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Bleacher Report – Vikings

How to end a four-game losing streak: A lesson from Bill Parcells

By Matthew Coller

leroy-thompson

In the last four games, the Minnesota Vikings have lost control of the NFC North. They have slid down all the experts’ power rankings. They have seen their social media pages lit aflame with all-caps rage blasts. Despite all that, you shouldn’t think of the Vikings’ Super Bowl odds as much different from when they were undefeated. History tells us not to overreact – yet.

Las Vegas hasn’t shifted their position on the Vikings by a whole lot. After Minnesota beat the Houston Texans in Week 5, they were bumped up to 8-1 odds, the NFL’s second best. They currently stand at 18-1, the seventh best chance to win it all.

Oddsmakers still recognize the same thing that the Vikings’ players have told the media since they lost 26-20 to Washington last week: They have many of the most important components to winning in the NFL. They have an elite defense, talented quarterback, playmaking wide receiver and a talented tactician as a head coach.

Yes, they also have an offensive line that has been eaten alive and a running game that currently boasts the worst yards per carry since the 1953 New York Giants. But if Bill Parcells taught us anything, it was that with the right move at the right time, those a losing streak and abominable running game can be overcome, and so can the odds.

With nothing left to lose, Parcells told his big-armed quarterback, “Let’s see what you can do, kid.”

In Week 11 of the 1994 season, Parcells’ New England Patriots trailed the Minnesota Vikings 20-3 at halftime. Having lost the last four games in a row and with a 4-6 overall record, one more L would mean a second straight season of failure under the legendary coach, who had come out of retirement to rebuild the Pats.

Since nobody ever overcame anything without being a little drastic, Big Tuna unleashed his quarterback and passed on nearly every play.

The next day, the Los Angeles Times led their game story with this: “Drew Bledsoe threw and threw and threw some more. Finally, he threw his arms up in triumph.”

Bledsoe flung an NFL record 70 passes, completing 45, with the final one dropping into the hands of running back Kevin Turner in the end zone with 4:10 remaining in overtime.

Behind their never-run offense, the Patriots reeled off six more wins in a row after their comeback victory over the Vikings and made the playoffs with a 10-6 record.

New England’s ’94 season has a bunch of parallels, coincidences and connections to this year’s Vikings. Head coach Mike Zimmer is a protege of Parcells’ from his days in Dallas. The Vikings’ quarterback is a former No. 1 overall pick, just as Bledsoe was. The comeback game in ’94 was against Minnesota. Both teams lost four games in a row. And most notably: Neither team could get a yard on 3rd-and-1 if it was to save their grandma.

Parcells’ group was the last team to average under 3.0 yards per rush and make the playoffs. The Vikings currently average 2.7 YPC.

If Zimmer follows his mentor – who he talked with the morning after losing to Washington – this week’s matchup between the Vikings and Arizona Cardinals will be the game in which Minnesota’s head coach gets a little more drastic.

Leroy Thompson wasn’t too happy to be traded to the New England Patriots in 1994.

A duel-threat running back out of Penn State, Thompson had played the first three seasons of his career for the Pittsburgh Steelers. A few weeks before the regular season opened, he was dealt to New England, who had gone 5-11 in 1993, the first year under Parcells.

“I was coming from a team that expected to be in the championship game every year to a team that hadn’t won anything in decades and I was thinking, ‘oh my god, how did I end up here?” said Thompson, who now runs Leroy Thompson Consulting in Knoxville, Tennessee.

For the younger crowd, I know that the idea of the Patriots being a dumpster fire is unfathomable – it really happened. I know it’s like telling a 20-something sports fan that the San Antonio Spurs once went 20-62 and the Boston Red Sox made the playoffs three times between World War I and the Reagan Administration, but in the early 90s, there was no “Patriot Way” and nobody wanted to play in Massachusetts.

“It’s one thing if you’re losing in South Beach, or losing in L.A. or losing in Arizona and there’s wonderful weather, but if you’re losing in New England and it’s zero degrees and it’s snowy and icy…then it just escalates,” Thompson laughed over the phone.

