Teddy Bridgewater started his first NFL game last week. And it was almost perfect. Minnesota defeated a hot Atlanta Falcons team, scoring over forty points in a lopsided home win. Bridgewater danced like Fran Tarkenton, and brought a steadiness combined with no turnovers that has Vikings' fans doing cartwheels looking at the future.
And it was almost perfect.
Bridgewater suffered an ankle sprain late in the game that will have him sidelined for tonight's Thursday game versus hated Green Bay. Green Bay, fresh off a destruction of the Chicago Bears, is primed to "relax", as quarterback Aaron Rodgers put it, and play good football. A perfect storm in which a strong home team is facing a rival without their best running back (ever), key position players, and now their top two quarterbacks who received all the repetitions in summer camp and preseason with the first and second unit.
Enter Christian Ponder.
I have tried to impart on my fellow fans and the players I coach that football is a team game. Wins are made by a combined effort of most of the players on the squad. For example, last week was highlighting Teddy Bridgewater, and his ability to escape pressure and throw passes the opposition could not intercept. Never mind that offensive guard Brandon Fusco was out, and his replacement, Vladmir Ducasse, filled in admirably. That the line including Phil Loadholt created holes for the running game over and over again. Or that we finally saw the best of cornerback Josh Robinson. The running of Matt Asiata and Jerrick McKinnon. The linebacker play of rookie Anthony Barr or Gil Hodges. The stellar tenacity of Harrison Smith. Even kicker Blair Walsh impressed.
But we focused on Teddy.
And I do not blame we fans for that. Since Fran Tarkenton graced us with his rookie year in 1961, to Joe Kapp's entering the NFL in 1967, Tommy Kramer drafted in 1977 and promising start in 1979, and Daunte Culpepper's amazing season in 2000, Minnesotans have adopted exciting new quarterbacks. Even old Brett Favre, Warren Moon, and Randall Cunningham received the hearts of our fans. At least for a long while.
And then there is Christian Ponder.
Ponder was vilified after his occasional strong play at the end of the 2012 season was dismissed with the announcement he would be unable to play in the Vikings playoff game vs. these same Packers. It was hard to notice given Adrian Peterson was having maybe the second greatest season ever by a running back. And Ponder's biggest flaw might be Bridgewater's greatest strength: keeping possession of the football.
But fear not fans, some very good Vikings QBs have struggled with ball control. Kapp's first two years as starting quarterback resulted in passer rating lower than 60, 18 touchdowns to 34 interceptions in 25 games, and a completion percentage near 50. That's not good. Tarkenton's first three seasons saw 45 touchdown passes, but 57 interceptions. No wonder Bud Grant wanted to trade him. Kramer's first big season had 24 interceptions. In his first three years, Kramer threw 71 interceptions while going 22-23 as a starter. After Culpepper's amazing 2000 season, he threw more interceptions than touchdowns in the next two seasons (34 to 36).
Which is why we like Teddy.
Ponder comes into a tough situation. Only a few days to prepare, a tough opponent, a team decimated by missing players. Aaron Rodgers coming off an excellent game. The Packers at home.
And without the support of the fans.
Which is why I am praying for a special moment. One in which Ponder plays well. One in which the team picks him up like they did Bridgewater. The defense creates turnovers. The offensive line creates holes. And everyone chips in. All Ponder has to do is play smart football.
And that is what has everyone worried.
But not me. I think teams win and lose football games, not single players. If Minnesota is to pull off an upset (now a large upset), everyone must contribute. Ponder will have to play better than he did prior to losing his job to Matt Cassel (now out for the season).
Or we may see Jabari Price or Jerrick McKinnon under center.
I remember the day football became more important than Christmas. I was at my grandmother's house for the holiday, and for the first time I was allowed in the basement to watch football with the adult men of the family. It was 1971, December 25th.
While the fine cooks of our family fretted, the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins battled to double overtime in the longest overtime in NFL history. Miami eventually won 27-24. There were missed field goals in the overtime that had half of the family praying for a miss (more football) and the other half cursing the same miss (the turkey was getting cold).
When it was finally over it ended up being the majority of discussion at the table. My mother, who sided with her mother, had more steam coming out of her ears than I saw from the green bean casserole. It was clear to a seven-year-old that a power play had occurred inside my family, and football had won.
More than four decades later, nothing has changed.
My passion for Vikings' football rose out of the basement of my grandparents' house. The 1970s were a very successful time for Minnesota in the NFL. I watched Super Bowls. I witnessed Super Bowls. 12-2 seasons were expected. The Purple People Eaters defense controlled games.
Life was good.
