Pat and Kevin Williams (Paul Sancya/AP)
The Williams Wall got run over by a court decision on Thursday, but the Vikings have options behind them. However, the opening four games, if that’s when they serve their suspension, feature two run-heavy teams.
Now comes Plan B for the Vikings.
Although the legal ruling against Pat Williams and Kevin Williams was a legal blow and is still subject to appeal, with a court defeat in hand, the Vikings have to be considering playing the first four games of the 2010 season without the Williams Wall in place. The potential exists that if the expected appeal of the decision is forwarded through the legal system, a decision as to whether to allow the suspensions to proceed could delay the process until as late as November. However, the Vikings have to start looking at the depth at the defensive tackle position.
There remains a lot of spinning plates in this situation given the potential for the appeals process to drag out, but the expectation is that the Vikings will be without the Williams Wall, which will thrust players who have been backups with the Vikings – Jimmy Kennedy, Fred Evans and Letroy Guion – as well as defensive ends who will likely be pushed inside on passing downs – Brian Robison and rookie Everson Griffen – to fill the void.
Kennedy was a first-round draft pick of the St. Louis Rams in 2003 – the same year the Vikings drafted Kevin Williams. In four years with the Rams, he started 30 regular-season and two postseason games for the Rams, but, when he became eligible for free agency, the Rams made no effort to sign him. He bounced around the league, making stops in Chicago and Jacksonville before being signed by the Vikings late in the 2008 season. Ironically, the impetus for his signing was the looming suspension of the Williamses for the final four regular-season games that year.
Kennedy believes his career was torpedoed by the lack on continuity in the coaching staff. He told VU last fall that he believes his career would have come much closer to mirroring that of Kevin Williams had he had some sort of continuity. He re-signed with the Vikings following the 2008 season primarily because he would be going through an offseason program with the same head coach, defensive coordinator and defensive line coach – something he never had in his first seven seasons.
With each coaching change has come a change in terminology and philosophy, which he believes has stunted his career growth, having to start over every season. Entering his third season with the Vikings, he is expected to hit the ground running during the offseason workout program in anticipation of taking over the DT position for the first four games if the suspensions of the Williamses are allowed to proceed.
Evans is entering his fourth year with the Vikings after being drafted in the seventh round of the 2006 draft by the Miami Dolphins. He has made just two starts for the Vikings but has been a regular part of their defensive line rotation since arriving in Minnesota in 2007. A disruptive force who is best known for collapsing the pocket and being credited with quarterback hurries, Evans will be counted on heavily to pick up the slack in the run defense with the Williams Wall being sidelined.
The bigger problem may be the Vikings slate of opponents if the suspension is executed during the first four games of the regular season.
If the suspensions are upheld and served during the first four games, the Vikings may face a tall order in replacing the Williamses. The Saints’ high-octane offense is best known for its passing ability, but the Saints have had a strong running game the past two seasons and that isn’t expected to change this year. Although veteran Mike Bell left as a restricted free agent, Pierre Thomas has emerged as a threat in the backfield and is expected to get more of a chance to run the ball this season. But the Saints may be the least of the Vikings defensive worries when it comes to stopping the run in the season’s first month.
The Vikings’ home opener will come against Miami, one of the top rushing teams in the league. Credited with inventing the Wildcat formation at the pro level, the Dolphins have had games (notably the unveiling of the Wildcat in 2008 against the defending AFC champion Patriots) in which they ran the ball at will and extremely effectively.
The Lions, the Vikings’ opponent in Week 3, aren’t a running juggernaut, but they got better in the draft thanks in part to the Vikings. It was Detroit that moved into the first round thanks to a trade with the Vikings to take Cal running back Jahvid Best to help energize their running game, which has struggled badly in recent years.
The fourth game of the season, which would be the fourth game of the Williamses’ suspension, may be the most difficult of all. The Vikings will be at the Meadowlands to play the New York Jets, the top rushing team in the NFL last season. While the Jets allowed leading rusher Thomas Jones to leave via free agency, they outbid the Vikings for the services of LaDainian Tomlinson, despite offering less up-front money to L.T. Like the Dolphins, the Jets have shown the ability to milk the clock by running the ball 35-40 times a game and control the pace and tempo of the game. Without Kevin and Pat, the Vikings will likely have a more difficult time stopping Rex Ryan’s relentless run offense, now headed up by Shonn Greene and Tomlinson.
As it currently stands, there are still some moving targets in terms of the Williamses’ suspension. It may not happen in the first four games of the season. While the Vikings seem prepared to handle the loss if the suspensions are enforced during the first four games of the regular season, unlike last year, when the Vikings faced the Browns, Lions, 49ers and Packers, the opening slate this year includes two teams capable of running the ball 40 times a game (Miami and the Jets), the most potent offense in the NFC (New Orleans) and an improving Lions offense. It won’t be easy, but the Vikings have to start the process of preparing to open the 2010 season without Pat and Kevin Williams. Players are out of the lineup throughout the season, usually due to injury, and must be replaced. If there is a positive to this situation, it is that the Vikings will have months to prepare for their backup plan when and if it is needed.