After an off-season of promoting his newly minted defense, Vikings' Head Coach Mike Tice may finally be getting the message. It is one thing to promote a good product, it is quite another to promote a bad product. The problem for Tice is that he has banged his drum so loudly touting his "much improved" defense (his words, surely nobody else's), that anything less than a clear and dramatic improvement over last year's "defense" (again, Tice's words alone), are bound to disappoint. Even more disappointing, however, is the discovery that this years' version of Vikings' defense may even be worse than last year's version.
The poster child for the Vikings' defensive shortcomings this year is defensive lineman Chris Hovan. Following what appeared to be a breakout season in 2002, Hovan spent the summer bulking up with former Vikings' long-snapper Mike Morris. The added bulk made Hovan look big, but it did not help him play big. Instead, Hovan routinely failed to track the QB and, equally routinely, failed to record tackles.
Despite an effort to slim down and tone up, Hovan's 2003 downward spiral continued into 2004. After a reportedly tense confrontation with Vikings' coaches in the wake of a disappointing performance against the Dallas Cowboys, Tice believed Hovan had been motivated to move out of his "rut." Of course, to move out of a rut, one must be in a rut. Hovan's numbers suggest that his rut is more of a routine that we should expect to see continue--at least until Tice pulls the plug on him.
And Tice may be losing patience with Hovan. On Monday night's halftime show, Tice was shown in a meeting with other Vikings' coaches discussing approaches to motivating Hovan. Tice understood that ABC would be airing the conversation and clearly took the opportunity to try to reach Hovan from another angle. Given that Hovan was not privvy to the halftime show, maybe Tice planned to give Hovan one more shot to show he should start for the Vikings, no matter how Hovan performed against the Eagles.
If that were Tice's thinking, the thought process may have changed given the lows of Hovan's performance on Monday night.
The key Hovan play etched in the Vikings' fan's memory of Monday night--and perhaps the only play that Hovan figured into in a statistically meaningful way--was McNabb's touchdown scramble. On that play, a play in which McNabb ran 20 yards with nary a brush against his jersey by a Viking defender, Hovan was sent flailing across the field by a single blocker. Despite how it looked, the blocker did not have a running start or catch Hovan from the blind side. Rather, the blocker merely destroyed Hovan on a straight up block, carrying Hovan across the field--arms flailing over his head--as Andre the Giant might have tossed around a raggedy anne doll.
For the night, Hovan recorded the following statistics: zero sacks, zero tackles, and zero assists on tackles. Mind you, the Vikings are not asking for miracles from their highest paid defensive lineman. They merely want competence. The standard on most teams for the purported team sackmaster is that that player record an occassional sack. The Vikings have long since dropped this request of Hovan and now seek the mere occassional tackle. . . or assist.
Hovan is perplexed. Did he not have numerous sacks in college? Did he not have some sacks at the beginning of his career? Does he not bleed purple and gold? Does he not idolize John Randle? Have the Vikings not invested an awful lot of time in him to give up now?
Hovan also claims that he is double, even triple teamed. I might not have the best vantage point watching from at home, but the coaches appear to agree with me that Hovan is not even beating one-man blocking schemes. The McNabb TD scramble was the perfect example. And Hovan's laments sound a bit implausible even to someone who does not have the benefit of viewing the entire game from several angles. Why, after all, would any team commit two blockers to Hovan when Hovan cannot even record a tackle, even though he plays in the middle of the defensive line? That's a tough sell.
But maybe Tice is still sympathetic. As with Elling--who, by the way, had one more tackle than Hovan on Monday night--the Vikings have indeed invested quite a bit in Hovan to simply cut and run. And removing Hovan from the starting unit would be yet another admission that the Vikings' off-season moves were a bit less genius than Tice et. al. let on. Maybe, in fact, Jevon Kearse or Adewale Ogunleye would have been an upgrade to the Vikings' defense.
But maybe Tice is starting to get the real deal. His job is on the line, both with the Vikings and in the NFL. His past success working with offensive linemen is no guarantee of future job security if he continues to ignore the deficiencies of those with whom he is charged. It is not clear who would replace Hovan, though it would probably be Steve Martin who batted down a pass as Hovan's sub on Monday. Tice claimed the Vikings were "very deep" on the defensive line. Now it is time to show this depth. And, if it is not there, Tice will have some explaining to do.
It is time that Moe Williams received his due. He is the Leroy Hoard Plus of today's Vikings' team. All he does is get chunks of yardage, make smart plays, block, and put the ball in the end zone. Think the Vikings missed Moe on the goal line Monday night?
Monday Night Blather
During the Dennis Miller days of MNF, I longed for a return of Boomer Esiason to the MNF booth. When it became evident that Miller's days were numbered, Miller inexplicably became a reasonable color man, deciding that it was not necessary to color every statement with an analogy to Greek sheepherders (Freud would go nuts with Miller). Nevertheless, I was content with ABC's decision to pull the plug on Miller, not because I thought Miller was an egghead out of his element doing football color analysis, but because Miller was clearly too uniformed about the NFL to make sensible, relevant comments. And that says a mouthful.
Then ABC hired John Madden to team with Al Michaels with the intention of getting back to basics--at least, the Madden basics. ABC thought they they finally had a winning combo--its first since Dandy Don, Frank Gifford, and Howard Cossell. Alas, it has not worked.
Madden rambles about nothing more than ever and Michaels goes along for the ride while pretending to weigh in Madden's point--a difficult task given that Madden never really has a point.
On Monday night, before I could hit the mute button for the umpteenth time, Madden saluted Pat Tillman for the millionth time. It's as if Madden wants to assure everyone that he is a true patriot, not to be mistaken with all the non-patriots who do not sleep with Tillman's jersey tucked under their pillow. Not to be outdone, Michaels intoned that "Tillman was a true hero, embodying everything that is right and good about America." It might mean something if either Michaels or Madden were saying it for the first, or even merely the 100th time, but to hear this refrain ad nauseum gets old. How about the game, boys?
Up Next: The Bears think they got it. They are right, but "it" isn't what they think it is. Plus, so much to do and so little time in which to do it.