Most NFL fans will tell you that the preseason does not matter. Teams do not 'show' anything, often star players play little or none, and games often come down to 3rd and 4th stringers squaring off in the 4th quarter. So the fact that Minnesota is 0-2 is not alarming. Presently the Atlanta Falcons are winless this preseason. So are the Pittsburgh Steelers.
However, a look at teams who are undefeated still in preseason (Seattle, New Orleans, Washington, Houston) is a who's who for prognosticators. Most experts have these four teams higher up in expectation. The Seahawks, maybe the NFC favorite to get to the Super Bowl, have outscored their opponents 88-30 in three games. The Redskins, another favorite to at least return to the playoffs, has outscored their opponents 76-41 in their three wins. Some teams and coaches have put an emphasis on winning in these tune-up games.
Minnesota has not.
In the third week of the preseason we fans finally get to see first team offenses and defenses for more than a series or two. Guys like RB Adrian Peterson show up. Not that AP wanted to sit out the first two games, I am sure he did not. But anyone who watched the first two games this preseason will tell you this offense more than needs Peterson. Without their star running back, the Vikings are relegated to plodding efforts from RB Toby Gerhart and a pass attack vs. a defense not afraid of the run. As rough as QB Christian Ponder has been at times in his first few years, it gets rougher when he is facing pass rushes without his starting running backs.
For while Peterson is sorely missed on offense, we also learned how valuable Pro Bowl Fullback Jerome Felton is to the team. He has been held out of games this preseason like his running mate. RB Matt Asiata and others have filled in, but their is a glaring drop in talent from starters to reserve when it comes to running backs for the Vikings. And that is not meant to be a slam on Asiata, or Gerhart, but rather a long-winded compliment of our backfield, which is maybe the best in football.
So tonight we get to see our starters for a lengthy period. Or at least most of them. Felton is still not expected to play, and without him, I doubt Peterson will stay in more than a few series. WR Jarius Wright will not play. DT Sharrif Floyd, one of the three first-round picks, will not play. MLB Erin Henderson was dinged in practice and may not play as much as he otherwise would.
As for the Vikings faithful, I would say many remain skeptical.
Sure, there will always be fans who predict 10-12 win seasons every year. They bleed purple, love whomever is quarterback, and have named their pets after current players. I overheard a man call his large dog "Fusco" the other day. These fans will think nothing of an 0-4 preseason, nor become concerned about such things as owner fraud, injuries, or offensive schemes. They just want to be able to wear purple and beat Green Bay. Adrian Peterson will certainly carry them to the Promised Land.
The majority of home fans are skeptical. They saw a lackluster effort vs. the Bills last week as a sign all is not well. They doubt Ponder's ability to throw under pressure. Many are concerned that Leslie Frazier is not the right guy. They are further concerned the Lions and Bears may both be better than Minnesota in 2013, and that last year was a fluke. Further, these fans see Ziggy Wilf's troubles as a sign we may lose the stadium. If tonight's game does not go well for Minnesota, this will be the proof that our cynical brethren need to predict an 8-8 or worse record. They are a waiting to be angry group.
And then their are the extremists. Kind of a local fan-terrorists. They spend their Sundays cursing at the television. Or laughing. They almost enjoy when the team loses so that they can find their purple-bleeding friends and make fun of them. They have predicted failure and relish in it. They are certain that they could do a better job than Ponder, coach Frazier, or GM Rick Spielman. Every dropped pass, missed block, or whiff on a tackle is proof to these fans that there will never be a team like that of the 1970s. They have already tried and convicted Ziggy, and sold our team to Los Angeles. These were once bleeding purple fans, who may have suffered too great in the 1970s, 1987, 1998, or 2009. Too many close calls changed them from die-hards to haters.
Tonight we face the 49ers. Our fan-base is at the ready....
Can you feel it?