Each season that begins anew rekindles that love I had for football dating so long ago. It does not matter to me if Minnesota is picked to finish last, or not expected to contend for the playoffs. when the first Sunday rolls around in September and we take the field with a 0-0 record, I am filled with hope.
And so today, the Saturday before the first Sunday, we anticipate. I have already coached a middle school football scrimmage at nearby Watertown-Mayer. I have rode on a bus with tough hitting kids who want to sing "The Wheels on the Bus" in unison. I have mowed the lawn. Checked my fantasy baseball team. Pet the dog. Grilled steaks. Talked football on the phone...
This is a very long day.
I eagerly await tomorrow. The Vikings have a feel-good story about them. A new stadium was approved. New coach Mike Zimmer is a long-time assistant who finally gets his chance. Matt Cassel is finally given control of this team. Nearly every rookie made the team, and three 7th-rounders look to see meaningful action. Adam Thielen came from local Minnesota State via the practice squad in 2013, to find an opportunity to contribute in 2014. Teddy Bridgewater is an instant fan favorite (sorry Matt). Free agent additions look to shore a porous defense. Adrian Peterson is rested and ready.
Add to that the Green Bay Packers were already roughed up in front of a national television audience. The St. Louis Rams, our first opponent, lost their starting quarterback Sam Bradford to an injury..
Life is good.
And so we wait for tomorrow. Unless you read this on Sunday..
Which would mean you have survived the longest day.
I confess, I am spoiled. I grew up watching the Vikings in the 1970s. To this day I can still name every member of our defenses. My favorite players were all defensive, at least until Chuck Foreman arrived. One of the first heroes of mine was a Vikings' safety who set the record for most interceptions in a career: Paul Krause.
Krause came to Minnesota in 1968 via Washington, where he had made a name for himself with 28 interception in his first four years in the NFL. Krause would start at safety for the next ten years, and Minnesota would go to four Super Bowls in that time. Only one year (1974) did Krause not start every game.
That is not to suggest he was the main reason we were so good defensively. Included in those great defenses were Hall of Famers Alan Page and Carl Eller. Jim Marshall was there. The Vikings front four was so dominant that Krause is still the leader in all-time interceptions with 81, He had an ability to find the ball when it was desperately in the air.
Karl Kassulke was probably the other well-known safety of the early Vikings. Drafted by Detroit in 1963, Kassulke ended up a starting safety in his rookie season, and stayed there for his ten year career. While he is probably best remembered for his tragic accident that left him paralyzed before the 1973 season, those that actually watched him play would say he was known for his ferocious hits.
Other players have played safety for Minnesota since Karl and Paul in the early years. While most have been forgettable, a few have left their imprint in Viking lore.
Joey Browner. Browner was with Minnesota from 1984 to 1991. He went to six straight Pro Bowls. He finished with 37 interceptions, good for fourth all-time in Minnesota. But Joey was best-remembered for his tackles. He finished with 1,098 in all. His hands were so strong he could bring down a runner simply by getting a hold of them. In 1984, Browner's rookie season, budding superstar Billy Sims of the Lions learned exactly that. Browner's tackle-by-hands ended his career.
Orlando Thomas and Robert Griffith. Both manned the backfield in the late 1990s, including the 1998 season where Minnesota may have had its best team. They both made top ten in career interceptions, but like Browner were better-known for their bone-jarring hits. Thomas made All-Pro his rookie season after being drafted in the second round, while Griffith, who was undrafted, had back-to-back All-Pro season in 1988-89.
Harrison Smith. Drafted in the first round in 2012 from Notre Dame, Smith returned two interceptions for touchdown in his first year. Fans love him. He hawks the ball and hits harder than the many no-names we have put at safety since 2001. Most purple-loyal are convinced Smith is part of the solution to our defensive woes, and one of the few spots that the new regime might not need to fix.
If one was to rank the best teams in our history, nearly all would have at least one of these safeties in the defensive backfield. The only exception might be the 2009 Vikings, who lived off the ability of Brett Favre. Otherwise, a key ingredient to team success appears to be strength at safety.
Tonight's second preseason game versus the Arizona Cardinals will be a true test for Defensive Coordinator George Edwards, Head Coach Mike Zimmer, and the growing number of safeties coming out of Mankato. Carson Palmer led Arizona to a strong season via the pass. Wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd are talented. Most NFL talking heads will agree ever so much better than Oakland and Matt Schaub. This game could help solidify who will join Smith at safety.
Presently on the depth charts at strong safety for a 4-3 base defense is Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond, Andrew Sendejo, and Kurt Coleman. Other safeties include: Robert Blanton, rookie Antone Exum, and maybe newly acquired Chris Crocker. It would not surprise to see all of these guys have shots with the first unit, though early couch-fan money is on either Sanford or Coleman.
