So close. So much anguish. The loss to the Saints in the NFC Championship ranks with the harshest losses in Minnesota history. There was the "Hail Mary' loss to the Cowboys in 1975 at the Met. Then there was the 1998-99 Championship OT loss to the Falcons at home in the Dome, after the 15-1 season, due to a missed kick. The Super Bowl losses. They all hurt.
Worse yet, the New Orleans Saints went on to win the Super Bowl, validating just how good the 2009 Vikings really were. The 34-3 handling of the Cowboys in the previous playoff game was one of the most lopsided games in Minnesota playoff history. The way the Vikings dismantled the cocky Cowboys was breathtaking. While the Green Bay Packers were allowing over fifty points in their loss the week before, the Vikings surrendered three in an easy win.
So the question(s) is asked for this season: Will the Vikings be able to repeat their 12-4 season? Will this be the year that Minnesota finally wins a Super Bowl? In order to answer those questions we first have to ask ourselves ... do we feel lucky? Or at least be able to answer these questions....
1. Does Brett Favre return or will Tarvaris Jackson take leadership?
The most thought of question. If Favre does return things look very good. His 107.2 passer rating in 2009 was proof that he is far from over the hill. His ankle injury at the hands of a very violent Saints defense is the deciding factor according to reports. But Favre is a question mark until he actually puts on the uniform. Once he does, the answers will come. This offense will explode with Favre back at the helm.
If things are left to T-Jack, all is not lost. He actually had a higher passer rating than Favre, at 113.4. However, it was based on only 21 pass attempts. We Viking faithful are hopeful that Jackson learned from the best last year, and has grown into the skills and mind set needed to succeed in the NFL. If Jackson performs like he did vs. the Cardinals in 2008, then no problem. If he is the QB who faced the Eagles in the playoffs, then the answer will be no.
2. Can Adrian Peterson regain his 'old form' and fumble less?
Peterson averaged 5.6 yards per carry in 2007. He averaged 4.8 ypc in 2008. And last year, he fell to 4.4 per carry. In those three years he has carried the ball 915 times. That is a lot. Each year he has regressed in average. Is this a slowing down of a running back, or the reality that defenses have focused more and more on this prolific back? Is it the offensive line that has slowed down? I cannot say which is the truest answer, but he is still the most impressive back in football, no apology to Chris Johnson needed.
As for the fumbles, things have been bad for two seasons. In his rookie season, AD (Peterson's acronym - for All Day) had 4 fumbles in 257 touches, or about every 64 times he touched the ball. In 2008, AD had 9 fumbles in 384 touches, or a fumble every 43 tries. Last year, AD had 7 fumbles in the 357 times he saw the ball, or one fumble every 51 attempts. An optimist would say "Hey, he is getting better!". But the reality is he is a very violent-type runner. The previous best back in Viking history, Chuck Foreman, also struggled with fumbles. The answer to this question lies within AD.
3. Will E.J.Henderson return to form or Jasper Brinkley step up?
When Henderson went down in the 12th game last year, Vikings faithful cringed. Not only because of the horrific fracture of the femur that E.J. suffered, but also because his replacement was Jasper Brinkley, a relative unknown. Henderson was averaging about seven tackles a game, on pace to lead the team and be considered for All-Pro honors. What would become of the defense?
Jasper Brinkley had 23 tackles in his four starts and change, and was probably more of a liability than an asset. But he was maybe better than expected. Now reports are that he had a terrific off-season, and is having an even better camp in Mankato. If Henderson returns to form all is well. But if not, many feel Brinkley is ready to come forward.
4. What will become of the Vikings secondary?
Cedric Griffin's ACL tear during the NFC Championship was as big a factor in the loss as any of the turnovers. Griffin had developed into the best defensive back, given Antoine Winfield's injury and slow recovery. Now Griffin appears to be unable to play until at least October. What will we do?
Luckily, the Vikings did address this issue in both off-season moves and the draft. 34th overall pick, Chris Cook of Virginia, is a 6'2, 212 lb, specimen that will help the future at cornerback. This is good considering Winfield is in his 12th year. Add to that the signing of Lito Sheppard, an Eagles runaway, who joins former coach Brad Childress. Benny Sapp and Asher Allen also return. At safety, Tyrell Johnson and Madieu Williams come back with another year of experience. Minnesota finished 19th in yards allowed versus the pass. 23rd in tds allowed. This area must be improved.
5. Is the offensive line getting better or worse?
In the loss to the Saints, it was apparent that the O-line could not handle the rush of the Saints. Although Bryant McKinnie was awarded All-Pro honors, most knowledgeable fans did not see it that way. There were frequent mistakes by McKinnie, Sullivan, Herrera, and Loadholt. Even Steve Hutchinson struggled once in a while. In that NFC Championship the line was overmatched. On top of all that, the Vikings lost their most experienced back-up, Artis Hicks, to free agency.
Minnesota did draft an offensive lineman (too late for my taste) in Chris DeGeare, a 6'4, 325 lb., from Wake Forest with the 161st pick. The starting five returns as well. In Mankato, reports are that 2nd year OT Patrick Brown from Central Florida, and 3rd year player Chris Clark from Southern Mississippi are looking good. But neither would address the biggest concern: Herrera. This line did lead the offense to an overall 5th ranking in yardage and 2nd in scoring, albeit most due to the uncanny play of Favre and the running of Peterson. To go farther in the playoffs this unit will have to get better.