It is purple excitement and it is growing. One tries to be subtle, humble, approach the preseason with reserve.. but we cannot. We read the pundits saying we were a flash in the pan in 2012, and the 'patterns' say we will fall back down.
We don't see it.
The list of blue-chip players on this team is growing, and as a regular drinker of purple kool-aid, we are drunk with giddiness. A little concerned Greg Jennings is talking trash so early, but hey, we have his back now that he is in purple. Aaron Rodgers a pompous ass? OK, if you say so, our new favorite receiver. Week one was a glimpse at a few players fighting to make the squad, and impressive efforts by players such as Stephen Burton and John Carlson. We saw that Matt Cassel throws just a wee bit better than Joe Webb. Sure we lost, but that is not a worry week one.
This week the Vikings will play against the Buffalo Bills. Their rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel is all the rage, and Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are a very good 1-2 punch at running back. They scored 44 points in the first preseason game, albeit much of the scoring through reserves. The Bills are not an elite NFL talent, having finished 6-10 last year, but their first team is decent, and even strong at pass defense last year. Christian Ponder will face a test in the one or two quarters he is expected to play.
And that is what we can get focus on here. How will Ponder handle his new receivers? What does the addition of Jennings and Patterson do to the pass offense, but maybe equally important, opponent's run defenses? If Minnesota presents any kind of a solid passing attack, AP may have undercut himself at 2,500 yards.
I know what you are thinking. I am a gung-ho homer. The experts are not convinced. And you would be right.
This time of the year how can I be anything else?
But I am not alone...
There are many fans who feel as I do. We are trying not to talk cocky, or sound like complete homers, but we are. Most of us remember the winning ways of this franchise, the NFC Central domination, the frequent visits to the NFC Championship and/or Super Bowls. We know talent when we see it. And this team is loaded.
Tonight the Vikings play a relatively meaningless game against the Bills. The first few series on offense and defense will have merit, and fuel homers like myself to great heights should we do well. Most understand that this is not the time to judge a season, however, and these games are for coaches and scouts to evaluate talent.
Let's call it an appetizer.
The first preseason game is usually a yawn. After the first series or two it is hard to recognize names, and players come and go so quickly you cannot tell if your team's 2nd string is beating your opponents' 3rd string or worse. The Vikings opened this week with the Houston Texans, and marquis names like Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Andre Johnson, and Jared Allen were expectedly absent.
Usually on the agenda is a first glimpse of new additions to the team. Draft choices will make an appearance, provided they are not banged up, and off-season acquisitions will get their first chance to don the home colors. In the case of the game vs. Houston, two of the Vikings' three first-round picks made extended appearances. Cordarrelle Patterson made an instant impact, returning a kick-off 50 yards, stumbling only as he tried to go by the final tackler. He finished with four catches for 54 yards, 104 total yards as Minnesota gave the flashy rookie every chance to win over the crowd. Sharrif Floyd, a defensive tackle, made a couple of nice plays before getting dinged and leaving the field. Xavier Rhodes did not play.
But most eyes (and hearts) were trained on Matt Cassel. The majority of Vikings' fans are highly concerned with Christian Ponder's lack of progress, and moreover, frightened of who backs him up. Joe Webb struck a nerve in his under whelming effort in Green Bay last season in the Wild-Card loss. The addition of Cassel gave Ponder critics hope that Minnesota will 'see the light' and give up on the young quarterback. Fans who are still behind Ponder see the addition of the veteran quarterback as insurance that we will not see another game like the last vs. the Packers.
Ponder would play only the first series. He made a nice pass to Jerome Simpson for 15 yards on his first attempt. Then, on the Houston 40-yard line, Ponder's pass intended for Simpson deflected off of his fingertips and was intercepted. Catchable, but slightly overthrown in the middle of the field. The anti-Ponder fans were reminded of why they feel they way they do.
