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.
A humbling loss Sunday, in a humiliating season, did little to help Minnesota's 2014 NFL Draft selection.
No, the chances are Minnesota will draft 8th no matter if they win or lose next Sunday vs. the sinking Detroit Lions. Given that the 49ers will win tonight hosting the Atlanta Falcons, there will be five teams 1/2 game "ahead" in the standings. Minnesota at 4-10-1 won one too many. Atlanta, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Oakland, and Cleveland are all 4-11 and are facing playoff contending teams. Each of these teams cunningly lost in Week 16. There are a few teams at 6-9, but thankfully the Vikings are safe from them.
Houston and Washington are going to finish ahead as well.
So barring an NFL miracle, Minnesota's position will not be changed whether they win or lose.
After Sunday's 42-14 loss to the Bengals, fans simply do not have enough fingers to point at the problems. From the owner, to the management, to coaching, and players, there is blame to be had. Hopefully, 2014 can see a rebound from the abyss that is the 2013 season.
The 2012 playoff visit a mere memory. And maybe one of the most fortunate records in Minnesota sports history, because apparently this team lacks a lot of talent we thought was there.
Everyone is aware of the quarterback issue. Hopefully, Week Sixteen enlightened enough to realize that we need a new quarterback. That does not mean we have to take Johnny Manziel with the eight pick. It does mean we should be looking over time for a franchise quarterback.
We need to look at the possibility of trading Adrian Peterson. He is incredible. Our Kevin Garnett of football. But like KG it may be time to set him free. He has paid his dues. We still love him. Many of us simply want him to experience a Super Bowl, and that may not occur here for the rest of his career. Others of us want to sell a commodity that keeps us from getting good draft picks.
The offensive line is struggling. From my couch view I saw Phil Loadholt and Matt Kalil fail more than they succeeded. Christian Ponder's demise was in part due to the lack of protection from these two. Kalil, a Pro Bowler his rookie season, looked slower. Loadholt even slower. The guards were worse Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco seemed to disappear often. Johnson, an older veteran, has to be nearing the end.
Offensive line must be addressed.
Running backs are a strength, but backup Toby Gerhart should take the Free Agent train to anywhere. Minnesota may need to replace him with an heir apparent to AP. Wide receivers are probably a need, but the poor protection and passing this season left a few receivers without chances to showcase. Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson will be back. The rest a mystery.
Defensively, Minnesota will need to replace Jared Allen. And while he is a beloved Viking, his gotta-sack mentality seemed to negatively impact the run defense. And Kevin Williams is getting older, soon to be retired. There seems to be some depth with Everson Griffen, Letroy Guoin and others. Still, Minnesota could use Sharrif Floyd to step up next year. He contributed little in 2013.
The linebackers are a definite sore spot. Minnesota drafted two Penn Staters last year in the latter part of the Draft, both ended up contributing only on special teams. Chad Greenway could not keep up with the faster running backs, and seemed to be less definitive about tackling in 2013. The rest of the LBs are worse. Fans like Audie Cole, but realistically, Minnesota could pick up three free agents who would not do much worse.
As bad as the linebackers appear, the defensive secondary might have been worse. High draft selections Chris Cook and Josh Robinson are not getting it done. Robinson has become a word synonymous with Swiss cheese. Cook is often hurt, a PR cancer, and not dependable on the field despite talent. Only S Harrison Smith and CB Xavier Rhodes appear talented enough to start for any other NFL team.
We must find more DBs.
As for coaching, nice guy Leslie Frazier appears to have the confidence of the team and the owner. But not many fans. Like Ron Gardenhire, this coach appears to have a free pass on success or not. If Minnesota is as bad as many now fear, maybe Frazier should have been coach of the year in 2012.
Rick Spielman, coming off of serious accolades for his shrewdness in handling Percy Harvin and the 2013 Draft, appears vulnerable. Christian Ponder's lack of success his albatross. Letting Antoine WInfield escape, Josh Robinson stay, and assembling the worst defense in Vikings' history.. telltale. Probably not enough to lose his job. But maybe lose some fans.
And the owner.
Ziggy WIlf won a new stadium. They won community support, not to mention a lot of future dollars. He puts out a product that is poor for the third time in the last four years. Despite bad press, law suits, and a sluggish economy, Wilf got everything he wanted.
We call that entrepreneurship.
So with nothing to play for, a dismal near future ahead, and a new stadium only a couple of years away, this game vs. Detroit is one for the players. We will see if our beloved Vikings want to beat up the Lions in Week 17. They will be deflated. Their fans more angry than even us.
Should be a good one.
