Vikings open strong under Childress
After a tumultuous 2005 season and some dumps this offseason, Brad Childress seems to have the Vikings on the right path, writes Michael Smith.
LANDOVER, Md. -- Lately the Minnesota Vikings have been the Bad News Bears of the NFL.
Most recently, Koren Robinson got into trouble again (he was arrested following a high-speed chase and charged with drunken driving), prompting Minnesota to cut him. The team has had so many off-the-field issues, Trouble might as well be on the Vikings' roster. The team got even more bad news before the season opener here against the Redskins when new coach Brad Childress informed his players Monday morning that starting safety Dwight Smith would not play as punishment for being cited for indecent conduct two weeks ago. Of course, the 2005 Vikings became somewhat synonymous with indecent conduct after the infamous "Love Boat" incident.
With Smith inactive, Childress started fifth-round pick Greg Blue opposite veteran Darren Sharper along the last line of defense against what was supposed to be the official unveiling of Washington's high-powered offense with new coordinator Al Saunders and the expensive toys Daniel Snyder bought for him this offseason. You're switching to a rookie safety at the last minute with a rookie head coach and no proven threat at wide receiver and you're on the road against a quality opponent. Yeah, it looked bad for the league's version of the Bad News Bears.
The Vikings' new attitude helped them usher in a new era with a 19-16 win, as John Hall pushed a 48-yard, game-tying field goal attempt wide left with 12 seconds remaining. Minnesota trailed 13-9 at the half. After the hole the Vikings found themselves in to begin last year (2-5), an opening night win was exactly what the franchise needed. Finally, something for the Vikings and their fans to feel good about.
Former Redskin Brad Johnson was sharp in completing 16 of 30 passes (that percentage would be higher if not for a couple of Troy Williamson drops) for 223 yards and a score. He felt like he made enough of a statement to warrant leaving FedEx Field in his old Redskins jersey. Tell you what, Childress looks pretty smart right now trading Daunte Culpepper to Miami for a second-round pick and going with Johnson, who has led the Vikings to a win in 8 of 10 starts going back to last season.
New feature back Chester Taylor toted the rock 31 times and caught three passes. The household names among the Vikings' receivers (that's called sarcasm) -- Williamson, Travis Taylor, Marcus Robinson -- had key catches.
After the game, Johnson -- "the 40-year old," as Sharper jokingly calls the league's oldest starting QB, who'll turn 38 Wednesday -- presented Childress with the game ball.
It's just one win, yes, but for Minnesota, perhaps it was the start of something. The start of something good.
"They faced a lot of adversity tonight," Childress said of his club. "It was an away game, a Monday night, Hall of Fame coach. I'm just pleased with what they accomplished. We know that there is still a ton of work to be done. Good teams play on Monday night, and good teams find a way to come back and win that following Sunday."
The phrase being echoed throughout the victorious locker room was "battle tested." Childress pushed his team and had them beat up on each other all summer because he's trying to build a physical, tough-minded team that doesn't beat itself. Sharper and cornerback Antoine Winfield both said it was the toughest training camp they've experienced, evident by the fact (and Winfield pointed this out last night) that Childress played his starters for about a half in all four preseason games.
"I think it paid off tonight," Winfield said.
On its first possession, Minnesota went right down the field, 80 yards in 10 plays leading to Taylor's touchdown run. The Vikes went 28 yards just before the half and got a Ryan Longwell 46-yard field goal. They held the ball for 4½ minutes before Longwell kicked the game-winner.
The Vikings just did what they had to do and got it done when they needed to in order to get out of here with the win. The old Vikings, frankly, probably would have done something to screw it up. But this is a new day. New team. New sheriff in town. Minnesota committed nine penalties and that didn't sit well with Childress, but the Vikes didn't turn it over and they converted more than 50 percent (9 of 17) of their third downs. Most important, Mike Tomlin's defense didn't give up the big, backbreaking play.
"We hung in there the whole game," Winfield said. "The last few years something would always happen in the fourth quarter, a big play or a pick or something."
"They're a battle-tested group" -- there's that phrase again -- "and I think they proved that in the fourth quarter," Childress said.
The Vikings have gone from the Love Boat to a tight ship. Winfield recalls Childress meeting with each player and laying it out for him: His way or the highway. You're either with him or you're gone.
"He's straightforward," Winfield said. "I like that."
For the first time, Sharper said, the Vikings have a committee of players (eight) that meets with the head coach to offer him suggestions and to get the message he wants delivered.
"He's pushing all the right buttons," Sharper said.
That's why the team could take the Smith benching in stride even though he'd practiced with the first team all week. Childress says he'll play next week.
This much we know already: Childress doesn't play around, if you know what I mean.
After the preseason Washington had -- the first-team offense didn't score any points in 13 possessions -- Redskins fans might be thinking about how soon to push the panic button after their team went 1-for-4 in the red zone. But the real story last night wasn't how bad the home team was, but how the Bad News Bears, for once, produced some good news.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.