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.
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.
Green Bay was 5-2, atop the NFL North, and facing the rival Chicago Bears at home when they lost Aaron Rodgers to injury. Since then, the Pack has not won, cannot score, and find themselves out of the playoff picture for the first time in a while. The last two games, one at home, Green Bay has been outscored 54-26. 81-46 in the last three, two being at home.
Good quarterbacks make a difference.
Minnesota has not had a Rodgers-like quarterback since 2009, when Brett Favre came to Minnesota via New York. Prior to that, one could argue the last great quarterback was Fran Tarkenton. Sure, Randall Cunningham and Jeff George had big years. Daunte Culpepper too. But each of these recent quarterbacks could only produce one good year, including Favre.
The truth be told, other than Tarkenton, Minnesota has never had a great franchise thrower. And Minnesota has never won a Super Bowl.
Tark made it to three, however. The 1970s Vikings were a force that ruled the NFC for many years. A great defensive line, smart head coach, and an offense that relied on strong blockers, a talented running back, and a creative quarterback.
But times have changed.
As much as Minnesotans rue their quarterback situation, they might rejoice similarly in what has happened to the Packers. Now they know how we have felt for the last few years. Looking for positive qualities in Seneca Wallace or Scott Tolzein is a Sisyphus-like exercise. Tolzein has thrown for 619 yards in less than two games... but he has five interceptions and a QB rating in the 60s.
Today's game will feature two proud franchises without a great quarterback. The Packers have been accustomed to having one for nearly the last twenty years. Minnesota, on the other hand, has had a handful of great QB seasons in that same time frame. Only with a different quarterback each time.
This game today comes down to which team can reduce the shortcomings of their starting QB. The 5-5 Packers have surrendered 81 less points than the Vikings' defense, which is rated among the worst in the league. But it is no coincidence that Green Bay has averaged giving up 27 points a game since losing Rodgers. They were never very good, but were exposed far less when Rodgers could control the ball at will.
This is a game Minnesota can win. If Christian Ponder plays decent, the Vikings have a chance. Certainly Ponder had looked better until he completely fell apart in the latter portions of the last game in Seattle. In those moments he looked horrid. We few Ponder-hopefuls (that are left) winced with each pass. Even we now confess a new quarterback is needed.
The trouble is finding one. And keeping him healthy.
The 2012 surprise Vikings' playoff visit ended with a thud. We watched as Joe Webb showed us that Christian Ponder might not be so bad. Webb completed only 11 of 30 passes, and his lone TD pass came when the game was already 24-3 Packers. Just a week earlier Ponder had thrown for three touchdowns as Minnesota scored 37 points in a victory over their hated rival. The loss was not shocking, but it was definitely a case of "what could have been". Without Ponder, MVP Adrian Peterson was given extreme attention by the Green Bay defense. Minnesota became one-dimensional on offense. On defense, Aaron Rodgers picked apart a rag-tag secondary to the tune of 274 yards.
Minnesota, which had snuck in the playoffs with a season-ending four game win streak, was finished.
The off-season started poorly. CB Antoine Winfield, rightly unhappy about a lack of an offer, left Minnesota for Seattle. Then, WR Percy Harvin, coming off of a solid season, decided he did not like playing for the Purple. He was whisked away to Seattle for a group of draft picks, including a first-rounder in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Minnesota entered the draft with serious holes to fill at CB, QB, WR, and MLB (with the departure of E.J. Henderson). On top of that, there was growing concern that DT Kevin Williams was beginning the end of his great career, and there was no "blue-chip" replacement for his key position in the 4-3 defense. Further, many felt the Vikings should use one of the two first-round draft choices to solidify the quarterback position, as Webb had demonstrated the talent pool was only one player deep.
Enter Rick Spielman.
In the course of a few months, highlighted by the NFL Draft, Spielman seemingly fixed everything. You lose aging but solid Winfield? No problem, we draft Xavier Rhodes. Missing Percy Harvin? How about the SEC all-purpose yardage leader Cordarelle Patterson. Kevin Williams' age is concerning? No worries, let's add Sharrif Floyd. Spielman added a third first-round pick in the draft and took care of three major needs.
But there were still critics.
Some complained that we did not fix the quarterback issue. What if Ponder crumbles? We had a chance to upgrade the most important position and we passed... Also, who was going to play middle linebacker? Minnesota decided not to draft a few solid inside linebackers in the early stages of the draft and now were praying that Brian Urlacher wanted to jump ship and be healthy at the same time. Why not use key picks for these two vital positions?
Further, even before Harvin left for Seattle there was concern about wide receiver. None of the other receivers did much of anything, and the collection of rookies and journeymen produced little. And now without Harvin, Minnesota might be resigned to running the ball and looking for TE Kyle Rudolph too much.
Do not fear, Spielman is here.
Spielman maneuvered through free agency the signing of two former Packers. Greg Jennings was signed to fill the gaping hole at receiver. Desmond Bishop was later added to shore up the linebacker position. Both have question marks surrounding them about age and/or injury, but the talents are hard to ignore. Jennings finished the 2012 season with near 300 yards and four touchdowns in his final four games to silence concerns that his impressive career was waning. Bishop, who missed the 2012 season with serious injury, had admirably replaced Nick Barnett at MLB, and was instrumental in the Green Bay Super Bowl victory over the Steelers in 2011.
And now they were both Vikings. There is a certain feeling of satisfaction when Green Bay players come to Minnesota. Ryan Longwell, Brett Favre, Darren Sharper... the list was already healthy before the 2013 off-season. Now, it feels like some type of action plan. Hone your skills in Wisconsin, and enjoy them in Minnesota.
And for icing on the cake, Spielman snagged veteran quarterback Matt Cassel from Kansas City. Cassel has had some success in the NFL, He had ten win seasons in both New England and Kansas City. He was named to the Pro Bowl in 2010. This appeased the Ponder critics somewhat. For we Ponder faithful, it gave us assurance that Joe Webb would not be backing up Ponder in 2013.
And so the 2013 Training Camp open in Mankato. This will be the 48th year Minnesota has trained at Minnesota State. There is much to follow this summer. Who will win the starting middle linebacker job? Is Patterson capable of making us forget Harvin's exciting kick returns? Will Ponder improve? Which defensive backs will step up to fight Green Bay (and others) three and four receiver sets? How good is this Floyd kid?
And many more...
But one thing I am not questioning. Do we have the right guy behind the desk?
As I read the articles on Percy Harvin's placement on the PUP list and Packer coach McCarthy's retorts to Greg Jennings' observations regarding his former team, I can answer a whole-hearted YES.
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