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.
We can sure get spoiled fast. For example, my family just purchased our first HD TV, with the HP 1080, and whatever else makes it sound groovy. We had held out, what with the economy and costs of growing children. But shopping in a local Target we found a deal to good to pass up, and even though it was last year's model, made the move to HD. Love it!
Minnesotans just experienced the best season/career by a starting quarterback in their forty-nine years. Brett Favre's 107.2 passer rating in the 2009 season easily bests the second highest Vikings career rating, that of Randall Cunningham's 94.2 (excluding Todd Bouman's 98.6 in his three 2001 starts). For comparison, Fran Tarkenton was a lifetime 80.1, Tommy Kramer 72.9, Warren Moon 82.8, Brad Johnson 82.5, and Daunte Culpepper 91.5. There is no doubt that Favre was the missing piece for a Super Bowl-type team. We now have one.
Favre's recent disclosure of the needed surgery to play in 2010 has cast some doubt on his return. Those that witnessed the brutalization of Favre at the hand of the dirty Saints pass-rushers have to wonder why he would want more of the same? Sure, he is a tough old hombre, but I wouldn't wish that kind of beating on Aaron Rodgers or Jay Cutler (OK, maybe Cutler). With his long list of NFL successes, Favre could retire an NFL Hall-of-Famer and still be able to walk to the podium. Why return?
Meanwhile, the NFL draft came and went, and Minnesota passed on a couple of quarterback prospects that has media and friends concerned about Minnesota's future. Notre Dame grad Jimmy Clausen, the first-round talent who was absent in the "Green Room", was available the first two days of the draft, yet we avoided him. Later, Tony Pike of Cincinnati, sat atop the 'best available' list of draft choices, and once again the Vikings went elsewhere. Critics cried "foul", citing Favre's ego as the reason Minnesota avoided addressing the future at quarterback. Never mind that both of these QBs dropped in value faster than the riders of Valley Fair's Power Tower, the Vikings had blown it due to the coddling of their superstar. Yea, right.
What they all fail to realize is that as good as Favre was, the reason for the Vikings' success is many, not singular. The addition of Percy Harvin; the improvement of Sidney Rice; the drafting of Phil Loadholt; Adrian Peterson; the emergence of Ray Edwards; the Williams' wall. Too many factors to decide that Favre was the only reason. The fact that Minnesota won the division in 2008 with Tarvaris Jackson and Gus Frerotte at the helm should at least suggest the overall talent of the Vikings is presently superior to the Packers, Bears, and obviously the Lions.
I am not afraid of life without Favre. True, like my HD-TV, it is certainly better. I would much prefer it. But these forty plus years have taught me to be patient (a skill all true Vikings' fans have had to own). For every Tarkenton, there will be a Tommy Kramer. For every Cunningham, a Jeff George. For every Culpepper ... you get the picture. The best playoff record of any Vikings' QB is only 6-5 (Tarkenton). Brett Favre's is presently 1-1, which is no better than Joe Kapp (2-2).
I love my new HD, it is better than before. But it is only TV after all, it cannot do the dishes. LAF will be tough, we will have to find a replacement or probably return to T-Jack. Or find someone at least as good as Todd Bouman. I hear the 2011 draft might have the answer.
The Top 10 reasons it will be the Vikings and not the Saints heading to the Super Bowl in 2010.
10. The Saints defense. It was the first game of the season when the Saints won 45 to 27 over the Lions. Only later would I learn just how wrong it is to give up that many points to Detroit. Then, the Dolphins would score 34, mostly in a single half. The Redskins 30, which was about 20 more than average. The Saints are not winning by defense.
9. The 40 omen. This is the 40th NFC Championship. Our new quarterback, Brett Favre, just turned 40. Gives you goose bumps, doesn't it? I remember when George Blanda quarterbacked as a 38 year-old. I thought that was ancient.
8. The 0-39 streak. The Saints, along with the aforementioned Lions, are the only two teams in the NFC that have never won an NFC Championship. This is the Vikings 8th try, while New Orleans is 0-1. Makes you almost content with losing four Super Bowls. Almost.
7. Chris Kluwe. Kluwe is wise. Kluwe learns from mistakes. Last year when the Vikings won in New Orleans on Monday Night Football, Reggie Bush performed a Billy "White Shoes" Johnson show on the Vikings kick coverage. After watching him perform masterfully against the Cowboys, I am expecting Kluwe to avoid Bush.
