The message didn’t change, only the context.
Don’t listen to what people say about you, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier warned his team on the eve of training camp. The NFL is too unpredictable and fluid to fall into that trap.
“I’m sure over this offseason they have had a lot of people telling them, ‘Hey, you guys are on your way, you’re moving in the right direction,’ ” Frazier said.
Frazier shared a similar edict about outside expectations before the start of training camp last summer. He told his players to ignore chatter, which was smart, because most of it predicted a rather crummy season.
“In the NFL today, I don’t know if you want to count yourself out of any situation,” Frazier said then.
In many ways, this season will provide more context to their 2012 surprise, perhaps reveal whether a 10-6 record and playoff appearance was a fluke or an indication that the organization truly is on the ascent. In truth, it’s still difficult to get a read on this team, largely because of its quarterback.
Preseason predictions are mostly a futile exercise in the NFL because roster turnover changes every team’s chemistry. And injuries remain an unforgiving reality that levels the playing field and can submarine even the best teams.
The Vikings look like a talented team, maybe even a playoff team again, if — and this belongs in bold capital letters — Christian Ponder can perform at the level he showed in the final three games of the season. It’s hard to envision the Vikings advancing in the playoffs with mediocre quarterback play, but a more consistent Ponder should give this team a chance to contend for the division title.
But nobody really knows if Ponder can do that and the schedule looks treacherous, so the Vikings inspire an equal dose of optimism and skepticism. Here’s why:
A year ago, the Vikings had more new faces than freshman orientation. This season, they return 19 of 22 starters, all three coordinators and added a few important pieces in Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson, Sharrif Floyd and Xavier Rhodes.
They have a nucleus of players who rank somewhere between elite and very good at their respective positions: Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen, John Sullivan, Kyle Rudolph, Matt Kalil, Chad Greenway, Harrison Smith and Blair Walsh.
That’s a solid foundation to build upon. Yet that doesn’t guarantee anything because so many factors determine the direction a season takes.
Take 2012, for example. Everything just kind of came together for the Vikings last season. Their young players exceeded expectations, Peterson performed out-of-this-world and the team caught momentum and ran with it.
Can that happen again? Sure. But some areas of concern create enough doubt, beginning obviously with Ponder’s development and whether he can be trusted as a franchise quarterback.
The Vikings also are thin at linebacker, and Erin Henderson must prove that he can handle the middle linebacker role. The depth at defensive tackle will be tested if Kevin Williams’ knee injury lingers.
The loss of cornerback Antoine Winfield can’t be overstated because he was a glue for the secondary, and his absence leaves a lot of unknowns at cornerback. Can Chris Cook stay healthy? How will Rhodes fare as a rookie? Can Josh Robinson handle the slot/nickel?
And the schedule is a doozy. The Vikings own the league’s 10th-hardest schedule, based on their opponents’ 2012 record, according to NFL.com. That’s always a nebulous statistic because of the league’s year-to-year fluidity, but the path appears daunting.
The Vikings open with back-to-back road games in the NFC North (Detroit and Chicago) and play only one true home game the first month because of their London trip.
They play seven teams that finished with winning records last season. They face five playoff teams, three division champions and the Super Bowl winner.
Of course, most people thought 2012 would be a death march, and the Vikings turned that theory upside down, which created more optimism and expectations for this season.
A return trip to the playoffs seems realistic, but until we learn if Ponder has made meaningful improvement, it remains difficult to gauge this team’s true potential.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org