What he means by “escalates” is that players get into just-get-the-season-over mode pretty quick once the writing’s on the wall. At 4-6 and down by 17 at the half, the ’94 Patriots were on the verge of falling out of “in the hunt” graphics everywhere and landing square in the middle of “maybe next year.”

Leroy Thompson became one of Drew Bledsoe’s favorite targets after the Pats stopped running

The Vikings can relate to that feeling. Four losses is a losing steak, five is a total collapse. Falling to Arizona wouldn’t put them out of the hunt, but it would require them to become one of the best teams in the league the rest of the way.

Getting over four has been done. It just took a little step outside of Parcells’ old school, ram-it-down-their-throats box to do so.

Down by 17 at the half, staring at a five-game losing streak, Parcells decided bloop singles weren’t going to get it done, so he swung for the fences. Thompson suddenly became one of the Patriots’ biggest weapons, instead of the scat back they expected when he was acquired.

“We had a nice two-minute drive right before the half and nothing else was working, so [offensive coordinator Ray Perkins] and Bill [Parcells] got together and said, ‘let’s just put the kid in the shotgun and let’s just throw the ball,’” Thompson said. “We came out, we spread out in the two-minute – those weren’t plays that were in before the game – we set up in our two-minute offense as if the clock was running out and we were trying to go win the game.

“I remember they couldn’t match up with us. After that game? Forget about it. We were throwing the ball 55 or 60 times a game. It propelled us from losing four in a row to runnin’ the chain and making the playoffs.”

The week before the game against the Vikings, Bledsoe went 20-for-43 with 166 yards and four interceptions against the Bill Belichick-coached Cleveland Browns. There was no run game to bail out the young quarterback, so the Patriots simply replaced their inefficient runs with throws to their versatile running back Thompson, who gained 7.2 yards per catch.

Over the final seven games of the ’94 season, Bledsoe completed 62% of his passes and averaged 41 throws per game. Five receivers finished the year with more than 50 catches, including Thompson’s 65 receptions.

bledsoe

The move may have saved Bledsoe’s career. He was only in his second year, but like Bradford, there was some doubt creeping in about whether he would ever live up to the billing of a No. 1 overall pick. His Wiki page tries to spruce up Bledsoe’s first NFL season in 1993 by noting that the Patriots improved from two to five wins from 1992, but he was awful. As a rookie, the 6-foot-5 QB from Washington State completed 49.9% of his passes, averaged 5.8 yards per attempt and had a 65.0 quarterback rating.

“[Parcells] said, ‘All right, big guy, you’re the No. 1 pick in the draft, we’re not running the ball well, so I’ll tell ya what, I’m gonna put you back in the shotgun and we’re gonna put it on your shoulders and let’s see what you can do, pretty boy,” Thompson said. “But Parcells also know that this guy was the top pick and the big arm and he was the most talented guy, so he was our best chance to win.”

The Vikings may have already had their 70-pass game moment, it just hasn’t paid off yet.

The lesson of the ’94 Patriots is that if you can’t run the ball and you have a good quarterback, then don’t run the dang ball. Since offensive coordinator Norv Turner resigned, they have looked much more like Parcells’ team. According to 1500ESPN.com contributor Arif Hasan’s latest piece, in situations where the game is within seven points, the Vikings ranked 12th in run rate under Turner and 30th under interim OC Pat Shurmur. In the two games since Turner stepped down, Bradford has thrown 82 passes to eight different targets.

The Vikings were also trying to use seven-step drops and slow-developing routes, which resulted in 11 total sacks between losses to Philadelphia and Chicago. In the last two games, Bradford has only been sacked five times under Shurmur’s quick-pass offense and has a QB rating of 104.2.

They threw a lot, but they didn’t go drastic.

The Vikings only scored 36 points in those two games. They gave away possessions by running Matt Asiata into a poor O-line on 3rd and 4th-and-1 situations and ran three plays in a row during a key drive in the third quarter. Why run at all when the quarterback is completing nearly 70% of his passes? Why not have Jerick McKinnon, Asiata or Ronnie Hillman catch passes like Thompson did? Instead we have heard Zimmer say for weeks on end that the run game is improving. But it isn’t and very likely won’t.

