Sunday, January 21, 2007

What Must They Be Thinking in Minnesota?

With Mike Tomlin poised to become head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday it may be informative for Steelers fans to get a glimpse of just how sports fans in Minneapolis are reacting to the imminent departure of the Vikings' defensive coordinator. The following is a peice written by Jim Souhan for the Star Tribune

"When Zygi Wilf fired Mike Tice, the Vikings' owner must have envisioned football nirvana.

Wilf was certain he would hire a dynamic coach, break ground on a new stadium, preside over a playoff team, and have his 77-page code of conduct treated with more respect than the Ten Commandments.

On Jan. 1, 2006, Wilf fired Tice. Fifty-five weeks later, the Vikings are coming off a year filled with off-field embarrassments (Koren Robinson's drunken driving, Dwight Smith's stairwell shenanigans, an assistant coach's DUI, Fran Foley's resume) and on- field embarrassments (setting a franchise record for fewest first downs and passing touchdowns, going 6-10 a year after Tice went 9- 7).

Saturday, this unsightly year threatened to get uglier. The one person hired by Wilf's regime who inspired confidence and optimism appeared close to leaving the franchise.

Saturday afternoon,, Sports Illustrated's website, reported that Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin will become the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. ESPN's cadre of NFL 'insiders,' not to mention Steelers chairman Dan Rooney and Tomlin himself, denied the report.

If Tomlin does get the job, the Vikings will have made a mistake by choosing to keep coach Brad Childress and allowing Tomlin to leave. If Tomlin doesn't get this job, he'll probably be a top candidate next winter, at which point the Vikings will face the same choice: Keep Childress or Tomlin?

Tomlin is a flawed candidate. In his first year as an NFL defensive coordinator, the Vikings ranked first in the NFL against the run, and eighth overall. Give him credit for achieving his goal of shutting down the run; give him demerits for failing to produce a pass rush or stop teams that abandoned the run in favor of all-out passing attacks.

Tomlin is 34, and his team went 6-10. Why would the Steelers be this interested? For the same reason the Vikings would miss him: Even in a dysfunctional organization, Tomlin commanded the respect and attention of everyone he encountered.

Those who know Tomlin best didn't rule him out as a head- coaching candidate because they knew, given the opportunity to interview, he would impress prospective employers.

If he leaves, the Vikings will have no key decision-makers who are considered outstanding at their jobs, with the possible exception of cap analyst Rob Brzezinski. And they will have no key decision-makers who would give a realistic observer reason to view the 2007 season with optimism.

The news of Tomlin's possible departure is timely. On Sunday, Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith will try to become the first black coaches to take a team to the Super Bowl.

Like Tomlin, Smith was a Dungy assistant. If Tomlin gets the Steelers job, then four of the six black coaches in the NFL will have sprung from the Dungy Coaching Tree: Dungy, Smith, Tomlin and Chiefs coach Herm Edwards.

Comparing Tomlin with Dungy is easy -- they both run a version of the Tampa-2 defense that Dungy popularized when he was a young Vikings defensive coordinator. Both exude class, and both possess that intangible that could be called 'coaching presence' -- the ability to make players respond to words that might be ineffective coming from someone else.

Tomlin's departure would be remindful of a similar chapter in Vikings history. In 1995, Dennis Green's Vikings went 8-8, and then Dungy left to coach Tampa Bay.

In terms of winning, you can argue that Green and Dungy were similar -- both have been able to advance their teams to conference title games without winning them.

If the Vikings' goal was to run a first-class, admired franchise, they should have chosen Dungy then, and they should choose Tomlin now



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