I've covered the Minnesota Vikings on and off since 1990. For much of that time, the team has underachieved and sometimes simply choked while wearing a snarl on its collective face. Those who spent copious time in the locker room were right to think of a 41-0 loss in the NFC Championship Game as a function of karma.
This year's team is different. This year's team is the most likeable set of overachievers to wear purple since 1992, when Tony Dungy was just starting to try to prove he could be an NFL defensive coordinator.
So why do so many Vikings fans view this season the way economists view the Fiscal Cliff?
"You're right, the people around you can sometimes drain the energy, and make you feel like things are worse than they are," coach Leslie Frazier said.
With the Vikings at 6-5 and heading to Green Bay for a renewal of the best rivalry in Minnesota sports, Minnesota fans should feel they're playing with house money instead of holding losing lottery tickets.
Before we get to perception, let's give full weight to the key fact of any NFL season: the team's record. The Vikings being 6-5 means they've already met or surpassed rational expectations for victories in a year dedicated to developing young talent. They are contending for the playoffs one year after finishing 3-13 and while testing a young quarterback, their star player's reconstructed knee, a new defensive coordinator, a revamped offensive line and a host of young players.
This season the franchise seems to be edging toward competence with a rational plan and a generally admirable cast of competitors. They have lost only to playoff contenders, the weakest of which, Washington, is 5-6 and features the league's most dynamic player in quarterback Robert Griffin III. They have beaten San Francisco, perhaps the team with the strongest top-to-bottom roster in the NFL. They have swept Detroit, a team loaded with talent that went 10-6 and made the playoffs last year.
This team is ahead of schedule while employing a bunch of people who don't make you hold your nose during interviews.
Frazier is so likeable and honest he may get kicked out of the NFL coaches' union. Zygi Wilf has developed into the best owner in town. Christian Ponder, although an erratic quarterback, is refreshingly down-to-earth. The core players, from Adrian Peterson to Chad Greenway, Antoine Winfield, Jared Allen and Percy Harvin, compete with maximum effort. Peterson is a candidate for comeback player of the year if not MVP, an award that Harvin may have been considered for had he remained healthy.
When the scandal of the season is your star player oversleeping and making it to a game only 1 1/2 hours early, you're living right. Most NFL scandals involve DNA tests.
Of course, for Vikings fans, history blocks optimism.
Recent Vikings history is filled with talented teams who underachieved on the field and embarrassed themselves in the court of public opinion -- and sometimes on party boats, -- while losing most of the games that define a franchise's reputation.
Vikings history encourages pessimism, and so has the team's play over the past four games. Since Tampa Bay handed out that thrashing in the Metrodome, the Vikings are 1-3, and Ponder's struggles are troubling for those familiar with the franchise's inability to develop a homegrown starting quarterback with star and staying power.
This year, though, pessimism has outpaced reality. Frazier noted that if the Vikings win this weekend, they'll be tied with the Packers in the standings while holding at least a temporary tie-breaking advantage.
So, yes, this is a team with problems and challenges, a team that may fall on its face down the stretch. But there's no reason to call for Frazier's firing, as so many fans seem willing to do.
One victory over the next two weeks would leave the Vikings well ahead of expectations with a chance to make the playoffs.
This is no time to brood.
Longtime fans know that's what January is for.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org