As a fan of all Minnesota sports I watched for years as the Timberwolves lost and lost only to miss out on franchise players in the draft. The NBA local team would win just enough to miss out on lottery success. While others relished in Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade, and the like, we found Paul Grant, Ricky Rubio, and Pooh Richardson. We were bad enough to deserve the number one pick, just never lucky in the lottery. Or the draft (except for Kevin Garnett).
Vikings' fans are not used to early draft picks. Since 1967 the Vikings have had five poor seasons (1984, 1990, 2001, 2002, 2006). The worst of those years was 3-13 with Les Steckel in 1984 that forced Bud Grant out of retirement. In 2001 the Vikings went 5-11. Those are the only two years potentially worse than this one in over forty years. In 1985 we used the lack of success to draft Chris Doleman. In 2002 we drafted Bryant McKinnie with the 7th selection.
More recently, after the 6-10 2006 season, we drafted Adrian Peterson from the 7th spot. Kevin Williams was taken with the 9th selection (you remember the non-pick?) in 2003 after a 6-10 season. Evidently, 6-10 is a good thing to be if you want quality players. Minnesota, now 6-9, stands on the cusp of a losing season. Presently there are six teams at 5-10, at it is quite probable that only one will improve to 6-10 (Arizona plays San Fran). That means the Vikings could finish anywhere from sixth to seventeenth in the draft dependent upon this week's games.
I am sure players and coaches could care less about draft position. I feel confident that they want to beat the Lions to finish the season. Detroit has been playing better of late, and the rookie defensive tackle Suh is already a Pro Bowler. This game is more about 'king of the hill' than it is about the draft. Frazier's contract talks have been sparked since the Eagles' win and a 4-2 finish would solidify his standing with management.
But we fans can look to the future. We must. Considering we face losing seasons about once every ten years, what else are we to do?
The Vikings face numerous free agents with the upcoming bargaining agreement changes, including potentially losing Chad Greenway, Ray Edwards, Ben Leber, Sidney Rice, and many more. On the flip side, the possibility of fourth and fifth year players becoming unrestricted free agents means the market is going to be large as well. The names read like a Who's Who in football. Suddenly, players like DeAngelo Williams, Haloti Ngata, Santonio Holmes, Jonathan Joseph, Eric Wright ... become unrestricted free agents.
So we face the Lions with much on the line in terms of the draft. A loss would benefit Minnesota greatly in the 2011 Draft. A win would simply keep the Lions in their place below us.
... Let's win.
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.
Fifty years of drafts. It began in 1961 with the selection of running back Tommy Mason from Tulane. That first year the Vikings also selected quarterback Fran Tarkenton of Georgia in the third round. As the new franchise struggled in the early years, their draft picks were causal to the futility. Only 1964 first round pick DE Carl Eller from Minnesota was considered significant. Then in 1967 the Vikings landed a slew of talent with the three first round selections of RB Clinton Jones, WR Gene Washington, and DT Alan Page. Then came the real change to whom the Vikings would become. In 1968 the Vikings selected OT Ron Yary from USC; and in 1969 chose OG Ed White of California with their first pick in the second round. The Vikings then had the foundation for their four Super Bowl visits.
In the first forty-nine years the Vikings have used their first first-round pick a total of three times to select an offensive lineman. Those three players were Yary, Randall McDaniel (1988), and Bryant McKinnie (2002). Considering that OL make up over 20% of all every down starters on a football team, Minnesota's percentage of 6.1% is paltry. In the year 2010, at this the 50th NFL draft for Minnesota, most are hoping for the gift of an offensive lineman. Of course, with the success of 2009, the Vikings have been relegated to the 30th selection, followed by the 62nd, 93rd, 128th, and two 5th round picks at 161st and 167th. There are more picks, but rare is a 6th or 7th rounder of value.
A look at the last ten years of drafting suggests good picks often, but also great picks lost. A quick review, with Vikings picks bold and missed picks to follow....