Cassel played the rest of the half. He completed 12 of 19 passes for over 200 yards, though the field was littered with backups and players hoping to make an NFL roster. Minnesota did keep Patterson on the field, and Cassel targeted him six times, completing four. Cassel's biggest play was a 61-yard touchdown pass to Zach Line, an unknown from SMU. Noteworthy on that play was the impressive efforts of Stephen Burton, who made a crucial down field block that allowed Line to score. Cassel hit Burton earlier with a 56-yard pass, where Burton's agility sprung him for a much bigger gain after the catch.
All in all a decent game.
There were some passes that should not have been thrown. Cassel was intercepted on a pass intended for John Carlson that never had a chance. A few others missed their mark. But I doubt if the anti-Ponder fans read too much into that. They were too busy celebrating 200 passing yards in a half. Cassel completed his first three passes, missed on five of the next six, and then completed eight of his last ten.
Matt Cassel is an interesting player. He never started a single game in college. Playing for USC, he threw only 33 passes in his four years. He had 11 rush attempts, and caught a pass. He never was involved in a touchdown directly. He was drafted by the New England Patriots with the 230th overall pick in the seventh round. His first three years at New England were as a back-up only. However, in his fourth season he took over for an injured Tom Brady and went 10-5, throwing for over 3,600 yards, 21 touchdowns, and only 11 interceptions. His passer rating was 89.4.
Cassel was a sudden commodity.
He ended up in Kansas City, after signing a 63-million dollar contract through 2014. Cassel would go 4-11 as a starter in 2009, throwing only 16 TDs in 15 games. But the following year things changed for the better. Cassel threw for 27 TDs with only seven picks, over 3,100 yards, and the Chiefs were 10-5 in his starts. Cassel played in the Pro Bowl that year, his only appearance to date.
Cassel had become a star.
But then the injury bug struck, Cassel started only 17 games the next two year, and the Chiefs were 5-12 in those games. Cassel threw 21 interceptions compared to 16 TDs in that stretch. Cassel's passer rating, 93.0 in his Pro Bowl year of 2010, dropped to 76.6 in 2011, and 66.7 in 2012. It got so bad that Arrowhead faithful actually cheered when he was injured last season.
Rick Spielman took Cassel away from all that, and now he works for us.
Matt Cassel will continue to see plenty of time during this preseason. While Christian Ponder will begin to take more and more snaps as he prepares to be the 2013 starter, Cassel will still get a quick education of Bill Musgrave's offense and players. Matt will start the season as Ponder's back-up.
A role he has parlayed into something bigger throughout his career.
My first memories of Vikings' games were at old Met Stadium, coated in snowmobile suits, blankets, and spilled hot cocoa. It was cold. Bitter cold. We were a powerful franchise, winning division titles seemingly every year, four Super Bowl visits in less than ten years, and respect from the rest of the league. We did not mind the cold.
We had one of the most fearsome defenses in all of football. Our front line, known in time as "The Purple People Eaters", actually ate quarterbacks. Alan Page was possibly the most gifted defensive tackle in NFL history.In addition, powerful outside rushes from Carl Eller and Jim Marshall, and opposing QBs were on the menu every Sunday. Add a couple of gritty linebackers and opportunistic defensive backs, and you have a defense that could win games all by themselves.
Often the games were not that exciting on offense. At least, not until Chuck Foreman showed up in 1973. Sure, Fran Tarkenton was fun to watch scramble for his life, and then throw a desperate pass to Stu Voigt the tight end, or an occasional long ball to Gene Washing ton or John Gilliam. But the Vikings relied for years on guys like Bill Brown and Dave Osborne churning out the clock more than yards.
But something changed in 1976. Bud Grant let his hair down. He decided to let a rookie start at wide receiver. Sammy White, a 2nd round draft choice from Grambling State, rewarded Grant with back-to-back Pro Bowl years in his first two seasons. White caught 51 passes for 906 yards and 10 TDs in his rookie year. That may not sound like Moss-type numbers, but back in the day it was. And with the new-found deep dimension of White to compliment the future possession receiving skills of Ahmad Rashad, Tarkenton was afforded choice in passing.