Sure, there is still the quarterback battle (though it appears to be Cassel all the way). There is the concerns at linebacker positions. Rookies to play or not. First big cuts are merely a week or so away. So much to focus on it is hard to know where to begin.
I say, when it doubt, focus on the safety.
Because if that position can help resurrect Minnesota's -9 margin on turnovers, then who knows where this season could end up? If two talented safeties are present, maybe the 37 touchdowns via the pass are a thing of the past?.
Certainly it gives Vikings' fans a chance to think bigger.
I remember from my Shakespeare study when the King dies the people reply, "The King is dead. Long live the King". It is to signify the predecessor as the rightful heir to the kingdom. That the people do not have to worry. A new ruler is chosen.
That is the feeling among fans in Minnesota preparing for the 2014 season. We want to put behind us the miseries of 2013.
Our last leader, Leslie Frazier, was the ruler of a kingdom that went 21-32-1. The previous king, Brad Childress, was 39-35-0 in his reign. Mike Tice 32-33-0. We have to go back to Denny Green (97-62-0), our coach from 1992-2001, to find a time when we regularly won games. It came as no surprise that Frazier was given the boot at the end of the 2013 season.
The Coach is gone. Long live the Coach.
Mike Zimmer begins his reign tonight, as we host the Oakland Raiders in the first preseason game of the year. The players have been at camp for two weeks, the pads have been on for long enough. We finally get to see if there is something different in the state of Minnesota.
What will George Edwards do to improve one of the worst defenses in purple memory? How will the rookies and free agents fit in? How can Matt Cassel fight against not only Teddy Bridgewater, but the media hype and fan following that is sure to grow like a storm in The Tempest?
Zimmer has already begun coaching. Two-A-Day practices, chalk talks, war room planning with staff. An executive decision to sit Adrian Pederson through the preseason games. The king has been busy preparing his soldiers.
Now it is time for we nobles and peasants to see what Zimmer has in store for the season. Questions will be answered. For this first game, here are a list of fan questions that could be addressed:
1. Is our defense going to be better? We were the 31st ranked defense last year (thank you Dallas). We could not stop teams on third down. Teams scored at will, mostly through the air. Will that slow down?
2. Matt Cassel or Teddy Bridgewater? Last year the majority of fans begged for Cassel, and then when they got their wish, realized this team is much worse than a switch at QB will fix. Cassel played better than Christian Ponder, but not by that much. He had less turnovers and threw a little further down field. Still, he was an improvement. Can a rookie walk in and play well? Is Bridgewater a talented Russell Wilson? Or is Cassel a better option while the rookie gets a chance to sit and watch?
3. Who will help Adrian Pederson run the ball? First depth charts have Matt Asiata listed behind AP, followed by Jerrick McKinnon, the rookie from Georgia Southern, who was an unexpected third- round pick in the May draft. Asiata has had strong moments, but fans are searching for a back that can do more than the departing Toby Gerhart. With Norv Turner in charge, the running back we want is quick and sure-handed. Can block and catch balls out of the backfield. McKinnon is already the favorite in the eyes of the fans.
4. Will we be physical? Since the Dome in 1982, most older fans seen the emphasis on the team go from a tenacious defense to a desire to outscore our opponents. We have had a few good pass rushers, but when was the last time a Vikings' defense swarmed a team like the Seahawks did every game last year? Or a Bengals team? Yes we love Randy Mosses, and Cris Carters, APs, and Bridgewaters.. But if you want we old fans to get excited.. find me a ferocious front line, or linebackers that hit hard and tackle. We want cover guys you don't mind lining up one on one with Jordy Nelson. We have to know they can tackle a wide receiver by themselves. Maybe even break up a pass or two.
5. Is our first unit better than Oakland's first unit? I know. I know. It is useless preseason, do not assess anything. But we will. Most fans remember the first team offense and defense playing poorly in the preseason and then the regular season. Oakland finished 4-12 last year. They, like us, are banking on a quick turnaround.
But the Raiders have eleven consecutive losing seasons. We were in the playoffs in 2012. Oakland has found some great talent in both the draft and free agency, adding DE Jason Tuck, drafting OLB Khalil Mack this year, and CB D.J. Hayden in 2013. They are improving. Their offense will be led by Matt Schaub, forced out of Houston by poor play, and rookie Derek Carr from Fresno State (one of the QBs many will compare Bridgewater to for his career). They have Darren McFadden and recent acquisition Maurice Jones-Drew. Former Packer James Jones is there, too, though he has not moved into a starting role as of now.
