As an exercise, predicting an NFL team’s record is like trying to guess how many jelly beans are in the jar. In reality, we have no clue. We’re just tossing out numbers.
Predictions only serve to reveal a perception about a team, and for the Vikings, that’s quite a contrast between fans and national media. In short: Fans are believers, outsiders not so much.
One prominent Vegas online site set the Vikings victory total at 6.5, which is double what one national publication projected in terms of wins.
From my perspective, it’s difficult to envision the Vikings doing worse than their 2013 season, a nightmare that saw them shuffle quarterbacks like a deck of cards, play defense like matadors and fire their coach after a 5-10-1 finish.
How does a team go backward after that?
So what’s realistic for Year 1 of Mike Zimmer’s tenure? We’re not ready to anoint the Vikings a playoff team, but in the spirit of opening week, our crystal ball shows an 8-8 record.
That guesswork reflects an equal dose of optimism and concern. First, the positives …
Coaching: The combination of Zimmer’s defense and Norv Turner’s offense breeds trust and confidence. Those two know what they’re doing in terms of both devising creative schemes and using their personnel properly.
Zimmer’s handling of clock management and other in-game situations remains an unknown, but the preseason revealed a depth of creativity on both sides of the ball that felt refreshing.
Quarterback stability: Remember when Josh Freeman showed up unexpectedly and was allowed to throw 53 passes in a game after practicing only four days as the starter? That was a real hoot.
The Vikings actually have a plan at that position now, unlike last season when they handled their quarterback situation like a game of “Eenie, meenie, miney, moe.”
Matt Cassel might not rank among the Top 20 quarterbacks in the league, but stability is critical at that position. Rookie Teddy Bridgewater wins popularity votes and will take over at some point, but Zimmer and Turner won’t feel pressured to rush his timeline.
Cassel enters the season with a clear picture of expectations. If he does his job, he keeps the job.
Playmakers: The Vikings aren’t devoid of high-end individual talent. A Norv Turner offense that features Adrian Peterson, Cordarrelle Patterson, Kyle Rudolph and Greg Jennings should score plenty of points.
Harrison Smith looks like a future Pro Bowl safety. Everson Griffen is intriguing as an every-down defensive end in Zimmer’s system. Rookie linebacker Anthony Barr will make an immediate impact as a pass rusher.
Free-agent signings Captain Munnerlyn and Linval Joseph plug huge holes on defense.
On the other hand …
Tough start: The NFL schedule-makers handed the Vikings a Who’s Who of quarterbacks right off the bat. In order, they face Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford in Weeks 2-6.
That’s a tall order for any team, much less one with a new coach, a new system and a young roster.
Oh, and a secondary that still looks remarkably thin in depth and talent.
Trouble spot: The Vikings finished 31st in pass defense last season, allowing 287.2 yards per game, and their secondary remains the No. 1 area of concern. That’s problematic considering the quality of quarterbacks on the docket.
Smith and Munnerlyn are the only guys that we’d classify as “sure things.” Xavier Rhodes showed promise as a rookie, but he started only six games and battled injuries, so he’s still relatively unproven.
After that, who knows?
Zimmer still hasn’t named the starting safety opposite Smith. Their third cornerback, Josh Robinson, missed significant time in camp because of a hamstring injury and hardly distinguished himself as reliable the past two seasons.
And that’s just the starters. It won’t take many injuries to move the needle to panic mode.
Tough division: The NFC West remains the league’s best division overall, but the NFC North ranks as high as any in terms of offense.
The Packers, Bears and Lions all finished in the top eight in total offense last season. Those three teams averaged at least 24 points per game. Can the Vikings keep pace?
Combine all those things, the optimism and the concerns, and we’ll predict a .500 season. Bet at your own risk though.