And it was more fun to watch.
After Tarkenton, passers like Tommy Kramer and Wade Wilson took over. Kramer liked to go deep. When Steve Jordan joined in 1982, the passing offense had an added dimension of an athletic tight end (no offense to Voigt). From there, Minnesota added more players over the years who changed how Minnesota moved the football.
Guys like Anthony Carter in 1985. Cris Carter in 1990. Jake Reed in 1991. And the most dynamic receiver to ever wear Purple, Rand Moss in 1998. At quarterback, Minnesota had a revolving door for many years after Kramer. Rich Gannon followed Wilson. Jim McMahon. Warren Moon, Brad Johnson...
In 1998, Randall Cunningham, having replaced an injured Johnson in 1997, had maybe the best year in Vikings' history. Minnesota went 15-1 that year. With the rookie Moss, Cris Carter, and Jake Reed to choose from, Minnesota's offense became literally unstoppable. This allowed Robert Smith to have great success running the ball. The complete and perfect offense.
But Cunningham was soon injured and replaced by Jeff George, who in turn, handed the reigns to Daunte Culpepper. Utilizing the same receivers as Cunningham, Culpepper had a golden rookie season in 2000. Then five more years at the helm that each seemed to be less than the previous one. The revolving door continued.
The names start to blur in the mid-2000s. Receiving names like Troy Williamson, Bernard Berrian, Bobby Wade, and Sidney Rice. Quarterbacks such as Tarvaris Jackson and Gus Frerotte, They were lean years. Not that players under performed, more that there was no Carters, Kramer, Moss, or Tarkenton.
That all changed for the better in 2009.
Percy Harvin was drafted and Brett Favre was signed. Minnesota became exciting once again through the air. Visanthe Shiancoe helped solidify a pass attack so strong that future Hall-of-Famer Favre had his most productive season. They got us to the NFC Championship in 2009, and inches from a return to another Super Bowl.
It has been a rough few years since that glorious 2009 season in the passing game. Favre could not match his 09 season the following year. Donovan McNabb's visit a failure. And then young Christian Ponder took over during the 2011 season. Most fans have not been impressed.
During the off-season, Rick Spielman jettisoned Harvin to Seattle and rebuilt his receiving corps with former-Packer Greg Jennings and draft pick Cordarelle Patterson, With Kyle Rudolph at tight end, it is hoped that these three will provide enough of a passing attack to help Adrian Peterson keep teams from over-playing against him
And so this first preseason game is a chance to see who else will help. Can Ponder improve, or will we turn to Matt Cassel? Or maybe even McLeod Bethel-Thompson? You will see them all tonight. At receiver, we may not get a glimpse at Jennings or Patterson (not a long one for sure), but there are other receivers who want to make noise and push for time while Patterson develops. Jarius Wright is said to be looking good. Jerome Simpson gets another chance to display the athletic talents he possesses. Longer shots like Stephen Burton, Joe Webb, and Greg Childs will look to make a noise tonight. And then super-long shots like Erik Highsmith or local boy Adam Thielen from Minnesota State at Mankato.
That is what we look for in the first week of preseason. This 2013 team needs an improved passing attack. And while those concerns may not be fully addressed in this first meaningless game, there is a team spark that we will all look for tonight.
And we want to see the ball in the air. Often.
The 2012 surprise Vikings' playoff visit ended with a thud. We watched as Joe Webb showed us that Christian Ponder might not be so bad. Webb completed only 11 of 30 passes, and his lone TD pass came when the game was already 24-3 Packers. Just a week earlier Ponder had thrown for three touchdowns as Minnesota scored 37 points in a victory over their hated rival. The loss was not shocking, but it was definitely a case of "what could have been". Without Ponder, MVP Adrian Peterson was given extreme attention by the Green Bay defense. Minnesota became one-dimensional on offense. On defense, Aaron Rodgers picked apart a rag-tag secondary to the tune of 274 yards.