6. MNF. Last year's game against the Saints had fans partying all day to prepare. As someone who has partied with the people of New Orleans, I can state that it would easily rival Packers fans. They were obnoxious, they were loud. They chanted "Who Dat". And we won. That game was the best preparation for this one possible.
5. Childress and Staff. Not so much for their play calling, but for adding Phil Loadholt, Percy Harvin, and Brett Favre to our offense in 2009. We are far better. And people are always grateful when you pick them up at the airport, should one do that.
4. The Hurricane. No, not the effects of Katrina, I am not going there. It was that drink that I had too many of... people in New Orleans drink a lot! Maybe the reason teams never win it all in Louisiana is that they party too much. This atmosphere is not counducive to winning Championships. Fun, but not dedicated.
3. Superdome experience. The Vikings played and won last year in the Superdome. Brett Favre won his Super Bowl with the Packers there. It is safe to say every Viking player has enjoyed their time in the Superdome. Call it a home away from home.
2. Who Dat Syndrome. At first it was catchy, like the Icky Shuffle. The it was familiar, like the electric glide of LT. Now, it feels more like Rain Man. Without the ability to count numbers.
And the number one reason the Vikings will win on Sunday ....
1. Destiny. Seriously, think about it... Remember when you were watching us lose to the Eagles last year in the Dome? Now fast forward to the team that just beat the Cowboys 34-3. That type of change is not human. The addition of Favre transformed us to the mystical. Nothing can stop us now. There is no point in denying what will be.
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.
I have hated them. Hated them all my life. I started watching football in 1970. For my entire childhood I watched my Vikings have their ways with the Packers. I would hear people argue the two Super Bowl wins from the late-1960s meant that Green Bay was better than my Vikings. But my team clobbered the Pack throughout my school-age years. Murderilized them. We had four straight Super Bowl visits and they had none. Division titles? We won nine to their two during my school years (1970-1982)
Then Brett Favre came along and changed the Packers in 1992. They won division titles, made playoff runs, and won a Super Bowl (again). Almost repeated in 1998. In Favre's tenure from 1992 to 2007, Green Bay won seven titles to Minnesota's four. Other than Chicago's brief dominance and Super Bowl win in 1986, Minnesota had controlled the then Central Division. Until Favre.
As I became older, joined the work force, I realized that good families of Minnesota inter-mixed with Cheese lovers. At work there would be a handful of Packers fans for every fifty staff. I had to endure their endless taunts of the team I had witnessed completely dominate them for nearly twenty years. And they are boorish. And brash. They would wear little the G insignia like they lived in Wisconsin. Any time we upset them, or they lost, I made sure I asked my nearest Packer-co-worker "how the game went". Oh, I knew. But during these times we did not dominate.
When Favre left in 2008 for New York, I breathed a sigh of relief. The previous year he had led them to the North division title, NFC best record, and home field in the playoffs, only to lose to the Giants in a close game (that Ryan Grant really blew) that ended Favre's career in Green Bay. Now in 2008, with the young Aaron Rodgers, they plummeted back to the place in the division that I spent my childhood viewing: the bottom half. I was happy.
Then in this season things got dramatically changed. Their hero was now our savior. Brett Favre joined the hated rival: us. Maybe his fight with management was the cause? Or the fans turning on him? Or his former coach coming to us? I am not inside enough to know for sure. What I am sure of is that it burns Packers fans deeply. They will rarely confess it. They will grit their teeth and say something against Favre that sounds hollow. But their eyes lie. We know it hurts.
But it hurts us, too. Most Vikings fans respected Favre while hating him. And now he is ours. And the bitter Packer-lovers (and Jets) point to a future when Favre will toss away the game like the 2007 NFC Championship or the late 2008 season for the Jets. But we hold on to Favre as the man who will take us far. Farther than the Packers. Farther than the Vikings teams of the 1970s.
And now the "Return of the King" should end late Sunday. And I really want to have something to say to my fellow Packer staff. Because Lord know they will have something to say should Favre fail. Apologies to Dr. Suess, but they will smile their little cheesy smiles, grin their cheesy grins, and probably wear a green and gold shirt two sizes too big. That is a sight I cannot stand in the least. No. We must win. For our state. For Brett himself. But mostly because we like to see misplaced Packer-Backers squirm.
On Monday, if they do not call in sick like they did in the 1970s. And 80s.
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