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?
In Brad Childress' final days we saw the complete disintegration of a football team. Not that the 2010 team was ever considered good, but there were signs of hope.
The opening game of the season Minnesota traveled to New Orleans and held their offense to a mere fourteen points. Unfortunately, they lost 14-9. Week Two, Minnesota lost at home 14-10 to Miami. After a win at home versus the Lions and a following bye, they faced a scheduled four weeks of the Jets, Cowboys, Packers and Patriots, three games of which were on the road. The Vikings only managed to defeat Dallas, and were 2-5 at that point. An overtime win over the Cardinals put Minny at 3-5, not good, but with some glimmers of understanding.
Minnesota would then travel to Chicago where they lost 27-13. They then returned home and were destroyed 31-3 by Green Bay. Childress was gone the next day. Leslie Frazier was promoted and a new era begun. Frazier went 3-3 with a variety of quarterbacks and defensive players. The best game was easily the delayed game with at the Eagles, where Minnesota battered Michael Vick and beat a good Philly team 24-14. The worst was a 40-14 shellacking at TCF Stadium at the hands of the Bears.
In the end Minnesota's dome collapsed. Brett Favre was beaten into submission. Childress was gone. And to make matters even more gloom, the Lions finished ahead of the Vikings while the Bears and Packers met in the NFC Championship. The previous year Green Bay gave up over 50 points in a playoff loss to the Cardinals, while Minnesota routed the Cowboys and held their won in New Orleans. In one year's time we saw the complete collapse of a franchise.
But like kings of old, when a season has died, a new one is born. The 2011 Vikings face a tough schedule again, as all three NFC North teams appear to be among the better in the NFC, if not the NFL. Green Bay has already won their opener, a 42-34 win over the Saints at home. Chicago is the defending division champion, and has added more to the offense (Marion Barber and Roy Williams) through free agency. Detroiters are certain that the combination of tackle Suh with rookie tackle Nick Fairley will propel them toward a playoff visit. Everybody is confident except one fan base: ours.
Vikings fans who have hope this year are called homers. Given the others in the division it is reasoned that Minnesota is doomed for fourth place automatically. The addition of guys like Donovan McNabb and Charlie Johnson has not impressed the critics. The losses of players such as Sidney Rice, Ray Edwards, Brett Favre, Bryant McKinnie, Ben Leber, etc... too much to overcome with a few elderly veteran additions, they say.
But as you might have guessed, that does not include me. And I am not alone. Whether a blind homer, eternal optimist, or genius prognosticator, there are a growing base that sees reasons to get excited for Vikings football in 2011. The signing of Adrian Peterson today a boost to ego. The cutting of McKinnie proof that there are new philosophies afoot. The older of us who have witnessed Minnesota be among the best in the division more often than not.
If we improve on our turnover ratio we will be better. If we really improve on the ratio, I think the playoffs are possible.
It may be another pitcher of purple kool-aid, but hey, what would life be without kool-aid?
San Diego will be a tough test. But like the Monkees of old, I am a believer.
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.
After the Vikings' 20-7 victory over Seattle late last night I stepped into a local establishment and overheard this conversation which I scribed for this blog. Because I did not know these people I have assigned them nicknames.
Amethyst: "Did you see that goal-line stand in the second quarter? Four times they stopped Justin Forsett. And with the second defense against the top offense for the Seahawks. it will be like old times this year."
Purple Angry Fists: "It was Seattle for Christ's sake. It was T-Jack. It means nothing, nada."
Objector: "Are we going to order a round? I want another cocktail."
Amethyst: "Well, you would certainly agree that Donovan McNabb looked great? C'mon, a 106.8 passer rating. A long drive. And most importantly, no interceptions."
Angry Fists: "He got hit hard early in the first series. Three and out. The offensive line is terrible. Charlie Johnson is old, so is Steve Hutchinson. Everyone knows Sullivan is worthless. And don't get me started about Herrera."
Amethyst: "Herrera did not even play. Listen, the Vikings moved the ball. The line looked solid. Getting rid of McKinnie lit a fire under the remaining survivors. Charlie Johnson will be a welcomed addition at the blind side."
Objector: "That was a great movie. I love that woman. She did not deserve to be treated..."
Angry Fists: "The Seahawks are the worst team in football. They are a lock for the Andrew Luck lottery. The Vikings are in for fourth place this year. The Packers and Bears will both be good. The Lions are improving. What did we do? Sign Michael Jenkins? We did not address the defensive secondary and offensive line enough in the draft or free agency to compete. Christian Ponder and Kyle Rudolph? We needed linemen and corners and we get two skills players. Aarrggh."