The 2010 season awaits. The questions are there. We await answers. The first game, a Thursday Night affair to kickoff the season begins in New Orleans, the source of many of these unanswered thoughts.
I confess to have studied football far too much in my childhood. I was the only kid on the block that could tell you the five starting linemen of the 1970s Super Bowl teams of Minnesota: Grady Alderman; Ed White; Mick Tingelhoff; Milt Sunde; Ron Yary; and later Steve Riley.
I understood early the value of the offensive line. When my Vikings were great, we had many linemen that were of the All-Pro variety. Over the years that changed. We drafted White and Yary early in the 1968 and 1969 drafts. The results were three Super Bowls. After drafting Riley out of USC in 1974, the Vikings went 20 years without drafting a quality lineman early. Finally, in 1994 they drafted Todd Steussie of California. Then in 1995, they drafted Korey Stringer from Ohio State. It was in 1998 that the Vikings went 15-1, and should have begun a Super Bowl run like the 1970s.
In 2002 the Vikings selected Bryant McKinnie with the 7th selection overall. He would be the left tackle that would return Minnesota to prominence in the passing offense once again. He came in highly touted, as a Miami Hurricane All-American who did not give up sacks. Period. In my opinion, he played great early in his career, but the last few years he has shown some weaknesses. If you look at film of Favre getting crunched this year, more than half the time it is because McKinnie got beat. Bull rush, around the corner, twisting, looping, it has not mattered. McKinnie was looking easy to beat in most of 2008.
In the 2009 NFL Draft the Vikings knew that their line was in trouble. Matt Birk was gone to Baltimore, and the right side had been severely exposed throughout the season, nowhere more than in the playoff loss to the Eagles. Combine that with the failures of McKinnie, and something had to be done. On the board when the Vikings were to select their player with the 22nd pick was offensive tackle Michael Oher. A big, powerful, good-story tackle from Mississippi. But the Vikes chose Percy Harvin, the wide receiver from Florida. In the next round with the 54th selection, Minnesota addressed tackle issues with the choice of Phil Loadholt, from Oklahoma. Oher would be claimed by the Ravens right after Harvin was chosen, having traded with the Patriots to move up.
This year the Vikings' Percy Harvin has been worth it. He has electrified an offense by presenting as a player with a variety of skills, be it return, running, or receiving. Meanwhile, McKinnie looks a little better, helped by the quick decision-making of Brett Favre. It was the right decision to draft Harvin.
My family and I just went to see "Blind Side", the film using a Michael Lewis story about Michael Oher. The opening scene is highlighting the importance of left tackle in the NFL. It is a must see for anyone who is a football fan, or likes a feel-good story. Michael Oher was available to us with that 22nd pick in the draft. We needed him very badly. Instead, we went skill position and chose Loadholt later. After returning from this move, I question if we made the right move. My history tells me when we pick offensive linemen early, we see good results. This time, we found an incredible athlete in Harvin, but missed maybe a more incredible story of an offensive tackle. And McKinnie? Right Guard? Well... we are waiting.
Two thumbs up?
Rookie Percy Harvin returned kicks, he ran the ball, and he caught it. In the middle of the third quarter of his first NFL game, he scored on a six yard td pass from Brett Favre. He totaled nearly 160 yards touching the ball eight times. Coaches, players, and fans alike are touting the new sensation to the Minnesota offense.
However, I cannot help but reminisce of a player drafted thirty-six years ago. Chuck Foreman, like Percy Harvin, from the state of Florida, was drafted with the 12th pick of the 1973 NFL Draft. Foreman instantly brought an electricity to an offense that was in need of jumping.
The Vikings had a regular season record of 35-7 from 1969 to 1971. While they made it to Super Bowl IV, the next two years were quick, surprise exits in the playoffs. General Manager Jim Finks traded for Fran Tarkenton to change all that, but the 1972 season ended worse than the years led by Joe Kapp, Gary Cuozzo, Norm Snead, and punter Bob Lee. The 7-7 record was frustrating for fans who suddenly expected more from their fledgling franchise. Tarkenton had brought us excitement, but not winning football. That would all change after the draft...
Chuck Foreman began his career in 1973 against the Raiders, and he too scored in his first game. He totaled nearly 80 yards both running and catching the ball. It made sense. At the University of Miami, Foreman played running back, wide receiver, and even defensive back. He was the most versatile player the Vikings had ever seen, and Minnesota quickly parlayed those skills into three Super Bowl visits in four years, with only the robbery known as the 'Hail Mary ' play by the Cowboys interrupting their success.
Foreman had over 1,100 total yards his rookie year, in what would be 3/4 of a season today. He was named Rookie of the Year. Fans who were lucky enough to watch him will remember the chills created when he touched the ball. One-on-one would be tacklers had little chance. His moves were leagues more instinctive than the previous leading rushers: Clinton Jones, Bill Brown, or Dave Osborne. Even fancy newcomer Ed Marinaro could not hold a candle to Foreman.
Now Harvin enters, and brings highlight footage a new star. Sure Adrian Peterson is more important, and maybe the most impressive running back in Vikings history, but it is the versatility of players like Harvin, or Foreman, that give defenses cause for alarm. Those three Super Bowl visits in the 1970s were probably best attributed offensively to the addition of Foreman. I am hopeful that 2009 brings the same success because Harvin certainly brings similar versatility to our offense. And the chills.
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