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.
Thanksgiving is the football holiday. This Thanksgiving there will be thirty-some at my house. And it will be good. I have been committed to watching the NFL on Thanksgiving since I was quite young. One of the reasons we took over the holiday within our extended family was so that we could enjoy the games without guilt.
And we have. Pass the pie.
This year is another where my Viking hopes have been dashed like a tournament team in the first round. I am of the 70s era, where Minnesota controlled the NFC, let alone the division. I witnessed five years of NEVER losing to the Packers. NFC championships were a common place; division championships expected.
But the 2010s decade has not been good. Year Two with Brett Favre a disaster. This year's transition from Donovan McNabb to Christian Ponder costly. At 2-8 there is little hope... unless you live and breathe Vikings. If that is the case, even year's like this one are dramatic. And there is much to be thankful for this year...
Like the decision to get rid of Bryant McKinnie. It was a bold statement to the team and the league. Leslie Frazier was here to set things right, and coming to camp out of shape worthy of expulsion. Sadly, I see McKinnie nearly every week playing decent tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. Right next to Matt Birk.
Or the jettisoning of Tarvaris Jackson and Sidney Rice to stupid Seattle. How could any team possibly think these two would be worth multi-million long term deals? Big money was saved. Yes, the 4-6 Seahawks look downright ridiculous compared to our 2-8 squad.
Thankful we took the time this off-season to bring in Donovan McNabb. The two year deal looks to be a stipend for mentoring a rookie. Master McNabb demonstrated early that on any given Sunday a team can beat another... for a half.
Or the battle between Owner Wilf, the politicians, and others as to whether the Vikings will play in Minneapolis, Arden Hills, or another state. But with the tailgating locations provided by the Metrodome, they could play in Los Angeles and there might still be $40 car spots taken as if nothing ever changed. In the 70s we partied right outside Met Stadium before the game. In the Metrodome we pour in through traffic similar to Occupy Minnesota.
Oh, I am thankful.
But there really are things to be thankful for at 2-8. Like the fact that only one team (the 0-10 Indianapolis Colts) has a worse record. That puts us in a three way tie for the second draft selection with the Carolina Panthers and the St. Louis Rams. And with only four teams at 3-7 it is a safe bet that we will have a high draft selection like the Adrian Peterson year. The 2012 NFL Draft should be a chance to remedy a two year ailment that won't go away anytime soon.
You see, once the playoffs are dead, hoping for a good draft pick becomes a way to compensate for a lost season. I still am overjoyed with a win, but I also concede that there is a benefit to playing a rookie or inexperienced quarterback beyond experience. Ask the Jacksonville Jaguars (3-7), the Miami Dolphins (3-7), the Washington Redskins (3-7), Rams, or the Panthers. Or the winless Colts. Raw QBs make mistakes. Eh, Christian?
And as a Minnesota fan I can quickly reference the Minnesota Timberwolves of the NBA. No team in Minnesota history has done more to familiarize me with the draft process. No other sport have I spent so much time researching top draft picks. And years and years of failures chasing that number one pick have been more entertaining than the few years with Kevin What's-his-Name.
Well... I am thankful that the Vikings have been in better hands than the Wolves.
We still are, right?
The third preseason game between the Vikings and the Cowboys shed light on what to expect this season. Minnesota played well, and if not for a special teams miscue, probably would have defeated a good Dallas team. But that is why they have preseason, and certainly a blocked FG return for a touchdown is no reason to have deflated hopes. These things can be fixed in time.
The offensive line, much aligned in media, responded with their best game. John Sullivan opened up a few big holes, as did Steve Hutchinson. Charlie Johnson played well at left tackle, Anthony Herrera was decent. Phil Loadholt was beaten on a rush once or twice, but held his own for the rest. The second unit faltered some, but Joe Webb appears to like that -- as he can then run free. Adrian Peterson looked brilliant again. Donovan McNabb was precise in attack. Bernard Berrian made some decent catches. All in all, a good day on the offense.
The defense once again missed a few tackles, but not too many. There was definitely openings in zone coverage that allowed Dez Bryant to haul in big gains. The pass rush, so important to the coverage, was not as strong as hoped. Jared Allen did seem to hurry Tony Romo a few times, but obviously this team needs Kevin Williams to penetrate from the inside. Fred Evans and Guion started at tackle and were adequate. Christian Ballard did get a sack in the second half. Chad Greenway looked like a 'franchise-tag' player. The Hendersons were decent, though E.J. was run through on the Cowboys only offensive TD. In the secondary, Cedric Griffin made tackles, but often it was after a decent gain. Chris Cook also gave up a few significant gains. Players fighting for roster spots stepped up, most notably Marcus Sherels and Jordan Parks.
Just about ready for the start. The only problem is, so is everyone else....
The Green Bay Packers, owners of four Super Bowl rings (including last year), are poised and ready. They get back JerMichael Finley and Ryan Grant to an already explosive offense. Aaron Rodgers has looked better every year and the only question marks seem to be the offensive line's struggle in the preseason. They are the favorite to win the division.
The Chicago Bears, last year's winner, will be in the mix. Jay Cutler has his best year in some time, and Matt Forte proved he was not on the decline in 2010. Also running the ball could be Marion Barber and Chester Taylor. The Bears' defense will be strong led by Brain Urlacher and Lance Briggs. While not expected to win the division, many are choosing the Bears as a wild-card entrant.
The Detroit Lions are poised to achieve their first winning season in a long while, and with Matthew Stafford, Jahvid Best and Calvin Johnson, have big play potential that has been lacking. Of course, all the attention is on the defensive tackles: Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Expectations are higher in Detroit than at anytime since Barry Sanders left. The Lions are the popular "sleeper" pick for 2011.
So where does that leave the Vikings?
Most do not think Minnesota has a shot at the playoffs, but concede they will be improved under the new regime of Leslie Frazier and the savvy quarterback Donovan McNabb. Losing the entire Williams' wall for at least part of the season should have an impact on the defense. The secondary is suspect at best. The best hope is that the Vikings find a pass rush that limits the secondary being exposed.
An 8-8 season would be an accomplishment according to those in the know. The division is fierce, the schedule is tough. But the Dome has been repaired, and a new brighter look comes from the changed roof. The turf is new, and hopefully, safer than previous turf. Anything can happen, right?
I think the Vikings will be better than expected. If the turnover ratio changes, and it should, Minnesota will find itself in games many would not expect. McNabb's veteran leadership, combined with Adrian Peterson's skills, could be enough to make a run for the division title again. After all, Minnesota has won the division (in its' many forms) eighteen times, eight more than the nearest competitor (Green Bay and Chicago). We are quite used to winning.
A final preseason game stands in the way. Important battles to make the roster are the news of the day. The spots for the secondary and wide receiver should be especially tough. Sherels has become a fan favorite, as he is a Gophers alumni. Another former Gopher, defensive lineman Cedric McKinley, played well late in the Dallas game. At receiver, my new favorite, Emmanuel Arceneaux will try land a spot, or at minimum, make the practice squad. After his big catch against the Cowboys, the secret may be out. It is my opinion that he will soon make us forget about Sidney What's-his-Name.
My prediction? The Vikings will be better. Will better be enough? I do not know yet.
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