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.
When a team so thouroughly dominates another, I think the pain is less. Cowboys fans, the national media, and other non-believers can accept their fate. Today Minnesota was the superior squad. Do not cry Dallas, it really never was.
Sidney Rice is a beast. Brett Favre a leader. Ray Edwards under-appreciated. What more can be said? The Vikings lines dominated. Brad Childress a near genius. The outside linebackers and secondary tackled like they were asked .. completely. We bent at times, but never wavered.
The Vikings travel to New Orleans for next Sunday's championship game. Already commentators think we have little chance as the tables are turned regarding home crowd advantages in domes. But these Vikings in 2009-10 are different. We have a real quarterback. We have many All-Pros all over the field.
Who Dat will meet a purple fate come next Sunday. Brett Favre (it's so ironic) will be the man that leads the Vikings to their first Super Bowl win. When you are King, it has to be. We are satisfied with nothing less.
Skol, long live the ViKings.
Hope eternal, or hope anew, the Vikings hit the bye week at 7-1, having won a big rivalry game at Lambeau to take control of the North Division. As we are given two weeks to rest for the upcoming second half of the season, we pause and reflect as to why we are who we are.
The first difference, and biggest, is Brett Favre. He has brought leadership and skill to the QB position. His numbers are solid. In the NFL he is 5th in pass completions (174), 5th in attempts (256) and 4th in percentage (68). His yardage total of 1,925 is 8th best, his yards per attempt at 7.52 is 10th overall. Favre is tied for first in TD passes with 16, and he has only been intercepted three times, while sacked eighteen. His passer rating (106) is 4th in the league.
Newest addition Percy Harvin has had a great impact with kick returns and receiving. Harvin has modest numbers in the offense with 8 rushes for 39 yards, and 28 receptions for 369 yards and three TDs. However, as a kick returner he rivals the best in the game. Harvin has outperformed Josh Cribbs of the Cleveland Browns, considered by many to be the best in the NFL. Harvin has three less returns (31-28), for the same 860 yards, and has two TDs to Cribbs' one. Harvin is in the top three in the NFL in attempts, yards, average, and TDs. He is on pace for 2,536 total yards and ten TDs. Not bad for a skipped over first rounder.
The emergence of Sidney Rice, along with the red-zone efforts of Visanthe Shiancoe has boosted the passing game in 2009. Rice has 37 catches for 585 yards (6th in NFL). Shiancoe has 22 catches for 203 yards and 6 TDs (2nd). Rice seemingly hauls in everything thrown his way, unlike his predecessor Troy Williamson. Shiancoe appears to be faster and stronger than anyone expected to cover him. Rice is on pace to break 1,000 yards while Shiancoe is headed for double-digit scores.
The running game is Adrian Peterson, and he has not disappointed. He is regularly running by, around or over opposing tacklers, a human highlight reel on a game-by-game basis. Peterson is on pace to rush for 1,568 yards and 18 TDs. He averages 4.81 yards per attempt. Critics point to a reduction in numbers from 2008, but we in the know see the same guy. Maybe better. AP has 19 receptions for 189 yards this season, and is on pace for near 2,000 total yards.
The Vikings offense is 2nd in scoring to the Saints, albeit nine points behind. We are 10th in the league in yardage, 12th is rushing, 12th in passing. A balanced attack that scores better than it moves the ball.
Defensively, the Vikings are first in the league in sacks. That, combined with their overall 7th rating in rush yardage allowed (94.8 ypg) makes them strong. Only one team has allowed fewer rushing TDs. We are 23rd in the league in pass yards allowed, averaging 237.9 per game. The Achilles heel of the team is exactly that. Most realize that this will have to be addressed in order to go deep in the playoffs.
Finally, Brad Childress and the coaching staff have had a decent year. If you polled all Vikings' diehards, you might find more disagree, but no one can argue with 7-1 record and a sweep of the Packers. That is Bud Grant like. How much Childress contributes to drafts, free agents, and roster selection is unknown to me, but I would assume he has input. No one will argue with our last few drafts. No one will complain now about the arrival of Brett Favre. Sorry diehards, but that contract extension is looking as likely as a cold February in the Twin Cities.
Yes, we are a good football team this year. The pessimists have less and less ammunition each game. The critics, well they will never stop until the day we win the biggest, most unattainable prize. So far, in this season, we seem to have another solid chance. Hope eternal, for me.
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