Many people viewed the Green Bay Packers as the team to beat in the NFC North. Others were certain this was the year that the Detroit Lions would finally find their way to the top. But after two weeks in the NFL only one thing is certain: the San Francisco 49ers are better than that. Much better.
The 49ers dealt Green Bay an opening week loss. Last night they handled Detroit. Two weeks, two wins over NFC North teams. And this week they travel to Minnesota. Survivor pools across the country will be looking closely at the game in the Metrodome.
Watching the Bears and Packers play in week two, one could not help but see mediocrity. Without an effective Matt Forte, the Bears offense was relegated to Jay Cutler's whimsical decision-making, tantrums, and an offense that was quite offensive. Meanwhile, Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, and the Lions defensive front were being taught a lesson in toughness.
Minnesota had it much easier. They were in Indianapolis, where the biggest offensive star is a rookie (Andrew Luck) or an aging veteran (Reggie Wayne). No Joseph Addai, no Peyton Manning. But mistakes turned what could have been a 2-0 start into a 1-1 beginning that cried 2011. Some credit must be given to Minnesota for coming back from two touchdowns down, and overcoming the abundant mistakes to tie the game late at 20-20. This week would not be Blair Walsh being the hero, rather Adam "He's just a kicker" Vinatieri. His long field goal gave the Colts a rare win in their rebuild mode and shook the eternal optimists down from their perch a little.
But fear not Vikings' faithful, we are tied for first in the North, and tied for seventh overall. That is because twenty teams are 1-1, while only six are undefeated. After two weeks parody has been established. Given twelve teams make the playoffs, the optimists could point out we are right where we want to be.
Garrison Keillor was wrong. Being average ain't so bad.
It is almost here.
Actually it was here Wednesday, the opening game between the Giants and the Cowboys. Two of my personal 'most-hated' teams in the NFL. Dallas and New York have become staples of NFL television. I watch them both far too often. I really do not care for what happens in the oft-bloated NFL East.
Nor do I care for afternoons of the AFC West. Instead, give me the NFC North. But unless you have a package that provides other game opportunities, or you want to spend Sunday managing the internet and watching from a computer, you basically get what they give you. Maybe that is why I know Oakland and Denver's history better than Chicago or Detroit.
But I digress.
What can we expect in 2012 from our young, recovering Minnesota Vikings? Now minutes away from opening kickoff, most fans I have read, listened, or watched do not expect great things. They realize that Christian Ponder is young and inexperienced. They see Adrian Peterson trying to come back too quickly from a major injury. They scoff at the talent Minnesota displays at wide receiver after Percy Harvin. A defensive backfield too old (Winfield), too young (Smith), or inconsistent (everybody else). Linebackers that make the famous "no-name defense" of Miami seem celebratory.
Their predictions have ranged from no better than 3-13 to a modest 6-10.
And then there is the optimists, blind if unsuccessful, loyal to the end. They see elite talent in Jared Allen, A rejuvenated Kevin Williams, Percy Harvin, Adrian Peterson, and a strong rookie class. They see an 'easy' schedule in the first half of the season. They see Chicago getting old. They see the Packers defense crumbling. They see the Lions as paper tigers. They see what they want to see.
These predictions range from 8-8 to about 11-5 and and a playoff birth. (Even blind homers are realists somewhat, no 13-3 out there).
The funniest part of it all is that most fans on either side will not change their minds after this first game. They will see what they want to see. If the Vikings win, it will be because the Jaguars are bad. It will be because Maurice Jones-Drew held out, or the top tackler was injured. If Minnesota loses, it will be first game jitters for the young ones. Or bad officiating, or play-calling. I find it most humorous that about 1,000,000 Minnesotans feel they are better play callers than Bill Musgrave or Leslie Frazier. Every game. Every year. Except Bud Grant, hallowed be his name.
I will be watching no matter what... Right, honey?