Amethyst: "Your pills? The NFL has shown parity in recent years. Teams can go from 6-10 to 10-6 in the blink of an eye. Leslie Frazier is a good motivator. Minnesota is one year removed from the NFC Championship, and most parts are still in place"
Angry Fists: "Are you daft, that was all Brett Favre when we knew how to block. The Packers WON the Super Bowl last year. I cannot handle another year where the cheese heads are better than us. And now the Lions have that Suh guy with Fairley, Stafford, Best.. I am tellin ya, fourth place here we come."
Amethyst: "The Packers have already shown trouble with their line. I heard they have allowed like ten sacks in the first two preseason games. Maybe they won't be so good this year?"
Objector: " I like that Aaron Rodgers, he is cute."
Angry Fists: "What does it matter any way. The Metrodome lease is up. No way the legislators will back a new stadium in this economy. They're going to be terrible for Los Angeles by next year."
Amethyst: "They are working out a deal as we speak. The NFL wants football in the Twin Cities."
Objector: "Why don't they just borrow Target Field? It is so pretty."
Angry Fists: "The Vikings will be terrible this year and then gone. We won't win six games with this crew. Back in the day when we were really good it was because of our offensive line. Remember guys like Ed White, Ron Yary, Mick Tinglehoff, Milt Sundae. And the next generation had Randall McDaniel. What do we have now? Chris DeGeare and Phil Loadholt? Tell me how they are going to help us win? Ryan Cook? And the defensive line. And the secondary. Cedric Griffin has two torn ACLs, we have no-name safeties, Ray Edwards is gone, so is Pat Williams. We will be terrible."
Amethyst: "Guys will step up. They always do. Did you see Marcus Sherels' interception return? Did you watch Everson Griffen and Cedric Griffin? They both looked good. And we are going to have the Henderson brothers playing together at linebacker! Stop raining on the parade before it starts."
Objector: "I like parades."
Amethyst: "Guys like you are a dime a dozen. Complain and complain so that you can say 'I told you so' if we play bad. If we play well, then you jump on the wagon and claim your undying love for the team. True fans support the home team, period. Being a fan means sometimes not listening to logic and going forward with hope."
Angry Fists: "That and a quarter will get you a phone call. We need linemen. Blind fans like you are called homers, you know, see everything through purple glasses. Even though there is no line, you will be happy. We could lose the first four games and you will say it's getting better. I pay hundreds of dollars out of my pocket each game for season tickets and I have the right to complain. I have waited over thirty years for a Super Bowl and we are going in the wrong direction."
Objector: "It is just a game, right?"
Most won't watch. The first preseason game is like a movie trailer. it will give you a quick glimpse of the future, but only enough to entice. Was that Adrian Peterson in there? Will Donovan McNabb throw a touchdown? Who will replace the recent departed Bryant McKinnie? We will not learn tonight.
Tonight is a chance for players to hit someone other than their teammate. A chance to look good for coaches. A first look at new offenses and defenses for many. A chance to turn it up a notch, as it were. And the starters will be on a short string. But we should get a chance to see some rookies. My underdog rookie claim is Emmanuel Arceneaux. I want him to be the next Sidney Rice.
Oh, I will be watching. I have taken all I can of "Jersey Housewives", people who hoard, and crews that look for ghosts in the dark. Tonight is about reclaiming the television. Tonight is a glimpse of sixteen Sundays. As a Vikings fan I have been accustomed to winning, and despite a 6-10 2010 season, I want to win now. Again.
I will hope to see rookies Christian Ponder, Kyle Rudolph, Christian Ballard justify their selection. I do not need much, just a play that says "Wow, he could be...". That's all.
I want to see McNabb protected. Brett Favre looked an awful lot like Archie Manning last year, which in turn made the turnovers, which led to the awful point differential, and hence a poor record. Guys like John Sullivan, Anthony Herrera, and Ryan Cook have to improve. We need to see recent picks Chris DeGeare and Phil Loadholt start to pan out. And most important, someone needs to emerge as a solid left tackle. Right now that looks like former-Colt Charlie Johnson.
I need to see a pass rush. Brian Robison steps in for departed Ray Edwards. There seems to be depth at the defensive line, and it has religiously been our bread and butter for good defense. If the line returns to elite form, the high ranking will follow, and so will the wins. Pat Williams is gone. Kevin will need a substitute. Will Ballard be good enough in his rookie year to play? How good are Fred Evans and Letroy Guion going to be?
I hope to see the team play inspired. In the words of Tupac, "Keep Your Head Up". Too much negativity last year. It is hard not to be down when the Packers and Bears are playing in the NFC Championship and the Lions win out to finish ahead of you. The talent is there. Much of it was in the 2009 NFC Championship. A rise to the top may not be as hard to accomplish as most think. I want the 2011 Vikings to play with more heart than in 2010.
No, I am ready for the 2011 season to begin. The final countdown begins....
Right after "Marley and Me".
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