Minnesota, which had snuck in the playoffs with a season-ending four game win streak, was finished.
The off-season started poorly. CB Antoine Winfield, rightly unhappy about a lack of an offer, left Minnesota for Seattle. Then, WR Percy Harvin, coming off of a solid season, decided he did not like playing for the Purple. He was whisked away to Seattle for a group of draft picks, including a first-rounder in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Minnesota entered the draft with serious holes to fill at CB, QB, WR, and MLB (with the departure of E.J. Henderson). On top of that, there was growing concern that DT Kevin Williams was beginning the end of his great career, and there was no "blue-chip" replacement for his key position in the 4-3 defense. Further, many felt the Vikings should use one of the two first-round draft choices to solidify the quarterback position, as Webb had demonstrated the talent pool was only one player deep.
Enter Rick Spielman.
In the course of a few months, highlighted by the NFL Draft, Spielman seemingly fixed everything. You lose aging but solid Winfield? No problem, we draft Xavier Rhodes. Missing Percy Harvin? How about the SEC all-purpose yardage leader Cordarelle Patterson. Kevin Williams' age is concerning? No worries, let's add Sharrif Floyd. Spielman added a third first-round pick in the draft and took care of three major needs.
But there were still critics.
Some complained that we did not fix the quarterback issue. What if Ponder crumbles? We had a chance to upgrade the most important position and we passed... Also, who was going to play middle linebacker? Minnesota decided not to draft a few solid inside linebackers in the early stages of the draft and now were praying that Brian Urlacher wanted to jump ship and be healthy at the same time. Why not use key picks for these two vital positions?
Further, even before Harvin left for Seattle there was concern about wide receiver. None of the other receivers did much of anything, and the collection of rookies and journeymen produced little. And now without Harvin, Minnesota might be resigned to running the ball and looking for TE Kyle Rudolph too much.
Do not fear, Spielman is here.
Spielman maneuvered through free agency the signing of two former Packers. Greg Jennings was signed to fill the gaping hole at receiver. Desmond Bishop was later added to shore up the linebacker position. Both have question marks surrounding them about age and/or injury, but the talents are hard to ignore. Jennings finished the 2012 season with near 300 yards and four touchdowns in his final four games to silence concerns that his impressive career was waning. Bishop, who missed the 2012 season with serious injury, had admirably replaced Nick Barnett at MLB, and was instrumental in the Green Bay Super Bowl victory over the Steelers in 2011.
And now they were both Vikings. There is a certain feeling of satisfaction when Green Bay players come to Minnesota. Ryan Longwell, Brett Favre, Darren Sharper... the list was already healthy before the 2013 off-season. Now, it feels like some type of action plan. Hone your skills in Wisconsin, and enjoy them in Minnesota.
And for icing on the cake, Spielman snagged veteran quarterback Matt Cassel from Kansas City. Cassel has had some success in the NFL, He had ten win seasons in both New England and Kansas City. He was named to the Pro Bowl in 2010. This appeased the Ponder critics somewhat. For we Ponder faithful, it gave us assurance that Joe Webb would not be backing up Ponder in 2013.
And so the 2013 Training Camp open in Mankato. This will be the 48th year Minnesota has trained at Minnesota State. There is much to follow this summer. Who will win the starting middle linebacker job? Is Patterson capable of making us forget Harvin's exciting kick returns? Will Ponder improve? Which defensive backs will step up to fight Green Bay (and others) three and four receiver sets? How good is this Floyd kid?
And many more...
But one thing I am not questioning. Do we have the right guy behind the desk?
As I read the articles on Percy Harvin's placement on the PUP list and Packer coach McCarthy's retorts to Greg Jennings' observations regarding his former team, I can answer a whole-hearted YES.
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