One of the problems with Brad Childress’ plan to win with defense, field position, the running game and the occasional big play was he forgot one of the most important components of field position: special teams. And I’m not just talking about the punt coverage. The Vikings had one of the worst return games in the NFL, barely presenting any threat to break a big play on a punt or kick return. It was pretty clear which team had put some thought into improving their return game last off season on Sunday, with DeSean Jackson racking up 109 punt return yards, including a 62 and 30 yard return, to the Vikings 1 return yard.
The stats for the season are equally bleak. The Vikings had only three kick returns longer than 40 yards, with their longest return being a 49 yarder by Darius Reynaud against Chicago in the Metrodome (he also had one of the other returns longer than 40 yards the next week against Detroit). They were one of only six NFL teams without a return of 50 yards or more. Their punt return game was equally bad. They led the NFL in fair catches, with 23. That means, of the 57 times a Vikings’ player caught a punt, they called for a fair catch 40% of the time. If you’re looking for a reason why the Purple only had four punt returns of more than 20 yards, and only one of more than 40 (Bernard Berrian’s 82 yard return for a touchdown), that’s probably the most likely.
There were a myriad of reasons for the Vikings’ futility. The first was Aundrae Allison’s failure to repeat his 2007 performance as a kick returner. In the first two games, he averaged 17.3 yards on three returns, with his longest return being 22 yards. At that point, the Vikings tried Chester Taylor, but he wasn’t much better. They tried Charles Gordon, who, while explosive (he had a return of 42 yards), got hurt. Then they tried veteran returner Maurice Hicks, who also wasn’t much better, but since he had no other role and he was a veteran, he stuck as the primary returner, returning 29 kicks. And he was bad. He averaged 23.8 yards per return, with only 7 returns of more than 30 yards. Basically what I expected. Darius Reynaud looked like he might turn into a quality returner, but he got hurt, which lead to more Hicks and even more poor kick off returns.
The Vikings' basically had the same problem at punt returner. They tried Aundrae Allison, but he was about as bad returning punts as kickoffs. They tried Charles Gordon, who, prior to getting hurt, averaged 4.4 yards per return while calling for 11 fair catches on 26 punts. They tried Bobby Wade and Bernard Berrian, neither of whom they wanted returning punts, since they're the Vikings' top two receivers. The two of them at least averaged more than ten yards per return, but Wade called for a fair catch on 50% of his punts, and while Berrian returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown, he called for a fair catch on 42% of the punts he received.
Field position matters, especially when you have an offense built on running and short passes, like the Vikings. And the Vikings inability to find anything but mediocre punt and kick returners means that they had to go even further on each drive, something their offense just isn't equipped to do. The Purple averaged 29 yards per drive this year (according to Football Outsiders), which means that the difference between a fair catch at their own 30 yard line and a ten yard punt return to the 40 yard line was the difference between a punt and a field goal. And if that happened just once, it'd be the difference between the Vikings' being 12th in points per game and 3rd. With the Purple's defense, three points is a lot. And starting out with good field position may have been the difference in the playoffs, something we'll never know, since the Purple's return men never provided them with that luxury.
[I'm going to be out of town until Tuesday, so don't expect too many posts until then. I'll try and get something up, but my plans for what I'm going to do when traveling and what actually happens rarely seems to match up]