Can the West Coast offense save the Vikings season, Part 2

Moving forward from the losing streak will take more than an ah-ha! moment with the Vikings offense. The ’94 Patriots needed a strip-sack on the final drive of a game against the Colts in game No. 3 of their win streak. In fact, Parcells defense deserves just as much credit as the never-run offense. The Pats gave up fewer than 20 points per contest in every game after Bledsoe’s Tommy John Surgery-inducing win.

The Vikings’ defensive numbers have trended in the wrong direction during their slide. They have only three sacks in the last four weeks after bringing down opposing quarterbacks 19 times through five weeks. The opposition has gained 121 yards per game on the ground in the last four as opposed to 77 in the first five.

“When you’re struggling and you have a bunch of good guys, a bunch of guys who really care, guys try to do a little too much, including myself,” Zimmer said. “Instead of allowing guys to make plays, you try to make plays for them.”

And there have been questions about whether Zimmer is as skilled a player motivator as Parcells once was.

“With us, Parcells was only in his second year, so he was rebuilding a franchise that was historically terrible, so the fact that we were starting to gel and have some success was right on track for him, it wasn’t surprising to him,” Thompson said. “So his thing with us always always to not get too high with the highs or too low with the lows. Even with Bledsoe, he would come in and crack jokes and didn’t want us to get a big head because we were having success.”

The highs and lows have been so high and low this year that everybody on the ride feels seasick. Only the players truly know whether Zimmer has increased the shakiness or steadied it.

This isn’t the first time defensive lineman Justin Trattou has been on a boat in choppy waters.

He and Vikings nose tackle Linval Joseph played for the 2011 New York Giants, who lost four regular season games and went on to win the Super Bowl.

“I remember Antrel Rolle got up and said, ‘we have enough talent, we could be that team,’ and sure enough we got hot at the end, we had to win the last two or three games to even get in the playoffs,” Trattou said. “If I remember that year we had a lot of injuries that year, also.”

The Vikings have the most cap space of any team in the NFL on injured reserve and have lost their quarterback, star running back and both starting tackles all for the season and have periodically been without starting corners Xavier Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, safety Andrew Sendejo and linebacker Eric Kendricks.

tratt-tratt
Justin Trattou was on a team that lost four in a row, then went on to win the Super Bowl

Against Arizona, Minnesota will have its full defense back together for the first time since facing Philadelphia in mid-October.

“You look at the teams that win, they usually get hot at the end, so it doesn’t matter what happened before,” Trattou said.

Like the ’94 Patriots, the Giants also had an historically great coach in Tom Coughlin.

“His messages are similar to coach Zimmer’s in a lot of ways,” Trattou said. “Being disciplined, not turning the ball over, not getting penalized, doing the small things.”

Unless he’s looking for an Oscar, Trattou’s calmness in talking about the losing streak indicates that the locker room isn’t in panic. Other players have said as much.

“We’re fine,” guard Alex Boone said. “Well, we’re not fine, we’ve lost four in a row, but we’re gonna be fine.”

Maybe they’re so calm because thinking too much about the magnitude of Sunday’s game would be overwhelming. If they lose, there will be a whole new set of former players to interview: The ones whose teams didn’t recover. Vikings could end up like the 2003 Vikings who were 6-0 and finished 9-7 or the 2009 Broncos, who also managed to fall apart after a 6-0 open to the season.

If they win, well…Zimmer remarked after the Houston win that this season had the potential to be “special.” He could still be right, just not exactly the way he thought at the time.

“Going from the lowest of the lows – getting traded to a team that was a perennial 13- or 14-game loser — and then coming into the season starting out with four losses and having the coaches stick with us…it was phenomenal to be a part of that resurgence, it was a lot of fun,” Thompson said.

Maybe one day the 2016 Vikings will know Thompson’s feeling. Maybe. But it has to start with a win against the Cardinals.

The post How to end a four-game losing streak: A lesson from Bill Parcells appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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