There Are No More Excuses for the Play Calling

play calling
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1. I have rarely seen such poor play calling from an NFL team.

I’m usually the last to criticize NFL coaching. There’s so much going on that the average observer is unaware of (especially from watching a TV broadcast), it’s hard to say what they should be doing. We all have our ideas for what would make the offense work better, but without a full knowledge of why they’re calling it the way they are—and what the coaches are seeing that’s preventing them from doing the seemingly obvious—it’s hard to really say we know better than the guys running things.

And indeed, it seems I’m one of the last holdouts in Norv Turner criticism, but I’ve finally gotten there. The “Fire Norv” calls first came well before the 2016 season, but the Vikings fan base has grown increasingly agitated with Turner’s unimaginative play calling. It’s almost as if we were sold a bill of goods; here was this man who was spoken of as an offensive savant, someone who—while not ideally cast as a head coach—was perfectly suited to design the scheme and call the plays. There were promises of exotic sets and deep passes. Instead, what we’ve largely gotten—save for a few bright spots here and there—has been a rigid scheme that does not adapt to its personnel and an almost religious commitment to running on first down. The national media seem to still be buying the old narrative; even ESPN designed a graphic Monday night touting the “unpredictability” of a Norv Turner offense, and Jon Gruden rhapsodized the man’s offensive mind, while Vikings fans were left shaking their heads.

Mostly I’ve made excuses for the unimaginative offense; the offensive line impedes him from running the plays he wants, the quarterback’s inexperience with the system requires him to simplify it, or just the old “we don’t know everything, there has to be a reason for it.” I’m big on giving the benefit of the doubt. But the doubt keeps shrinking, and Monday night against the Bears, the evidence was finally too much for me to justify any longer. The offense is bad, and it should not be as bad as it is. There are playmakers, and there’s a quarterback, and yes, the offensive line leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s not the only bad offensive line in the NFL. There are things you can do to mask bad blocking, and Norv Turner employs them far too scarcely. Instead, for most of the first half, it was deep drops and long-developing routes instead of quick hits and dump-offs. And rather than unpredictability, it was Asiata runs up the gut, one after another. It’s not a rockstar offense, but it doesn’t have to be this bad. They keep running the same types of plays, despite a mountain of evidence they don’t work.

Norv changed things up eventually. After they were down 13-0, he finally decided it was time to spread it out and throw some short passes, and let guys like Diggs, Rudolph, and Thielen make some plays. But then, near the goal line late in the second quarter, it was two Asiata runs and a sack, and the only good drive of the first half ended with a whimper and a Blair Walsh field goal. Things didn’t improve in the second half, and the Vikings finished with 258 yards and 10 points. That is putrid offensive production against an average defense and a bad team.

I don’t know more than NFL coaches. But I do know the offense has to be better, and it can be better with a better utilization of the talent it has. And like many of you, I’ve had enough of square pegs in round holes, and enough of the Norv Turner way. Something has to be done.

2. The starting tackles made no sense.

I admit there are no good answers here. But the best possible offensive line combination sure doesn’t seem like Jake Long at left tackle and TJ Clemmings at right. Clemmings has never been a good player, but he was playing the best football of his career for a few games in relief of Matt Kalil on the left side. And when injuries forced Jeremiah Sirles to step in at right tackle, many agreed he performed as one of the two best linemen on the team. So what does the team do against the Bears? Play Clemmings on the right side—where he has played significantly worse, to the point of getting manhandled—and put the new guy, street free agent Jake Long, at left tackle. The results were predictably terrible.

I would really like to see one game where Clemmings starts at left tackle and Sirles starts at right. It wouldn’t fix everything, but I think it would at least be an improvement.

3. The defense. What happened?

It’s been easy to blame the offense this year, and it was awful Monday night, but the defense played its worst game of the season against the Bears. The numbers weren’t terrible, and with any scoring support, the defense would have kept the Vikings in the game, but they didn’t show any of the edge or playmaking ability that so heavily contributed to the 5-0 start. The pass rush has been neutralized in three of the last four games, the front seven’s inability to stop the run was infuriating against Chicago.

To be contenders in the NFC, the Vikings defense needs to be more than good; they need to be fearsome, dominant. They have not been as of late, and this is concerning.

4. It feels like panic time. But that may be irrational.

I wrote the previous three items angry, immediately after the game. I’ve calmed down a bit now, and would like to attempt to put this in perspective.

It is completely natural to feel like panicking at this point. The team has gotten embarrassed two straight games, and this time, it was at the hands of a previously 1-6 team. That 5-0 start feels like a long, long time ago. But yet, the Vikings are 5-2 and still lead the division. There is considerable historical precedent for teams having midseason struggles and still going deep into the postseason. The 2000 Baltimore Ravens—a team with a dominant defense and a pedestrian-at-best-offense (remind you of anyone?)—went on a 3-game losing streak from weeks 7-9 but made the playoffs as a wild card team and went on to blow out the Giants in the Super Bowl. The 2005 Steelers also had a 3-game losing streak and finished 11-5, and ended up hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. The 2002 Raiders lost four straight before making it to the Super Bowl.

These last two games have been ugly, but there’s a lot of football to be played, and the Vikings are still well positioned to win the division. It comes down to at what point in the season teams play their best football, and the hope is we haven’t yet seen the Vikings’ best.

We’ll see.