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.
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.
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.
Most won't watch. The first preseason game is like a movie trailer. it will give you a quick glimpse of the future, but only enough to entice. Was that Adrian Peterson in there? Will Donovan McNabb throw a touchdown? Who will replace the recent departed Bryant McKinnie? We will not learn tonight.
Tonight is a chance for players to hit someone other than their teammate. A chance to look good for coaches. A first look at new offenses and defenses for many. A chance to turn it up a notch, as it were. And the starters will be on a short string. But we should get a chance to see some rookies. My underdog rookie claim is Emmanuel Arceneaux. I want him to be the next Sidney Rice.
Oh, I will be watching. I have taken all I can of "Jersey Housewives", people who hoard, and crews that look for ghosts in the dark. Tonight is about reclaiming the television. Tonight is a glimpse of sixteen Sundays. As a Vikings fan I have been accustomed to winning, and despite a 6-10 2010 season, I want to win now. Again.
I will hope to see rookies Christian Ponder, Kyle Rudolph, Christian Ballard justify their selection. I do not need much, just a play that says "Wow, he could be...". That's all.
I want to see McNabb protected. Brett Favre looked an awful lot like Archie Manning last year, which in turn made the turnovers, which led to the awful point differential, and hence a poor record. Guys like John Sullivan, Anthony Herrera, and Ryan Cook have to improve. We need to see recent picks Chris DeGeare and Phil Loadholt start to pan out. And most important, someone needs to emerge as a solid left tackle. Right now that looks like former-Colt Charlie Johnson.
I need to see a pass rush. Brian Robison steps in for departed Ray Edwards. There seems to be depth at the defensive line, and it has religiously been our bread and butter for good defense. If the line returns to elite form, the high ranking will follow, and so will the wins. Pat Williams is gone. Kevin will need a substitute. Will Ballard be good enough in his rookie year to play? How good are Fred Evans and Letroy Guion going to be?
I hope to see the team play inspired. In the words of Tupac, "Keep Your Head Up". Too much negativity last year. It is hard not to be down when the Packers and Bears are playing in the NFC Championship and the Lions win out to finish ahead of you. The talent is there. Much of it was in the 2009 NFC Championship. A rise to the top may not be as hard to accomplish as most think. I want the 2011 Vikings to play with more heart than in 2010.
No, I am ready for the 2011 season to begin. The final countdown begins....
Right after "Marley and Me".
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