It's easy to hate the Eagles. Their fans most-famous for throwing snowballs at Santa Claus. The team that houses PETA most-despised Michael Vick. They play in the media-bloated NFC East. Philadelphia knocked Minnesota out of the playoffs in 2004 and 2008, the latter a home loss.
And then came the movie Silver Linings Playbook.
It was a tremendous sports movie that in part focused on the die-hard fan. Suddenly I had a new-found respect for Philly fans. They care about their team and take their wins and losses to heart. As a die-hard Vikings fan I identified with superstitions, unwavering support, and anger toward others with less investment.
The Vikings are a community family.
At 3-9-1, one has to have unconditional love in order to support the 2013 Vikings. The defense is still on path to give up the most points per game in our fifty plus year history. The quarterback carousel has included many dismal performances by Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman and Matt Cassel. Coach Leslie Frazier keeps telling us that the team is getting better. And the 2-3-1 record in the last six games supports that compared to the overall record.
And now Adrian Peterson is injured.
Most fans are focused on our present draft position. It is fourth. However, there are five teams a mere half-game behind, at 4-9. Tampa Bay and Oakland, two of the five, have schedules that suggest they will not win again in 2013. Of the teams presently ahead of Minnesota in draft position, two (Atlanta,Washington) play each other this week. So a win by Minnesota could move the 2014 pick from a third overall selection to at least sixth or worse.
Cheer for a loss?
The reason the movie Silver Linings Playbook resonated with so many is that it rightly showed how loyalty is prized. In our anxiety-based, stressed-filled, crazy lives that we endure football has become an emotional outlet for millions. It is why we tolerate owners and players making millions while we work year round in jobs that pay much less. We fork over hundreds of dollars to attend games where you get a hot dog and beer for the cost of a family meal.
They are us.
I have no doubt the players and coaches want to win. It appears Minnesota has played hard despite all the losses.
We care too. We cheer for Audie Cole to have a chance to prove himself. We are excited with every touch by Cordarrelle Patterson. We want Adrian Peterson to run to a NFL rushing title, overcome another injury, and prove he is the best running back in football.
And so many of us want our team to win on Sunday.
It will be difficult.
The league's leading rusher is an Eagle: LeSean McCoy. He has 1,744 combined yards in thirteen games. Nick Foles, drafted 88th in 2011, has 20 TD passes to one interception. His passer rating is 120.0. Comparatively, Christian Ponder has a 77.9 rating and Matt Cassel has a 84.9. The Philly offense is ninth in scoring, third in total yards, and first overall in rushing. They have won five straight by outscoring opponents 158 to 90.
They are on fire.
But we die-hard fans look for victory. We know CB Xavier Rhodes is doubtful, CB Chris Cook questionable, and the Eagles run a spread offense featuring DeSean Jackson, who has 65 catches for over 1,000 yards. Despite the prime position present in the 2014 Draft, we loyalists want a win. We rationalize that management probably would misfire on a franchise quarterback anyway (the track record on hurlers being what it is). Top underclassmen quarterbacks are opting to stay in school. We have already lost the Teddy Bridgewater sweepstakes.
We are looking to win.
As crazy as that appears.
Listening to a local call-in show after the game, it turns out a lot of fans are realizing 2013 is not going to be the year. Instead of having their anger pointed at one person (Christian Ponder), or maybe a couple (add Leslie Frazier and/or Rick Spielman); the fans were finding fault everywhere.
It was easy to do.
Matt Cassel's first interception was a terrible overthrow that killed a drive and set the tone for the offense. And after Jamarca Sanford dropped an interception that would have killed a drive, Cam Newton and the Panthers waltzed up and down the field. From that point Carolina controlled the game.
Every time Carolina got into Minnesota's "red zone", they scored a touchdown. But an even bigger problem was that the Panthers held the ball for near 37 minutes. They scored on seemingly every drive, save for a kneel down, when the game mattered. And they never turned the ball over. Cassel was intercepted twice.
Defensively, our Vikings are playing as bad as any in recent memory. It is almost unfair to point out the worst offenders, because no one is playing well. Josh Robinson, who had a miserable rating covering receivers his rookie year, is no better. Marvin Mitchell is out of plays. On one touchdown drive by the Panthers, two first-round rookies (Floyd,Rhodes) had penalties that kept the drive alive on third down stops. Newton had far too much free time in the pocket.
Offensively, Cassel was only sharp on short passes (where have I heard that before?). He was not given enough time because the offensive line took the day off. Again. Adrian Peterson had a 31 yard run, and otherwise thirty yards the rest of the game. And when the Vikings trail by two TDs or more, they insist on throwing the ball despite not being very good at it.
