We remember. It was a season coming off of one of the harshest losses the Minnesota Vikings had ever suffered in an NFC Championship. Beaten on the road after a decisive win at home in the previous round. Fans who disliked the coach for his lack of playoff success grew. But their was hope by many as the team had a new quarterback who had played very well in getting the team to the NFC Championship.
And then, tragedy struck.
A player would not be available to start the season. It would be a blow to the offense, who had counted on this player for its' success. They would start poorly without him, losing their first two games. Then they would win one they should at home to be 1-2 in the standings. A tough schedule lay ahead.
The 2010 Minnesota Vikings you say?
Or maybe the 2001-02 Vikings. Back then it was Daunte Culpepper, fresh off his successful first year with the team. The much maligned Denny Green had disappointed in the playoffs again. The New York Giants disposed of Minnesota 41-0 at the end. During the following training camp, Korey Stringer died tragically, and the team was scrambling to replace such an important member of the offense.
They started the season by losing 24-13 to Carolina. The Panthers would win only one game the entire year. Next, Minnesota lost 17-10 to Chicago. After a 31-26 win over Tampa Bay, they stood at 1-2. The city was nervous. Things were not clicking like they had in the previous year. And they were right to be nervous. Minnesota would make it to 3-3, and then proceed to lose nine of the last eleven games, to finish at 5-11.
Dennis Green was let go before the end of the year. He had not done enough with the talent he was given. That final year, Minnesota had an exceptionally poor Draft, with Michael Bennnett being the top selection with the 27th pick. Mike Tice replaced Green in the final game, and would go on to a mediocre few years before being let go. Both Green Bay and Chicago had success in those years while Minnesota floundered.
The loss of Sidney Rice just before the season has had an obvious impact on Minnesota. The Vikings are 29th in total offense. Brett Favre, who tore the league up in 2009, has a 60.4 passer rating (that's really low). He has only 597 yards and two touchdowns in his first three games. Despite the number two rusher in the NFL, the offense is just not getting it done.
Brad Childress is a coach walking the plank, so to speak. He has had improved success in regular season each year, but little in the playoffs. Minnesota fans are not happy with just getting there. Childress has been given plenty of talent to obtain that elusive first Super Bowl. Positive drafts have yielded players like Adrian Peterson, Rice, Percy Harvin and much more. Acquisitions, like Favre and Steve Hutchinson, have given the team elite offensive talent. Their are many veterans on the defense who are candidates for All-Pro consideration this year. It is now or never for the coach.
Some are hoping that Childress' trend of improvement every year will also apply to the playoffs. Most fans would concede that the Vikings certainly had the team necessary to win one. The humbling of the Cowboys and the strong effort in New Orleans demonstrated just that. But this year's slow start, or more specifically, the loss to the Dolphins at home, has fans on edge. The Childress haters are convinced we have no chance. The realists see a very tough schedule in the upcoming weeks and more talent on both the Bears and Packers than a true Viking fan could stand. And the optimist correctly assessing available talent, is sure that this is still the strongest team in the NFC North. They remember that this team was a play (or huddle) away from winning the NFC Championship. And they have faith that Brett Favre will begin to return to last year's form.
We did experience 2001. It was not fun. This season's start has been somewhat depressing, given the talent and expectation coming into the opener in New Orleans. If it is to be deja vous all over again, it will probably come at the expense of a head coach. Many would like that. Sacrifice a season to get a new head coach. But what if the next one is Mike Tice? I think we should just start winning again with the same coach.
We will find out soon after the bye week is over.
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.
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