When one talks playoff droughts in Minnesota, only the oldest of fans can give a knowing nod. The 1960s was home to the beginning of the expansion franchise, and those first seven years. It was the Norm Van Brocklin years, the coach for the first six fledgling years. Van Brocklin went 29-51-4 with the 1964 season (8-5-1) our only winning year. Bud Grant was pursued and accepted the position in time for the 1967 season. Grant went 3-8-3 that year, before the Vikings' winning ways would begin.
The Vikings' first division title (1968) would precede a run of ten playoff visits in eleven years. Four Super Bowl visits. An NFL Championship. Three NFC championships. Ten division titles. Numerous individual awards, most notably Alan Page's MVP award in 1971. Fran Tarkenton was traded for valuable draft choices by Minnesota in 1968 and then re-acquired in 1972. After a missed playoff, Tarkenton led a run of three Super Bowl visits in four years (1973, 1974, 1976) interrupted by the Hail Mary loss to the Cowboys.
We thought the good times would never end.
The first time since expansion that Minnesota ever missed the play-offs for more than one consecutive season after the expansion years was the drought of 1983-1986. Minnesota finished playing at the Met (1981) and made the playoffs in a strike-shortened 1982 season. Grant started 7-2 in 1983, but finished and retired with an 8-8 season. Les Steckel followed it what is known as the worst of years with Pecos River and a 3-13 mark. Grant was then reinstated and went 7-9 before retiring again, a la Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan. Jerry Burns was then hired and went 9-7 but missed the playoffs. That winning season signaled the end to the losing way of 1983-86.
Jerry Burns led Minnesota through its' second drought in 1990-91. It was a year after the blockbuster trade that sent the Vikings' future off to Dallas for Herschel Waker. After Minnesota surprised the NFL in 1987 with its' run to the NFC Championship despite suffering an 0-3 beginning with replacement players, the Viking brass felt they were one player away from a Super Bowl win. Boy, were they wrong. Walker was released in 1991 and Jerry Burns quit. Minnesota returned to their winning way.
The Vikings made the playoffs eight of the next nine seasons. When present day Packers and Bears fans make fun of the present day Vikings, the older Vikings' fan can smile. They remember stretches like this one and the 1970s. In 1998, Minnesota amassed one of the greatest offenses in all of NFL history. Rookie Randy Moss, Randall Cunningham, Cris Carter and more. The loss at home to the Falcons by a missed short kick may be the single greatest disappointment in Minnesota history. The 15-1 team would probably be voted Most Likely to Win the Super Bowl in a Do Over, though fans of 2009, 1975, or 1969 may disagree.
Minnesota won playoff games in 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000. They were not just making the playoffs, they were knocking on the championship door. And then that is when the weather changed. Minnesota has only made the playoffs three of the last eleven seasons. The 2004 team backed in at 8-8 (but upset the Packers in Lambeau so they are revered). In 2008, Minnesota made a run with Gus Frerotte and Tarvaris Jackson at the helm. In 2009, Minnesota famously added Brett Favre and made a serious bid for their first Super Bowl, only to be beaten (literally) by a very aggressive Saints team.
A pair of three year droughts ensued in 2001. We will call this the 2000s Famine.
First, the 2001-03 drought where Minnesota went 20-28. The successful but turbulent Denny Green was let go for Mike Tice at the end of the 2001 season. Tice had a good thing going in 2003, starting 6-0, only to finish with a 9-7 record and missing the playoffs after a last-second Cardinals loss.
Minnesota started 5-1 the next year, only to fall to 8-8 by season's end. The victory over Green Bay kept his job for another year, but eventually Tice would be replaced by Brad Childress.
The drought of 2005-07 was one of mediocrity. The Vikings actually had only one losing season (2006, 6-10) and went 23-25 over the three years. In 2007, Minnesota drafted Adrian Peterson and that seemed to change their fortune. Peterson's 296 yard game in his rookie season typified the type of rain to change a landscape.
