I remember the day football became more important than Christmas. I was at my grandmother's house for the holiday, and for the first time I was allowed in the basement to watch football with the adult men of the family. It was 1971, December 25th.
While the fine cooks of our family fretted, the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins battled to double overtime in the longest overtime in NFL history. Miami eventually won 27-24. There were missed field goals in the overtime that had half of the family praying for a miss (more football) and the other half cursing the same miss (the turkey was getting cold).
When it was finally over it ended up being the majority of discussion at the table. My mother, who sided with her mother, had more steam coming out of her ears than I saw from the green bean casserole. It was clear to a seven-year-old that a power play had occurred inside my family, and football had won.
More than four decades later, nothing has changed.
My passion for Vikings' football rose out of the basement of my grandparents' house. The 1970s were a very successful time for Minnesota in the NFL. I watched Super Bowls. I witnessed Super Bowls. 12-2 seasons were expected. The Purple People Eaters defense controlled games.
Life was good.
Each season that begins anew rekindles that love I had for football dating so long ago. It does not matter to me if Minnesota is picked to finish last, or not expected to contend for the playoffs. when the first Sunday rolls around in September and we take the field with a 0-0 record, I am filled with hope.
And so today, the Saturday before the first Sunday, we anticipate. I have already coached a middle school football scrimmage at nearby Watertown-Mayer. I have rode on a bus with tough hitting kids who want to sing "The Wheels on the Bus" in unison. I have mowed the lawn. Checked my fantasy baseball team. Pet the dog. Grilled steaks. Talked football on the phone...
This is a very long day.
I eagerly await tomorrow. The Vikings have a feel-good story about them. A new stadium was approved. New coach Mike Zimmer is a long-time assistant who finally gets his chance. Matt Cassel is finally given control of this team. Nearly every rookie made the team, and three 7th-rounders look to see meaningful action. Adam Thielen came from local Minnesota State via the practice squad in 2013, to find an opportunity to contribute in 2014. Teddy Bridgewater is an instant fan favorite (sorry Matt). Free agent additions look to shore a porous defense. Adrian Peterson is rested and ready.
Add to that the Green Bay Packers were already roughed up in front of a national television audience. The St. Louis Rams, our first opponent, lost their starting quarterback Sam Bradford to an injury..
Life is good.
And so we wait for tomorrow. Unless you read this on Sunday..
Which would mean you have survived the longest day.
The first team I ever hated in my Vikings-based life was the Kansas City Chiefs. As I was just cognizant of a world bigger than my hometown, I learned through playground football games that the Chiefs had embarrassed my Vikings in Super Bowl IV. Despite being from the much stronger NFL, heavily-favored Minnesota fell 23-7 to the AFL Chiefs in early 1970.
It may or may not have been Minnesota's best chance to win a Super Bowl. But it was the only one in which they were supposed to win. Personally, I think the best shot we had was 1975, or the year of the "Hail Mary Pass" vs. Dallas. Minnesota would near dominate the league during the next seven years, with three more trips to the Super Bowl, and only one season where they did not make the playoffs.
Fast forward to 2014. Minnesota faces the Chiefs in Arrowhead, one of the toughest places to play in the NFL. Kansas City rebounded from a miserable season two years ago (2-14-0) to start last year 9-0-0. They finished 11-5-0 and made the playoffs. Alex Smith, a 49ers castoff, gave the Chiefs a reliable quarterback, something that had been lacking for some time. Jamaal Charles provided most of the offense from the running back position. And the defense was top ten in the NFL, holding teams to under twenty points per game.
I know I was happy to see them fail last year down the stretch and in the playoffs.
I have not forgotten.
Minnesotans are excited about their chances in 2014. And for good reason. First, and foremost, we have a new coach and offensive coordinator that have instilled hope in both players and fans. After two preseason games Minnesota has not one, but two quarterbacks with passer ratings over 100.0. I know it is only the preseason, but when was the last time we could say that?
"Your defense was 31st overall last year".
And then the voice inside our head reminds us. It rings obsessively to the point we cannot hold up our heads around fellow NFC North foes.
"You surrendered over thirty points a game last year".
We tell ourselves things are different. Our offense has added Teddy Bridgewater and Jerrick McKinnon. Our offensive line, together another year, has never looked better. Kyle Rudolph looks giddy in the new Norv Turner offense. We were top fifteen last year in offense, now we have added to it.
"Who is the middle linebacker? Who is your strong safety? Who will play cornerback well?"
The voice will not go away. It will hound us forever.
Coach Zimmer has made a name for himself in the NFL as a defensive guru. We added talent on the defensive side through the draft in Anthony Barr, Scott Chrichton, Antone Exum, Jabari Prince, and Shamar Stephen to name a few. New defensive coordinator George Edwards was also blessed with solid free agents in Linval Joseph, Captain Munnerlyn, and others
"You gave up 45% third-down conversions."
We want the voice to stop, but it won't. It mocks our playoff aspirations. That voice manifests on sports talk shows as they place Minnesota fourth in the four team NFC North projections.
"You were 5-10-1 last year because of your defense."
We know better. We are smart. Tonight's game versus the Chiefs will be an opportunity to face a true playoff team. Both teams will field most of their starting lineups. Tonight will be the most tell tale as to what our defense has in store for us in 2014. Jamaal Charles will be out because of a freak dorm accident, but there should be enough talent to have a better gauge on what to expect this year.
While it is still only a preseason game, this one will tell a lot about what is in store. If Minnesota's defense can improve enough this year maybe the negative voices will go away.
And we can return to the promised land again.
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.
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