2009 WR Percy Harvin 22nd, OT Michael Oher 23rd, DB Vontae Davis 25th.
2008 S Tyrell Johnson 43rd, RB Matt Forte 44th,WR DeSean Jackson 49th.
2007 RB Adrian Peterson 7th, DB Darrell Revis 14th, WR Sidney Rice 44th.
2006 LB Chad Greenway 17th, DB Antonio Cromartie 19th.
2005 WR Troy Williamson 7th, DB Antrel Rolle 8th, DE DeMarcus Ware 11th, Shawne Merriman 12th, OT Jammal Brown 13th, DE Erasmus James 18th, OT Alex Barron 19th, DE Marcus Spears 20th, DB Fabian Washington 23rd, QB Aaron Rodgers 25th, WR Roddy White 27th.
2004 DE Keneche Udeze 20th, RB Steven Jackson 24th, DB Ahmad Carroll 25th.
2003 (the year of the blunder) DT Kevin Williams 9th, QB Byron Leftwich 7th, OT Jordan Gross 8th, LB Terrell Suggs 10th, DB Marcus Trufant 11th, DB Troy Polamalu 16th, RB Willis McGahee 23rd, TE Dallas Clark 24th, RB Larry Johnson 27th.
2002 OT Bryant McKinnie 7th, DB Roy Williams 8th, TE Jeremy Shockey 14th, DT Albert Haynesworth 15th.
2001 RB Michael Bennett 27th, WR Reggie Wayne 30th, QB Drew Brees 32nd, DE Kyle Vanden Bosch 34th.
2000 DT Chris Hovan 24th, LB Keith Bulluck 30th, LB Rob Morris 28th, WR Dennis Northcutt 32nd, DE John Engleberger 35th, OT Chad Clifton 44th, DT Fred Robbins 55th, DE Michael Boireau 56th, DB Deon Grant 57th.LB Marcus Washington 59th, OL Brad Meester 60th.
In my humble opinion, the 2010 Draft needs to address offensive line and defensive back. Throughout our history we have neglected these two position despite the fact that they are nine of the twenty-two regular positions.
Further, the Vikings have a track record that includes some great picks. I hope that we can include 2010 with years like 1961, 1967, 1998, 2003, 2006, 2007, and maybe 2009. Included in those years is Mason, Tarkenton, Washington, Page, Randy Moss, Matt Birk, Williams, EJ Henderson, Nate Burleson, Chad Greenway, Cedric Griffin, Ray Edwards, Adrian Peterson, Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin, and Phil Loadholt.
That would be a better present than years like: 2005 Troy Williamson, 2004 Keneche Udeze, 1995 Derrick Alexander, 1994 DeWayne Washington, 1989-1992 when we had no 1st rounders, and many more. The list of missed All-Pros and needed position players is too extensive to review in full.
The draft is only a few days away. The excitement has begun to grow. It has grown enough to bring me away from my passion for the Twins in this early Spring, and re-focused my sport love for football. 2009 was very close indeed. Dominating the Saints and Cowboys showed we are not far away form the prize. A solid draft in 2010 could be the difference.
I am full. I have eaten too much. Yet my refrigerator remains full. In Thanksgiving-idiom, I have decided to award Vikings players/fans my leftovers...
The last piece of pumpkin pie ... much sought after, the pie remains wanted until gone. In my house we make a frozen, ice cream-filled pumpkin pie with graham cracker crust. Yummy. The award goes to Brett Favre. His veteran leadership, despite much pressure, was intense. He seemed to know what personnel to have on the field better than the coaches. His accurate passing kept alive hope when there should have been none. Top it with fresh cool whip, Brett.
The hardening green bean casserole ... not a crowd favorite. Wonderful when fresh, but loses something once reheated.This prize goes to Offensive Linemen Anthony Herrera and Bryant McKinnie. They seemed to be letting players get to Favre, much like the racist players in Remember the Titans, (not to imply actual racism, more incredibly bad blocking). This is the most glaring weakness in the 11-4 Vikings.