Minnesota was decent in 2008, going 11-5 and winning their first division title since 2000. And then there was the addition of Favre, and as any fan who is of reading-age knows, the 2009 season. But the 2009 team was not one of longevity. The holes began to appear. Players left or were injured. A great team disassembled rapidly. Brad Childress would be replaced by Leslie Frazier after a 3-7 start to the 2010 season, one filled with false promise.
Our present drought 2010- is at the two year mark. We are 9-23 in that time, making this the barest drought of all time, including the expansion years. Many feel we are in rebuilding mode and will not see the playoffs for a time. Others remain optimistic that this drought will be no longer than other recent ones.
Many good signs are appearing. A rejuvenated Adrian Peterson. A defensive end that is capable of having season's like Alan Page, Chris Doleman or Keith Millard. Again. A sharpening of the skills of young Christian Ponder. The explosiveness of players like Percy Harvin and Jerome Simpson. The addition of an offensive tackle (Matt Kalil) with hopes of a Ron Yary or Gary Zimmerman type future. Good signs.
But drought is tough to cure. Usually when it is dry in one region (ours) it is fertile somewhere else (the rest of the division). It will take good farming but maybe an added dose of hardship elsewhere. Not to wish ill on my rival teams, but maybe a plight of some kind. Like turnovers from your star player. Or missed field goals.
Because I do expect it to rain soon. And the promised land still waits for us all.
Glory and Skol.
It usually is a hot summer, the kids have run out of things to do. Bored, stifling heat, no end in sight.. and then wham! In comes Kool Aid to make the summer fun again. Drinks for everyone. Mom is relieved.
The second game of the preseason is a chance for starters to play a half or so, second and third stringers to make some plays to determine their future, and a general non-concern for the scoreboard. In the Vikings case, team and fans wanted to see if the return of Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, and Antoine Winfield could improve the porous effort of week one vs. the 49ers. They did.
It is an opportunity to see if Christian Ponder can move the offense AND score touchdowns, something that did not happen week one. He did. Ponder had a great touch and pocket presence and moved the Vikings easily down the field. He found fullback Jerome Felton for a short TD pass.
Could Jerome Simpson do something spectacular? He did. A long pass play set up the first preseason touchdown that involved Simpson hurdling over a defender in full stride.
And then it is time for Vikings' fans to latch onto someone from the depths of the charts. Someone to cheer for to make the team, an underdog. Meet linebacker Audie Cole. Late in the game Cole, while being touted by local TV announcers, made them look like geniuses by picking off two passes in a row, and returning them both for defensive touchdowns.
If it were not for the injury that took away Kyle Rudolph during the game, one would think it was a perfect preseason game. Rookie kicker Blair Walsh was knocking kickoffs through the goal posts, drilling near fifty yard field goals with ease, and forcing us to forget last year's kicker, whoever he was. Safety Harrison Smith, the first round pick from Notre Dame who is supposed to help turn around a notoriously bad secondary, made a big play breaking up a pass during a blitz. Rookie cornerback Josh Robinson exciting everyone with his quickness. The sudden depth at linebacker, with tons of tackles from Larry Dean and Tyrone McKenzie and of course, Audie Cole's interception returns for touchdowns thirteen seconds apart.
Mired in the NFC North, where seemingly all other teams are great, Minnesota has a long road ahead of themselves in returning to the playoffs. Though there has been teams to turn around fortune quickly in this modern day of free agents and salary limitations, knowledgeable fans are aware that the Packer are impressive. The Lions young and hungry. The Bears steady and strong. Time to be patient, right?
And that is when Kool-Aid busts in, covered in purple and says chin up. Times are better. Think playoffs now. The 49ers did it. Why can't we? You have elite talent in Ponder, Harvin and Simpson. And do not forget Adrian Peterson, not only the best running back in the NFL, but also the best healer. And while the defense is suspect, there is a talented young group that will play very hard.
We are hot. We are bored. There is no harm in having a little of the kool-aid.
