Thanksgiving is the football holiday. This Thanksgiving there will be thirty-some at my house. And it will be good. I have been committed to watching the NFL on Thanksgiving since I was quite young. One of the reasons we took over the holiday within our extended family was so that we could enjoy the games without guilt.
And we have. Pass the pie.
This year is another where my Viking hopes have been dashed like a tournament team in the first round. I am of the 70s era, where Minnesota controlled the NFC, let alone the division. I witnessed five years of NEVER losing to the Packers. NFC championships were a common place; division championships expected.
But the 2010s decade has not been good. Year Two with Brett Favre a disaster. This year's transition from Donovan McNabb to Christian Ponder costly. At 2-8 there is little hope... unless you live and breathe Vikings. If that is the case, even year's like this one are dramatic. And there is much to be thankful for this year...
Like the decision to get rid of Bryant McKinnie. It was a bold statement to the team and the league. Leslie Frazier was here to set things right, and coming to camp out of shape worthy of expulsion. Sadly, I see McKinnie nearly every week playing decent tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. Right next to Matt Birk.
Or the jettisoning of Tarvaris Jackson and Sidney Rice to stupid Seattle. How could any team possibly think these two would be worth multi-million long term deals? Big money was saved. Yes, the 4-6 Seahawks look downright ridiculous compared to our 2-8 squad.
Thankful we took the time this off-season to bring in Donovan McNabb. The two year deal looks to be a stipend for mentoring a rookie. Master McNabb demonstrated early that on any given Sunday a team can beat another... for a half.
Or the battle between Owner Wilf, the politicians, and others as to whether the Vikings will play in Minneapolis, Arden Hills, or another state. But with the tailgating locations provided by the Metrodome, they could play in Los Angeles and there might still be $40 car spots taken as if nothing ever changed. In the 70s we partied right outside Met Stadium before the game. In the Metrodome we pour in through traffic similar to Occupy Minnesota.
Oh, I am thankful.
But there really are things to be thankful for at 2-8. Like the fact that only one team (the 0-10 Indianapolis Colts) has a worse record. That puts us in a three way tie for the second draft selection with the Carolina Panthers and the St. Louis Rams. And with only four teams at 3-7 it is a safe bet that we will have a high draft selection like the Adrian Peterson year. The 2012 NFL Draft should be a chance to remedy a two year ailment that won't go away anytime soon.
You see, once the playoffs are dead, hoping for a good draft pick becomes a way to compensate for a lost season. I still am overjoyed with a win, but I also concede that there is a benefit to playing a rookie or inexperienced quarterback beyond experience. Ask the Jacksonville Jaguars (3-7), the Miami Dolphins (3-7), the Washington Redskins (3-7), Rams, or the Panthers. Or the winless Colts. Raw QBs make mistakes. Eh, Christian?
And as a Minnesota fan I can quickly reference the Minnesota Timberwolves of the NBA. No team in Minnesota history has done more to familiarize me with the draft process. No other sport have I spent so much time researching top draft picks. And years and years of failures chasing that number one pick have been more entertaining than the few years with Kevin What's-his-Name.
Well... I am thankful that the Vikings have been in better hands than the Wolves.
We still are, right?
In Brad Childress' final days we saw the complete disintegration of a football team. Not that the 2010 team was ever considered good, but there were signs of hope.
The opening game of the season Minnesota traveled to New Orleans and held their offense to a mere fourteen points. Unfortunately, they lost 14-9. Week Two, Minnesota lost at home 14-10 to Miami. After a win at home versus the Lions and a following bye, they faced a scheduled four weeks of the Jets, Cowboys, Packers and Patriots, three games of which were on the road. The Vikings only managed to defeat Dallas, and were 2-5 at that point. An overtime win over the Cardinals put Minny at 3-5, not good, but with some glimmers of understanding.
Minnesota would then travel to Chicago where they lost 27-13. They then returned home and were destroyed 31-3 by Green Bay. Childress was gone the next day. Leslie Frazier was promoted and a new era begun. Frazier went 3-3 with a variety of quarterbacks and defensive players. The best game was easily the delayed game with at the Eagles, where Minnesota battered Michael Vick and beat a good Philly team 24-14. The worst was a 40-14 shellacking at TCF Stadium at the hands of the Bears.
In the end Minnesota's dome collapsed. Brett Favre was beaten into submission. Childress was gone. And to make matters even more gloom, the Lions finished ahead of the Vikings while the Bears and Packers met in the NFC Championship. The previous year Green Bay gave up over 50 points in a playoff loss to the Cardinals, while Minnesota routed the Cowboys and held their won in New Orleans. In one year's time we saw the complete collapse of a franchise.
But like kings of old, when a season has died, a new one is born. The 2011 Vikings face a tough schedule again, as all three NFC North teams appear to be among the better in the NFC, if not the NFL. Green Bay has already won their opener, a 42-34 win over the Saints at home. Chicago is the defending division champion, and has added more to the offense (Marion Barber and Roy Williams) through free agency. Detroiters are certain that the combination of tackle Suh with rookie tackle Nick Fairley will propel them toward a playoff visit. Everybody is confident except one fan base: ours.
Vikings fans who have hope this year are called homers. Given the others in the division it is reasoned that Minnesota is doomed for fourth place automatically. The addition of guys like Donovan McNabb and Charlie Johnson has not impressed the critics. The losses of players such as Sidney Rice, Ray Edwards, Brett Favre, Bryant McKinnie, Ben Leber, etc... too much to overcome with a few elderly veteran additions, they say.
But as you might have guessed, that does not include me. And I am not alone. Whether a blind homer, eternal optimist, or genius prognosticator, there are a growing base that sees reasons to get excited for Vikings football in 2011. The signing of Adrian Peterson today a boost to ego. The cutting of McKinnie proof that there are new philosophies afoot. The older of us who have witnessed Minnesota be among the best in the division more often than not.
If we improve on our turnover ratio we will be better. If we really improve on the ratio, I think the playoffs are possible.
It may be another pitcher of purple kool-aid, but hey, what would life be without kool-aid?
San Diego will be a tough test. But like the Monkees of old, I am a believer.
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".
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.
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