And when the team went bad, the fans got quiet. Who could blame them? I think maybe the crowd walked in as cocky as the players, assuming this would be an easy win.
The problem I have is we tried to fix the 2013 season by signing a struggling quarterback for millions of dollars at the beginning of the week. This may or may not have sent the message to Cassel he was not the answer. Now we have millions pumped into a third flailing quarterback for a team with defensive issues. Not sure the logic there?
The coaches have to be looking for pink slips these days. Maybe the general manager, too. Certainly the fans want someone's head to roll. Last year's playoff visit seems suddenly so distant. A tough schedule ahead, a division where everyone won this week, and all three teams have winning records in the North. A season's franchise with a few close losses just got humiliated at home.
It might be time to take a realistic assessment.
And let some people go.
With the trading of Percy Harvin for multiple draft picks in the next two years, the Vikings had added fan attention/concern to the upcoming NFL Draft. It was painfully obvious Minnesota lacked wide receiver talent in 2012, Letting go the only receiver to perform well last year seemed insane. But when players express a desire to be traded, the reality is they are probably not worth much to you. Getting a first round pick (among others) was better than could have been hoped.
And now with the signing of Greg Jennings, another in a slew of former-Packers players who seem to want to play for their rival, it seems Minnesota has already addressed the loss of Harvin in part. And with the 23rd and 25th pick in the upcoming draft, are poised to further amend the neediest of positions on the present roster. For after Jennings, the next most-highly regarded receiver is probably Jarius Wright. Or perhaps Jerome Simpson. You see the problem?
We need receivers now.
That is not the only need unfortunately. With Jasper Brinkley leaving for Arizona, there is an immediate hole at the vital position of middle linebacker. There has been talk of stealing Brian Urlacher away from another rival, the Chicago Bears. WLB Erin Henderson, entering his 6th year, is also a concern to some fans. Only Chad Greenway is above reproach at SLB, and he in his 8th season and thirty years old.
We might need a linebacker or two.
Antoine Winfield, easily the most consistent performing cornerback, was let go to free salary cap room. At thirty-five years old, Winfield is in the twilight of his career. Yet he would have been a starter for certain, Chris Cook and Josh Robinson give fans hope for a good future. A.J. Jefferson and Marcus Sherels remind us of how badly we need the aforementioned corners to stay healthy. Brandon Burton should be in the equation in 2013, and Sherels is a decent return guy, but even a blind man can see the need for help here.
Cornerback is in Spielman's front brain.
Adrian Peterson is entering his 7th season, and coming off of one of the greatest seasons in football history (and that is not hyperbole). He is in the prime of his career. The front line did an admirable job helping him find holes. They did less of a job protecting a skittish Christian Ponder. The loss of OG Geoffrey Schwarz creates a further need to improve at the guard position.
It is important to note that the Super Bowl champion Ravens had two former Vikings (Birk,McKinnie) on their front line. While Matt Kalil is proving an upgrade, and John Sullivan more than solid at center, there is a need to improve the depth and talent of guard. The right guard position presently belongs to Brandon Fusco. Charlie Johnson was recently signed to man the other guard. He is entering his 8th season, and was not resembling former All-Pro (happy retirement!) Steve Hutchinson in 2012.
Guard is a need in 2013.
On the other side of the ball, the Vikings have serious talent. DT Kevin Williams has given us ten good years at defensive tackle. DE Jared Allen enters his 10th year as a pro, and all have been exceptional since coming from the Chiefs. Add improving DE Brian Robison and you have one of the better front fours in football. But also maybe one of the oldest. All three will be thirty years old (or older) at the start of the season. Only NT LeTroy Guion at 26 is considered young in this group.
Luckily, Minnesota possesses others at defensive line who are ready to contribute. Everson Griffen showed signs of life in 2012, and in only his 4th season, is probably ready to replace someone at end. DT Christian Ballard is entering his 3rd season, and appears capable. So to is NT Fred Evans, though he is entering his 8th season. D'Aundre Reed should be back at defensive end, but has yet to get a chance to prove himself.
Defensive line is needing youth.
And so over the next forty days I will be offering reviews of prospects for this year's NFL Draft. Minnesota has eleven selections in the draft. They have five in the top one hundred. Now is the time for the return to atop the North division. The Packers, still the team to beat, are an Aaron Rodgers injury away from mediocrity. Their defense is suspect. And now they are without Jennings on offense. The Bears and Lions are good, but so are we. We might even be better?
Thirty-Nine days and counting...
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