The period of mourning is over. The 2011-12 season was unique in that most of us realized before the season began that this year would not be a good one. There was the defending champion Green Bay Packers, who from the beginning of the season demonstrated that they are the elite team of the North. There was defending division champion Chicago, who as long as Matt Forte and Jay Cutler were present, were a force greater than our own. And there was the upstart Detroit Lions, who parlayed Matt Millen and first-round wide receiver blunders into enough early picks to put together a real team. Oh yes, we knew.
We had hope because of Adrian Peterson. There was talent in Percy Harvin. Jared Allen and Kevin Williams gave us enough of a defensive front to expect sacks. And there was Donovan McNabb. While no one thought he was Tom Brady, there was reason to believe he could improve the QB position from an aging Brett Favre and the friends of 2010-11. Enough pieces to compete.
And we did compete for a while. The early season losses were games within which most fans saw a chance for victory. Twenty point half-time leads. Late game leads. Close games. But we seemed to lose them all. By the middle of the season the writing was on the wall. The North would be tough in 2011-12, and we were not. McNabb was removed and the rebuilding began.
But rebuilding usually happens in the off-season. The NFL Draft. Free agency. Rebuilding in the seventh game usually means water under the bridge. Troubled waters. And the sea was angry in 2011. Adrian Peterson would finish with a season-ending injury. Minnesota would fall into the 3rd pick in the upcoming draft. The fans or citizens grew cold on helping support the Vikings' stay in Minnesota by the finding of a new facility. Coaches got fired. Sites blocked. The legislature using stadium talk for political gain.
A hush blankets the state.
The Super Bowl is today. The New England Patriots will face the New York Giants. Two big cities. Two storied teams. Two great quarterbacks. One great coach. One great defensive front.
In these quiet times it is important to take inventory. There are still many pieces of the puzzle in place despite all the negativity. It is comforting to know that the last nine years there has been at least one team that went from last to first in their division. The 49ers managed this feat in 2011. Maybe in our solitude we should study the framework of San Francisco.
Alex Smith was a number one draft choice in 2005. He labored for seven years before emerging as a play-off quarterback. Only one of those seasons did he start every game. RB Frank Gore was chosen 65th overall in the 2005 draft. TE Vernon Davis was chosen 6th overall in the 2006 Draft. WR Michael Crabtree 10th in the 2009. The offensive line that was a big part of why the 49ers were so good held three first-rounders, two taken in the 2010 draft (OG Mike Iupati 17th, OT Anthony Davis 11th).
That 2010 draft was big for San Francisco. Besides the linemen, there was safety Mays (49th), linebacker Navorro Bowman (91st), and kick-returner Kyle Williams (206th). Six key players chosen in a single draft. Six starters. The lambs became the lions. Of course it helped that the second-best team in the division was the 8-8 Arizona Cardinals. Or that the St. Louis Rams were there.
And free agency played a part in their success as well. So did the 2011 draft. Suddenly the 49ers had an outstanding pass rush led by the two Smiths, rookie Aldon and old veteran Justin. The secondary moved into the upper-echelon of the NFL. Tarell Brown, Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers. Two of them were draft choices outside of the top 100. Can you name which ones?
The point is Minnesota needs to use the draft to repair the team. The biggest holes? In my humble opinion is has always been offensive line. When I grew up watching the Vikings dominate the NFC (1970s) if not the Central Division, we had Mick Tinglehoff, Ed White, Ron Yary and others solidify our offensive front. We also had an extraordinary pass rush in Alan Page, Carl Eller, and Jim Marshall. We had a fancy quarterback in Fran Tarkenton and later a magic back in Chuck Foreman. That was enough. Or almost enough... at least we were always in the playoffs.
Clarice overcame her fear of the shrieking lambs. She used her resources well. Minnesotans now must quietly observe this year's Super Bowl and wait in anticipation for the 3rd pick of the 2012 Draft. Wait on the recovery of the best running back in football. Hope that 2012 is a better year for the offensive line. Hope we can find a secondary like that of the 49ers. Hope that Chicago is on the way down, and that both the Lions and the Packers have peaked.
Otherwise it may get real quiet.
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