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.
I used to like the Pro Bowl. The images of Hawaii, the relaxed look at the players, the sideline interviews, and the chance to see the league's best perform against each other were enough reasons to warrant viewing of the end of the season highlight game. When the game was played in Honolulu at teh end of the NFL season, it was the perfect showcase for the NFL. It was an end of the year celebration. It was never really about who won the game, but rather, which players could dominate it. Four times Minnesota Vikings won that honor, the MVP of the Pro Bowl. Fran Tarkenton was the first in 1965, and Adrian Peterson the last only a few years ago.
Today's Pro Bowl, cast between conference championships and the Super Bowl, is more a showcase of how little the players think of the game. Sure, ten of the twenty-eight missing players will be excused because they are in Super Bowl XLV, but isn't that who we wanted to see? For whatever reason Aaron Rodgers was left off of the roster, but six other Packers will be absent. But fear not, there was six Cowboys selected. Add five Giants and five Eagles and the NFC roster takes on an East feel, despite their ineptness in 2010.
The missing list includes a who's who of the NFL. Offense? Try missing Rodgers, Andre Johnson, Greg Jennings, DeSean Jackson, Antonio Gates, Tom Brady, Maurice Jones-Drew and a few of the league's best linemen. On the defense, Dwight Freeney, Nnamdi Asomugha, Lance Briggs, Ed Reed, Asante Samuel, Ndamukong Suh, and Brian Urlacher, to name a few. I will even miss watching Clay Matthews, the dominant long-haired pass rusher of Green Bay. The long hair really bugs me, but can he play!
While I would not place the Pro Bowl in the same light as the All-Star games in the NBA and NHL (absolutely no defense), I think MLB has a better game. No, not the call-it-a-draw game, but the chance to see the game's best play hard. In baseball, one can play hard and not risk injury. Such is not the case in the other sports. The NFL simplifies defenses so as to avoid injuries. The result is a lot more scoring. While it is similar to the other sports, football's intensity seems to hide the softness of the All-Star venue better than hockey or basketball. I know when I am watching a 14-12 hockey game something is missing.
So today we sit back and watch the Pro Bowl if we has absolutely nothing else to do. I am debating taking the ice out of the gutters or viewing the game.
And it is a tough decision...
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.
First, it should be made clear, it was the NFL, not the Eagles, who wussified football. The blizzard conditions on Sunday, about enough to delay a school start here in Minnesota, crippled the city of Philadelphia and forced the second postponement of a game for our Vikings. The "Tuesday Night" crew even pointed out that the Vikings have now had more games postponed than the Twins, by 2-1 margin.
So the game was moved. And when Tuesday rolled around it was a beautiful night, a clear field, and a chance for Michael Vick to showcase his MVP-like talent in front of a national audience. Only someone forgot to tell the Minnesota defense. Antoine Winfield played his best game in some time, and the front four with its' interchanging parts and added blitz help, made Vick's evening a sore one. We hit him so much he began to play like a ...wuss.
The game did not start out like it was a Minnesota night. The highly favored Eagles scored first, grabbing a 7-0 lead early in the contest. Michael Vick was taking many shots from our defense (which ironically looked like the Eagles defense), but delivering with runs and short passes well enough to move the football. Joe Webb began with short passes too, only he looked awkward at first, His short swing passes seemed to have a little extra air time, and the result was minimal gains. Adrian Peterson was held in check as well, and it looked like the beginnings of a long night. I must admit I turned away for the commercials to check on the Golden Gophers basketball game at the Kohl Center more than once.
It was not until Winfield stripped Vick of the ball and scored that Minnesota looked like it might win. Suddenly, the defensive attack on Vick begin to bear fruit. Despite numerous drops of interceptions by the rag-tag secondary earlier in the game, it was becoming clear that this defense owned Vick. By the end of the game a limping Vick looked nothing like one of the two potential MVPs in 2010. Give it to Tom Brady.
On the offensive side of the ball, there was Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson. Harvin would end up with 100 yards, and many of them after the catch. Webb finding the human pinball meant the defense could not focus solely on the run. And when the Eagles worried about the pass, Peterson made them pay with punishing runs. AP finished with over 100 yards and a TD, and if not for his first lost fumble of the season late in the game, maybe his finest performance of the season considering the opponent.
And then there was Webb. He seemed to glide about the field much like Rod Carew. He never looked llike he was running full speed, but when he did run, few could catch him. His ten yard TD run included numerous misses from the part of Eagle defenders. And when Jim Kleinsasser leveled the last would-be tackler with a crushing block, Webb danced into the end zone for a touchdown that seemed to deflate the Eagles as much as the constant blitz on the other side of the ball.
It was not as if Philadelphia had nothing to play for - sure they wrapped up the NFC East, but Atlanta's loss to New Orleans on Monday had cleared a possible path for the one seed in the NFC. The Eagles were playing well, clearly the class of the East, and many people's choice for the NFC representative. A win meant a probable bye if either the Falcons or Bears lost the next week. And Chicago would be playing in Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers back at the helm. It was possible.
Instead, Vick limped off the field, beaten, battered, and bested. The Eagles, a great thorn inside the paw of Vikings recent success, had been delivered a deathly blow to their Super Bowl hopes by Joe Webb and the now 6-9 Minnesota Vikings. Sure, we might have dropped from the 7th to 14th pick, but most Minnesota fans would say this was worth it. The confident, swaggering Eagles have fallen. How sad.
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