The last of the turkey sandwiches ... once good, can easily be overeaten. After 2-3 leftover sandwiches, they lose their appeal. The last few sandwiches are tough, fatty, and greasy.This goes to the entire special teams. From the holder, to kick coverage, these guys cost us big. Early in the season they were only burned now and then. Suddenly, it is almost every kick. The poor hold and kick eventually cost us this game. Special teams have been special, as in needs assistance.
The 3 day old salad award ... goes to the defensive line. They were so good for so long, like a Caesar, or one of those fancy fruit-type salads. But then the flavor disappears. If you keep salad more than the meal intended, it becomes wilted, wet, and loses flavor. Enter the D-line. Once the pride of the team, they have done nothing in the three losses worth mentioning. Jay Cutler had all day, to coin a phrase.
The opened but unfinished bottles of wine ... goes to the fans. With star Adrian Peterson fumbling for his life, coaches unable to adjust, linebackers unable to cover, corners below average, and a knack for losing big games, the fans need something. Just find yourself a big mug, and wait for the Giants to come to town.
That cleans out my leftovers. I still love my Vikings, but like the therapeutically sound fan I am, I have begun the grieving process. If the Vikings win (as they should) on Sunday, I will return to the Denial stage, and hope for the Super Bowl that I thought we had a shot at back when I had Thanksgiving leftovers.
Here is a condensed version of Sunday Night's conversation at home with eldest son during the Debacle of 09, formerly known as Week 15, Minnesota at Carolina.
#1 Son: "What's wrong with the Vikings. They suck."
Father (me): "Nothing. They are playing good defense.'
#1 Son: "We are playing like ----. We are gonna lose."
Father: "We are ahead. This is the Panthers. That is Matt Moore, don't worry."
#1 Son: "We suck."
Father: "We are struggling because of Julius Peppers, he is having his way with Bryant McKinnie. We will adjust."
#1 Son: "We totally suck."
Father: "Yes, number one son. We do."
The game was putrid. Our rivals had witnessed a blowout at the hands of the Panthers on national television. You could see the glimmer in Minnesota Packer fans' eyes the next day at work. Except it was through a tear called '500 yards allowed versus the Steelers in a last-second loss'. Saints fans would love to ridicule us now, but they lost to Dallas at home on Saturday, and were licking their wounds.
So, my son points out the futility of it all. Playing this bad, this close to the playoffs. All the hype was for nothing. The Eagles are better. The Saints are definitely better. The Packers (even though we beat them twice) are better. We have lost two games on Sunday Night by having no running game. Adrian Peterson is not the back he was, my son says. We cannot block. Even Antoine Winfield looked human. It is over.
What can I say? No, McKinnie just had a bad game? We will find a MLB before the playoffs? Brett Favre is not stumbling in December? Adrian Peterson is fine?
I think what I would say to him, and the rest of you purple angry-fists, is this is not cause for surrender. In recent history each Super Bowl winner suffered like this for a stretch. Not to say we are suddenly going to win it all, but I can also say with confidence we are fine. And here is why...
2008 Steelers. Lost by seventeen in Week 16 at Tennessee. Lost 2 of 3 in Weeks 8-10. Both at home.
2007 Giants. Lost last four regular season home games. One by twenty-four, to our Vikings.
2006 Colts. Lost last four road games, weeks 11, 12, 13, 16. One a twenty-seven point loss to Jacksonville.
2005 Steelers. Lost three in a row weeks 11-13, including a 26-7 loss at Indianapolis. That score is familiar. Where have I heard 26-7 loss on the road before?
I know, there is a big difference. I know, things are not the same.
But maybe we should let the North Division winning, 11-3 Vikings try and solve their issues? Instead of jumping on the bandwagon of doubt, where every bad play is an omen, maybe we should show a little patience? Next week is Monday Night, versus the Bears, a game we should win. Can we at least agree to wait on panicking until we at least lose our #2 seed?
It is not the end of the world. At least for those of us that cheer more than curse. And that is OK.
And I feel fine.
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