Sunday, October 17, 2010
Survival of the least inept
By Kevin Seifert
E.J. Henderson's two interceptions were key in the Vikings' unlikely win over the Cowboys.
MINNEAPOLIS -- If you like to watch football, every NFL weekend is living art. If you like to see football played well, I'm sorry. You're out of luck.
I'm starting a new blog policy. Yes, I'm going to stop pointing out how ugly some of the NFC North's so-called marquee matchups have been this season. And no, it's not just because the Minnesota Vikings were the beneficiaries in Week 6 of one of the dumbest approaches I've ever seen an NFL team take. Maybe we need to recalibrate our expectations for what qualifies as a winning performance in this league.
Percy Harvin returned the second-half kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown, pulling the Vikings even after the home crowd booed them off the field at halftime.
Middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, a strong run-stopper still rounding into shape after having a titanium rod inserted into his left leg last winter, doubled his career interception total by stepping in front of two Tony Romo passes. Those interceptions set up the Vikings' mostly anemic offense for 10 of its 17 points.
Tony Romo passing by distance Sunday
5 yards or fewer
Pct of att
>>First 4 games: 43.1% 5 yds. or less
Source: ESPN Stats and Information
The Cowboys criminally ignored their receivers' mismatch against the Vikings' injury-depleted secondary, dumping 10 passes to tailback Felix Jones. Even Vikings players admitted they were surprised. According to ESPN's Stats & Information, 24 of the Romo's 32 pass attempts traveled five yards or fewer downfield. In-ex-plicable.
In a year when "parity" is a euphemism for "no one is any good," maybe that's all it takes to win: A kickoff return, a linebacker catching two passes and an opponent unable to get out of its own way. I give some credit to coach Brad Childress for recognizing the wholly unaesthetic nature of the day's proceedings.
"It's close to migrant work," Childress said. "You go where it is every week. So we bought one more week. There is parity. All you've got to do is look."
That's pretty much all Henderson did on his interceptions. In 97 career games over nine seasons, he had managed a grand total of two interceptions. Both came in 2006. For about half of his career, the Vikings have removed him in obvious passing downs because they thought he was slow in coverage.
His first interception Sunday came after Romo bounced a pass off defensive tackle Kevin Williams' helmet. The ball sailed high in the air, where Henderson grabbed it at its lowest point and returned it to the Cowboys' 16-yard line. Even a Vikings offense that would finish with 188 total yards couldn't avoid capitalizing, driving all 16 yards for a touchdown that tied the game at 7 on the final play of the first quarter.
I don't mean to diminish Henderson's performance, especially when you realize the fractured femur he suffered last December could (and maybe should) have been career-ending. Henderson isn't an emotional person, but it was still heart-warming to see him skip off the field after a second interception that was not only a smart play but also put the Vikings in position for Ryan Longwell's game-winning 38-yard field goal.
Henderson fooled Romo into thinking tight end Jason Witten would be open, taking several steps toward the line as if he were about to blitz. Recognizing the play all along, he peeled off late and snatched Romo's pass out of the air.
"Just stepped back and he threw it over the middle," Henderson said.
Said Childress: "He's a smart, smart, smart football player."
You couldn't say that about anyone in Cowboys' colors Sunday, be it player or coach. Romo threw two touchdown passes to receiver Roy E. Williams and a third to rookie Dez Bryant. Nickel back Lito Sheppard appeared to be the victim in each instance.
Were it not for injuries to cornerbacks Cedric Griffin and Chris Cook, Sheppard might not have even been active for this game. But even with Sheppard playing nickel and former dime back Asher Allen in a starting role, the Cowboys refused to capitalize on the mismatch.
Romo targeted Williams three times, Bryant twice and Miles Austin five times. They finished with a combined six catches. Tailback Jones, meanwhile, had 10 passes thrown his way. He caught all 10 for 61 yards.
I realize the Vikings hit Romo a few times on their opening possession. In fact, Vikings defensive end Jared Allen said: "You saw them change their game plan literally in the first series after we hit him about three or four times." But come on. You give up on your best weapons for large stretches of the game because of a couple early hits?
Vikings players seemed incredulous but thankful.
"That was fine with me if they didn't want to go upfield," nose tackle Pat Williams said. "They're trying to dump and throw screens and run draws. No problem here."
"I can't say we were prepared for that," defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. "We hadn't expected that."
Of course they didn't. What team in its right mind would throw all day to Felix Jones when it had Roy Williams, Miles Austin and Dez Bryant matched up against an opponents' No. 3 and No. 4 cornerback??!! I'm fired up not because the Cowboys did just as much to lose this game as the Vikings did to win it. It's that the oversight seemed outrageous even in this year's NFL. I'll leave the NFC East commenting to colleague Matt Mosley, but let's just say I would consider it a fireable offense if it were the other way around.
The Vikings were far from perfect themselves, and their offense seemed stuck in lethargy for far too long Sunday. Normally, I would say I saw few encouraging long-term signs from this victory. But in the NFL circa 2010, a winning performance consists of making fewer mistakes than your opponent. That, and three big plays, were enough to send Childress' "migrant workers" home happy after a full day's work.