The theater was entertaining. But ultimately, it was a sideshow. Many of us enjoyed suggestions of a conflict between Minnesota coach Brad Childress and quarterback Brett Favre. It makes for good blog material, if nothing else. In reality, however, we should be more interested in the subtext.
Namely: Was this episode the smoking gun -- proof that the Vikings’ great gambit won’t work? Did it signify that the flash Favre added this season won’t be enough to carry Minnesota through the regular season and into the playoffs?
There exists some compelling evidence to support that suggestion, with more potentially on the way Monday night (ESPN, 8:30 ET) when the Vikings visit Soldier Field. The Vikings have lost two of their past three games as Favre’s performance took a notable dip. One wrong move -- namely, a loss in either of their final two games -- would threaten their season-long hold on the NFC’s No. 2 playoff seed.
And to get himself back on track, Favre will have to win a cold-weather road game for the first time in five years. That’s right. Favre has lost his past seven road games when the game-time temperature was below 38 degrees, most recently Dec. 20 at Carolina. Through coincidence or otherwise, that streak is a piece of the tapestry Favre carried with him to Minnesota, a pattern that has fans and some inside the organization concerned.
I think it’s too early to start drawing conclusions about what this means for Favre and the Vikings next season. Even if there had been no dust-ups, Favre’s return in 2010 was far from a sure thing.
But I do believe we reached a pivot point for 2009 last week, one way or the other. Either we saw a crack in the foundation of the Vikings' season, or witnessed the cold shower that will set them back on a course for Super Bowl contention.
“We’re not going to let this thing stop us,” Childress said, “from getting where we want to go. That’s rare when you’re in the last couple of games of the season … and still be able to reach all the goals that you set in the beginning of the year.”
Is he right? On what ground do Favre, Childress and the Vikings stand at this moment? Let’s look at evidence from both sides.
Perhaps the biggest question remaining after Favre arrived is whether he would coexist professionally with Childress, who had demonstrated an exceptionally rigid commitment to his offensive scheme and left a number of frustrated veteran quarterbacks in his wake.
In 2006, Brad Johnson noted that he and Childress “never talk” about game-planning issues. In 2007, Kelly Holcomb was baffled when plays were called during games that he had never run in practice. In 2008, Gus Frerotte openly lamented the minimal number of audibles he was allowed to use.
So as Favre raced into MVP contention this season, the assumption was that Childress had relented and allowed Favre the freedom he needed to excel. That conclusion seems premature, based on the stories that surfaced last week detailing at least four instances when Childress so disapproved of a Favre decision that he considered benching him.
Most alarming for the Vikings, Favre said last week that he has been less assertive in changing plays than ever. So he’s clashing with Childress for changing plays at a frequency much lower than his usual approach?
“This year, probably more so at any other time in my career, I’ve tried to play it exactly the way we want to play it,” Favre said.
But in an issue independent of freedom within the offense, Favre’s performance has undeniably slipped beginning with the Vikings’ Week 13 loss at Arizona. Following a post-Week 12 pattern that dates to 2005, Favre has thrown more interceptions (four) than touchdown passes (three), and finished with passer ratings under 80 in each of his past three games.
The slip hasn’t been as dramatic as in recent years, and it’s hard to imagine the Bears’ depleted defense putting up too much of a fight Monday night. But the pattern at least gives reason for pause when considering the game-time temperature is forecast for under 30 degrees at Soldier Field.
The Vikings’ confidence in their passing game reached an all-time high in Week 12, when Favre passed on 46 of the Vikings’ first 65 plays in a 36-10 victory over Chicago. At that moment, their offense seemed to transition from an emphasis on tailback Adrian Peterson to Favre.
That the Vikings lost two of their next three games might not be a coincidence, and if anything positive came of this week’s episode, it was an agreement from both Childress and Favre that Peterson should be the primary focus on the offense.
“I know our offense starts with Adrian Peterson and that’s where it ends,” Favre said, “and we have to get that back on track.”
There is an old adage about quantity of running plays being more important than quality, and it’s one Childress mentions often. As constructed, his offense would work best with Peterson providing the base and Favre feasting on play-action.
It’s no surprise that Favre has the NFL’s third-best rating on play-action passes, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information. Unless the Vikings fall behind early Monday night, it would be shocking to see them repeat their play selection from last month’s game against Chicago. The Bears should prepare for a heavy, heavy dose of Peterson -- who has rushed for 345 yards and five touchdowns in two career games at Soldier Field.
A rebalanced offense, centered on Peterson but capable of the big passing strike, is a better formula to lead the Vikings through the playoffs. Will it work out that way? Or did the Vikings peak too early this season? As we like to say, tune in to ESPN’s "Monday Night Football" to find out.