre’s near-immediate realization that tight end Shiancoe was wide open on the other side of the field for a touchdown.
Asked if the ball should have been placed differently for Berrian, Favre cryptically said: “Depends on who’s coaching you.” He added that “I put it where I wanted it” and while he lamented that he missed Shiancoe, Favre didn’t take back the decision.
“I’ve completed a lot of balls to my secondary or third receiver,” he said, “when the other guy might have been open. I just play off instincts. … I’ve got to make decisions, spur-of-the-moment decisions there and try to make accurate throws. I felt like for the most part today I did that.”
That’s a debatable point, especially when you recall the fourth-quarter interception that Favre threw up for grabs with Berrian running a deep post pattern against double coverage. I could rattle off three or four times when Rice made the catch against a similar look last season, but there never seemed a chance Berrian would come down with it.
“We’re running basically the same plays,” Harvin said. “It’s just sometimes when you have a 6-5 receiver you can just throw it up to him whether he’s covered or not, and he can make a play. From that standpoint, we won’t be able to fix that or find another receiver to replace him. We just have to come up with different schemes to try and get people open.”
I mostly agree with that sentiment. Acquiring Jackson and putting that kind of pressure on him is unrealistic, especially knowing he would have to learn a new offense and get himself into football shape after missing all of training camp. No, if the Vikings are going to emerge from this 0-2 hole, they’ll need more than that. Is it asking Favre too much to recalibrate his mentality with the skills of the receivers he does have? Broaching that topic Sunday, Favre said he wouldn’t expect to change any more than one would expect Peterson to agree to be more patient at the line of scrimmage.
“You’re not going to tell Adrian to do that,” Favre said. “You can coach it that way, but Adrian is who he is. He’s pretty good at making those split-second decisions.”
In their first two games, at least, the Vikings didn’t have the offensive horses to support that approach. Would Jackson change that? Wow. That’s a lot to ask of anyone.