It was the worst of times. Or is.
A 6-10 year was difficult to swallow. Given the success of the 2009 Vikings many found the 2010 season upsetting. Brett Favre was battered like Archie Manning, due in part to a offensive line that seemed to scream "Where is Matt Birk?". Favre's response to the attack was to throw interceptions or fumble in his own end zone (against a visiting Dolphins). The two tackles did not have success against the better pass-rushers in the NFL such as Julius Peppers or Clay Matthews. The defensive secondary minus Cedric Griffin and the hope of a talented Chris Cook was awful. The defensive front seemed to take half of the season off in terms of a pass rush. But we persevere as the fan. Better times are ahead, right?
Now we face this weekend's championship game with the knowledge that our two most hated rivals, the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears, are this year's best in the NFC. It is not the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons, or any East team. The NFC North is a powerhouse. Don't laugh, we have sent three of the last four finalists to the NFC Championship. Five of the last ten teams. Unfortunately, it has been mostly Chicago and Green Bay.
We can rationalize our failure in 2010 as a product of our two rivals' success. After all, we were 6-6 against the rest of the NFL. Only the games versus the Giants was as lopsided a loss as matches with the Bears and Packers, and that was one with Tarvaris Jackson at the helm. We were closer against the Saints, Patriots, and Jets in other losses. But that defensive mechanism does not take away the reality that our division is tough right now.
I reluctantly tip my cap to the two teams. Green Bay has awoke with an offense that is quite impressive. Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback Minnesota wished it had. The Dom Capers' defense has improved as those cheesy blowhard fans had predicted. Now, they seem to have found a punishing running back in James Starks. No, he is not Adrian Peterson. But he also is not Ryan Grant, to the betterment of Green Bay.
The Chicago Bears have arisen thanks to their defense. There is enough hands now on the offense that Jay Cutler's missiles find targets. The line gets enough of a push to allow Matt Forte chances at yardage. But the defense shows up religiously. Twelve times this season they have surrendered twenty of fewer points, including eight of their first nine games (the exception being twenty-three). Only the loss to the Patriots suggested this season that the Bears might be vulnerable defensively.
We are left with cheering for the winner of this Sunday's game in the Super Bowl. As much as I despise the thought, I certainly would prefer that one of the two defeat the winner of the AFC Championship. An NFC win would be further proof that the 2010 's demise was as much a result of our division's toughness as any ineptness. Not that it is comforting knowing the Bears and Packers are really good right now.
It certainly is not.
The look on a small child's face when their mommy's face appears from behind something hidden is precious. I would learn in school studying the work of Jean Piaget and others that this process was called "object permanence" or the lack thereof. When the object leaves the sight of the underdeveloped brain, presto, it is gone. That is what makes Peek-A-Boo such a fun game. It is like finding your parent new each time.
Sure we all knew the talent existed. We have developed brains, we do not need to see something to know it is there. You can hide behind losses to the Dolphins and Packers are home, it does not matter. Most of us still remember that game in New Orleans last season, or the team that completely dismantled the Cowboys and even the Giants, albeit their reserves at the end of last year.
The ground game provided 190 yards, Adrian Peterson over one hundred with three TDs. Toby Gerhard added over fifty more. Tarvaris Jackson ran twice for twenty-two additional yards. All of that with guard Steve Hutchinson replaced in the starting lineup by rookie Chris DeGeare. Sidney Rice caught five for over one hundred yards including a Jackson pass that went through a pair of defender's hands and ended up being wrestled over for Rice's first score. The defense, led by the disappearing front line, was stalwart. Star rookie Steve Johnson of the Bills caught TWO passes.
No, this is not time to start looking at the playoff schedule. Unfortunately, most of the teams Minnesota is trying to catch also won. Only Tampa Bay faltered and that was because they faced a good Atlanta Falcons team now 10-2 and on top of the NFC. There are a few 8-4 teams that the Vikings would have to catch in order to make the playoffs, and presently our 5-7 record is woefully short. One of them, the New York Giants, comes to town next week.