Tonight we get to set these debates into motion. A meaningless preseason game?
Not if you are a Vikings' fan.
It is sobering data.
The 2013 Vikings Defense surrendered 480 points, only four points less than their all-time worst in the fifty-three previous seasons. Last season's defensive league rankings include: 32nd in points allowed; 31st in yards allowed; 31st in plays allowed; 27th in turnovers; 30th in first downs allowed; 32nd in first downs allowed via the pass; 30th in third down conversion percentage; 30th in opponent possession time allowed. The 2013 Minnesota Vikings allowed 37 touchdowns through the air, more than two per game.
Purple-People Eaters? More like an Unlimited, No-Charge, Purple Buffet.
And there's more....
Offensively, the Vikings played Quarterback Roulette. Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel for the majority, but a surprise appearance by Josh Freeman on national television that seemed to seal the end of the Leslie Frazier era. Minnesota finished with more interceptions than passing touchdowns, a rare feat. Ponder's quarterback rating was a dismal 77.9, which was only a few points behind Cassel's at 81.6. For perspective, Freeman earned a 40.6 in his one performance. Divisional rivals fared better. Aaron Rodgers finished with 104.9, Jay Cutler 89.2, and Matthew Stafford 84.2. Which explains why only Green Bay finished with a winning record (8-7-1).
Minnesota had the ninth-ranked rushing offense, which would give fans some hope all is not lost offensively. But when one considers the Vikings have the best running back in football, it is disappointing to be ranked the 13th overall offense in the league.
So we should be content with improvement, right?
(In Fargo voice) Nah. I think w'ill win it now.
Fans across the NFC North are hopeful. Every team thinks it is their year this year. They could be right. Three games separated first from last in the NFC North standings in 2013.
None are more optimistic than in Minnesota. The changes that occurred were fan favorites. Fans pointed to Ponder for much of the 2013 woes, and the organization responded with moving up to draft Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater late in the first round. It should come as no coincidence that Teddy's touchdown to interception ratio last year was 31:4. An NFL team with a -12 turnover ratio is well aware.
That was not all for the offense. The line gets a boost from draftee David Yankey, a guard from Stanford, and un-drafted free agent Antonio "Tiny" Richardson from Tennessee. Running back Toby Gerhart's replacement appears to be third- round pick Jerrick McKinnon from Georgia Southern. He may start behind Matt Asiata on the depth chart, but his incredible feats at the NFL Combine suggest he will work his way into playing time.
The team also began to address the concerns on defense at the NFL draft. Linebacker Anthony Barr from UCLA was highly coveted for his incredible athleticism. He will almost certainly start from day one. Oregon State's Scott Chrichton will help fill a void at defensive end left by the departing of Jared Allen. Defensive backs taken late have a chance to not only make the roster, but supplant starters. Many are already singing the praises of seventh round pick Jabari Price from North Carolina.
Further, the organization made key off-season moves to address their defensive woes. Minnesota hired a new coach in Mike Zimmer, a long-time Defensive Coordinator (Dallas, Atlanta, Buffalo) with steady success in improving defenses. Zimmer becomes the tenth new coach of the Vikings, the ninth overall (Bud Grant returned in 1985). Zimmer is highly regarded throughout the NFL and often previously labeled as 'most deserving a head coaching position'. Zimmer has brought a talented coaching staff, highlighted by offensive guru Norv Turner.
Sadly, the combined record for first-year coaches in Minnesota is 43-78-3, with one playoff visit by Denny Green in 1992. Other than the 10-6 record that year, only Jerry Burns had a winning record (9-7 in 1986) in his first year. The last three new coaches (Tice, Childress, Frazier) combined first full year's record is 15-33.
Zimmer has work ahead.
Thankfully, GM Rick Spielman further addressed the defense via free agency last March, adding CB Captain Munnerlyn, DT Linval Joseph, DE Corey Wooton and others. Later, safeties Kurt Coleman and Chris Crocker came aboard.. as if defensive backs everywhere realized there might be a lot of job postings in Mankato.
And so we head into the 2014 preseason full of hope once again. This proud franchise has had only sixteen losing seasons in its fifty-three years. Leslie Frazier's 21-32-1, the .396 winning percentage, second worst in Viking history, is now a memory.
There will be plenty of preseason to debate which quarterback, which defensive backs, offensive guard or wide receivers (my money is on local boy Adam Thielen) should help superstars Adrian Pederson and Cordarrelle Patterson move the offense. The preseason starts on Friday with the Oakland Raiders. Both Bridgewater and Cassel will get first team opportunities. Let the debating begin.
One thing is certain, Viking fans are looking for an immediate return to the playoffs.
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