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.
For many years the Viking pass defense has been the great cause for concern. Despite a spectacular run defense, Minnesota has struggled to shut down teams over the last few years via the air. In the first two rounds of the last six draft the Vikings have not selected some very good DBs. Sometimes the player they choose has been worth it, such as Adrian Peterson. But looking at the Draft's missed defensive backs over the years gives us reason to the "why" we are not an elite defense. The last six years:
2004 Draft results: 20th Pick, Kenechi Udeze, DE. 48th Pick, Dontarrious Thomas, LB.
Missed DBs: 25th Pick, Ahmad Carroll, Green Bay; 28th Pick, Chris Gamble, Carolina; 44th Pick Bob Sanders, Indianapolis; 53rd Pick, Michael Boulware, Baltimore.
2005 Draft results: 7th Pick, Troy Williamson, WR. 18th Pick, Erasmus James, DE. 49th Pick, Marcus Johnson, OT.
Missed DBs: 8th Pick, Antrell Rolle, Arizona; 9th Pick, Carlos Rogers, Washington; 23rd Pick, Fabian Washington, Oakland; 29th Pick, Marlin Jackson, Indianapolis; 50th Pick, Ronald Bartell, St. Louis; 51st Pick, Nick Collins, Green Bay; 56th Pick, Darrent Williams, Denver.
2006 Draft results: 17th Pick, Chad Greenway, LB. 48th Pick, Cedric Griffin, DB 64th Pick, Tarvaris Jackson, QB.
Missed DBs: 19th Pick, Antonio Cromartie, San Diego; 24th Pick, Jonathan Joseph, Cincinnati.
2007 Draft results: 7th Pick, Adrian Peterson, RB. 44th Pick, Sidney Rice, WR.
Missed DBs: 14th Pick, Darrelle Revis, New York Jets; 19th Pick, Michael Griffin, Tennessee; 53rd Pick, Eric Wright, Cleveland.
2008 Draft results: 43rd Tyrell Johnson.
2009 Draft results: 22nd Pick, Percy Harvin, WR. 54th Pick, Phil Loadholt, OT.
Missed DBs: 25th Pick, Vontae Davis. 55th Pick, William Moore. 59th Pick, Sherrod Martin.
I have been upset for years as we have only chosen two DBs in the last six years in the first two rounds. And surprise, the two we have selected (Cedric Griffin and Tyrell Johnson) are both starters.
If the Vikings want to win Super Bowls their defense will have to improve against the pass. No amounts of Williamses is going to change that. If you replaced Troy Williamson in the 2005 Draft with Antrell Rolle, we would be favored to beat the Steelers this week. If you added another to our roster, like Nick Collins, Darrelle Revis, or Antonio Cromartie, then we would be favored every game this year.
The loss (or potential) of Antoine Winfield (a free agent sign), points to out hole in the Vikings Defense. With Karl Paymahs' struggles, and the name of Benny Sapp being offered in hope, fans are now worried about what will occur versus Ben Roethlisberger this Sunday. That is our cause for pessimism.
Hopefully, the Vikings will overcome the injury issues and move to 7-0. If they win this one, they will shut up the leftover critics. That would be nice...
If they lose, the doubters will gain great numbers and momentum. And we will talk more about Drafts and DBs.
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