No, we are not suddenly giddy like a two year old child. We have developed brains. We all knew the good team was right behind the wall, set of hands, or whatever blocked our view. We know this week it was only the Buffalo Bills, too.
The smile you see is because we missed them so very badly.
The good team, that is.
I am thinking about trying out for the Vikings or Twins pretty soon. I still throw hard and I am in my forties. Isn't that enough? I wouldn't have thought so last week, but August 17th has rekindled my desire to become the pro athlete I dreamed of being in the 1970s. I think I can.
The news of Brett Favre's return after three teammates tracked him down was blasted in the media by some. How could the Vikings grovel like this? Offering millions more to a forty year-old to rejoin the team after his umpteenth retirement. Have we no backbone? Letting the old man skip training camp, again. Treating Tarvaris Jackson like he is a wicked step-child. Certainly now, as a forty-something, teams will simply copy the Saints plan of violently attacking him and he will not make it through the season. Minnesota is grasping at straws.
To that I say Jim Thome. Last night Thome rocked a home run to win a dramatic event against the White Sox. Thome is at that forty year level. Thome was basically let go by teams because all he could do is hit. As a matter of fact, he can hit. And the last team to tell him goodbye found that out last night. It was old-timer's day yesterday, what with the Return of the Favre and Thome's blast. It was the kind of night that makes forty-somethings like me reconsider their career paths.
Is it crazy that these old guys want to keep playing a young man's sport? How can they remain successful? They cannot last an entire season, can they? What fools these elderly be, right?
Let me introduce the greatest of oldies: Gordie Howe. Gordie played a violent sport (hockey) full of collisions and injuries. He started at sixteen in the minors and finished as a fifty-one year old in 1980 for the Hartford Whalers. He played in all eighty games that year. Gordie's best year scoring wise came in the 1968-69 season, when at the age of forty he topped 100 points for the only time in his career. This guy was so tough he survived a fractured skull in the 1950 playoffs, returning the next year at the start of the season. He also knocked out Maurice "Rocket" Richard with one punch as a rookie. Sounds a lot like a quarterback I know. As a side note, Howe did play a shift in the minors for the Detroit Vipers in 1997, at the age of seventy.
Besides Thome, baseball boasts many present forty-something. Jamie Moyer and Omar Vizquel to name a few. Baseball has had players like Satchell Paige (59 years old), Hoyt Wilhelm (49), Phil Niekro (48), and Jesse Orosco (46). Others whom have pitched into their forties include: Nolan Ryan, Tommy John, Randy Johnson, and Roger Clemens. But these are pitchers in baseball. These are not QBs in an NFL game, where opponents aim to knock you out of the game. Pitching in the MLB is not the same thing.
True. Maybe Gordie Howe was the exception and pitchers are not comparable?
George Blanda was a place kicker and quarterback who started in the NFL in 1949. He retired in 1958. Then he came back again in 1960. Familiar? Blanda starred as a quarterback/kicker in the AFL for the Houston Oilers. He was the leading passer in the league many times. In 1967 he switched teams, joining the Oakland Raiders as a thirty-nine year old. He was released in 1970 but came back again in his forties. Where have I heard that before? Blanda won two games in relief of an injured QB that season. Blanda went on to start an AFC Championship Game at the age of forty-eight, nearly winning until two late interceptions (yes, heard that before, too).
But George Blanda was far from the only QB to be active in his forties. Other quarterbacks at the same age range included: Doug Flutie, Steve DeBerg, and Vinny Testaverde. Even linebacker Junior Seau has neared this level. It can be done.
I am happy that Favre has returned. I laugh at those who laugh at us. I know there is a great history of we old people doing tremendous things throughout sports. Jim Thome reminded over forty thousand people first-hand last night. I have a feeling Favre will convince more than that. Old people are no different than you and me. Or was that short people?
Anyway, I am stretching out right now in lieu of the 2011-12 NFL season. Or maybe the 2011 MLB season?
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.
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