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Updated: December 22nd, 2011 11:18pm
Pelissero: Vikings remain convinced Bill Musgrave can make offense go

Pelissero: Vikings remain convinced Bill Musgrave can make offense go

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Donovan McNabb walked into a meeting room two days before the season opener and offered a prophetic statement about his calamitous cameo as the Minnesota Vikings' quarterback.

"Guys," McNabb told a group of teammates, "I don't know what's going on."

Specifically, McNabb was referring to the protection schemes the Vikings wanted to deploy less than 48 hours later at San Diego. But that wasn't the only aspect of new coordinator Bill Musgrave's offense to which the statement could have applied more than six weeks after camp began.

For players familiar with Brett Favre's precision and encyclopedic knowledge of Xs and Os, the contrast was stark. Coupled with some atrocious practice performances, questionable conditioning and a seemingly cavalier approach to correcting mistakes, McNabb had teammates wary even before he suited up for a regular-season game.

That's not to heap blame for the Vikings' 2-12 record or the offense's uneven production on a 34-year-old quarterback who generated no fewer wins (one) and a higher passing rating (82.9) in six starts than his successor, rookie Christian Ponder, has in eight.

Instead, it speaks to the broader challenges the Vikings faced from the start -- inevitable issues within a rebuilding operation that only were exacerbated by the NFL lockout, which wiped out the offseason and forced Musgrave to install his scheme via crash course.

"I've seen enough to know that we can have a real good offense," coach Leslie Frazier said on Thursday. "There's some things we need to address in the offseason to really put us over the top. But the way we run the football, the way we utilize some of our key personnel -- if we can add the right pieces at the right places, we can have a top-notch offense."

Barring a surprising change of course that costs Frazier his job, Musgrave will remain the Vikings' offensive coordinator in 2012. He signed a two-year contract in January that likely will be rolled over to add another year, in accordance with widespread belief Musgrave is the right man for the job if he gets the time and personnel to make his system go.

"I have full confidence," star halfback Adrian Peterson said. "I feel like we have smart guys that's running things. With the guys that we have here, I know that guys will sit back and review this year and see how we can improve in so many different ways and then make those adjustments."

The personnel side of those adjustments seems obvious. In addition to a declining, out-of-shape quarterback he never wanted, Musgrave went into the season with an apathetic split end (Bernard Berrian) who ended up getting cut and a guard playing left tackle (Charlie Johnson) because the other one showed up overweight.

The Vikings need at least one and perhaps two bodies to balance speed on the perimeter, preventing defenses from combating Peterson with such persistent extra-man boxes and taking away manufactured touches for dynamic slot man Percy Harvin, as New Orleans did in last weekend's 42-20 blowout at the Metrodome.

They need to find a true left tackle, allowing Johnson to maximize his value inside as a replacement for left guard Steve Hutchinson or Anthony Herrera, who both are approaching the end and due $9.75 million combined in the last year of their respective contracts.

The Vikings also need a full offseason to get out of trial-and-error mode that has encompassed the season to date, with the combination of the lockout, a quarterback change and injury-driven shakeups at several other positions making it difficult to build timing and tempo.

"We make no excuses around here," Harvin said, "but I would like to say if we get OTA (practices) and all those things, just to kind of groom, after seeing the play over and over, it becomes second nature to us. Unfortunately, (the time) we're seeing that things didn't work was the actual games."

Not everyone embraces that line of thinking. As Peterson pointed out, the Vikings outscored opponents 54-7 in the first halves of three games to open the season before collapsing to lose all three.

"We just got our butts kicked this year," Peterson said.

No opponent did it more thoroughly than the Saints, who held the Vikings to 106 net yards and five first downs before pulling starters early in the fourth quarter. The Vikings now rank 18th in the NFL in total offense (fourth in rushing, 28th in passing) and 19th in scoring, which won't cut it with one of the NFL's worst defenses on the same sideline.

Still, it's hard to overlook the various obstacles the Vikings have faced from the start -- not the least of which is reduced time with a rookie quarterback whose reps with the first-team offense were highly limited before McNabb's demotion late in a lopsided loss at Chicago on Oct. 16.

"Having that whole offseason -- especially with me, I think it's going to help me out a lot when I can get in and learn those small details," Ponder said. "I think Bill's been hesitant to put a lot of stuff on me and everybody else, because it's my first year in the NFL and it's the first year for everyone else in the offense to be here."

At times, Musgrave seems hesitant to trust his instincts as a play-caller, too, although it's foolish to question any individual call without knowing the specific tendency it was intended to exploit. Frazier, players and others in the building continue to insist they believe Musgrave is equipped to excel in that role.

The Vikings believe in Ponder, too, in spite of an apparent regression as he tried to overcome a painful hip pointer and regain confidence lost to a benching on Dec. 11 at Detroit. Frazier was open on Thursday about his reluctance to make a significant schematic change that could hinder the No. 12 overall draft pick's development.

"If you want Christian to have any chance to have any immediate success, you'd like to have some consistency with the offense," Frazier said, "and the fact that he had no offseason and very little preparation for training camp because we were trying to get Donovan ready -- we need some continuity. We need to have a strong offseason for us to take the next step."

For his part, Musgrave -- soft-spoken and sometimes evasive in public, engaging in private -- continues to say his focus is squarely on Saturday's game at Washington. But he acknowledged on Thursday that "there's more that we look forward to getting in in a more orthodox offseason, that's for sure."

Making sure everyone knows what's going on before the 2012 season begins would be a good start.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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