First, allow myself to explain… myself. This list is not intended to be a list of the 10 best players on the Minnesota Vikings. Everyone knows that Jared Allen is really good, and that he’s going to sack the opposing quarterback roughly once per game. We all understand how good Adrian Peterson is, and that the Vikings offense is infinitely more effective and dynamic when he’s on the field. We know that Antoine Winfield is still one of the best all-around cornerbacks in the NFL when he’s healthy. Obviously, the season will head South in a hurry if Allen stinks, AP isn’t 100%, Winfield gets injured, Matt Kalil goes bust, and Percy Harvin misses time with migraines. So, you won’t see those names on this list. Instead, what you’ll see are the names of the ten players I believe will make or break the Vikings in 2012.
By “make,” let’s assume that the best-case scenario is a playoff berth this year. Barring the unlikely event that every player on this list instantly turns into a Hall of Fame caliber player, the Vikings are a long shot to even make the playoffs, let alone do something crazy like advance to the Super Bowl. So, the playoffs are the upside. “Break” would essentially be the worst-case scenario (i.e. last season). If the Vikings are to make the playoffs, they’ll need their stars to be healthy and productive, and they’ll need huge contributions from the majority of these players. We’ll start with five today in Part I, with the rest to come in Part II.
CB Chris Cook – Cook has more to prove in 2011 than any other Viking, and it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that his ability to stay on the field and out of trouble might be the single most important determinant of the team’s success in 2012. It’s obviously too soon to anoint him as anything other than a talented player with potential, but he was undeniably the team’s best cover corner early last year (this highly recommended article by ESPN’s Kevin Seifert shows how dramatically the team’s pass defense collapsed after Cook left the lineup after Week 6). There were other factors (and other injured players) that contributed to the catastrophic 2011 pass defense, but Cook had already stacked up favorably in man-to-man coverage with Calvin Johnson against the Lions in Week 3 and was starting to develop into the shutdown force the Vikings envisioned when they grabbed him with the second pick of the second round of the 2010 draft. If Cook proves capable of covering the Johnsons, Nelsons, and Marshalls of the NFC North, it will allow the Vikings to more easily compensate for other weaknesses in the secondary.
S Harrison Smith – You don’t need me to tell you how awful the Vikings secondary was last year. The focus fell mainly on a rag-tag bunch of cornerbacks that failed miserably to plug the gaping holes left by an injured Antoine Winfield and a suspended Chris Cook, but the team’s safeties were atrocious. Hussain Abdullah was at least somewhere near average, which is extremely high praise in comparison to Mistral Raymond, Tyrell Johnson, and Jamarca Sanford (the latter of which graded out as literally the worst safety in all of football, according to Pro Football Focus). Smith was brought in to start on Day 1, and his ability to provide some sort of presence in the middle of the field – both as a ball-hawk in the secondary and as a run-stuffer in the box – will help dictate how the Vikings stack up against the high-powered passing attacks of the NFC North.
LB Erin Henderson – If Henderson plays with a bit of a chip on his shoulder this year, it won’t be hard to determine why. Coming off a breakout season in 2011 that saw him become an NFL starter for the first time and one of the best outside linebackers in the league (according to Pro Football Focus, Henderson graded out as the fourth-best OLB, third-best against the run), Henderson found himself in the awkward position of not being wanted. He made headlines with a public rant about his belief that the Vikings weren’t offering him what he felt he deserved prior to free agency, but when the Vikes called his bluff and then no other teams stepped up to the plate, he signed a team-friendly one-year deal worth “only” $2 million. It’s a prove-it contract for a young player the league obviously doesn’t quite believe in just yet, and you can bet Henderson is out to prove his 2011 wasn’t a fluke. With his brother E.J. no longer part of the equation, Henderson will be asked to continue his improvement in 2012. With the unproven Jasper Brinkley expected to take over at middle linebacker, it’ll be on Henderson and Chad Greenway to lead this linebacking corps. The team undoubtedly wants Henderson to prove he’s deserving of a more lucrative long-term contract; if he does, the middle of the field will be in good hands.
K Blair Walsh – Let’s be honest; you want Blair Walsh to fail. Yes, you. You hated that the Vikes “wasted” a 6th-round draft pick on a kicker, and you couldn’t believe it when they kicked fan and locker room favorite Ryan Longwell to the curb in favor of a stupid kicker who couldn’t even kick field goals very well during his senior year of college. You’re just waiting for him to miss his first game-losing three-ball as time expires, at which point you’ll take to the message boards to vilify General Manager Rick Spielman for his inability to build an NFL franchise and sing to the heavens that the Vikings would have won that game if Longwell was still their kicker. But what if Walsh doesn’t fail? What if he makes the kicks he’s supposed to? What if he nails a few from 50-plus yards? What if he actually can kick the ball into the end zone and pin the opponents back at their own 20-yard line? What if a defense that can use all the help it can get benefits greatly from an opponent having to drive 80 yards every time instead of 70? What if Spielman was right about Walsh? What if lopping Longwell’s millions off the books allows the Vikings to pursue a higher profile free agent next offseason? What if Spielman’s youth movement starts to pay immediate dividends? Simply because the situation is so intriguing – both on the field and in the front office – Walsh is a key player for the 2012 Vikings.
WR Jerome Simpson – The offseason reports on Simpson have been equal parts meaningless and glowing. Vikings coaches would have us believe they found the steal of the century in Simpson, another young player who seemingly fits perfectly into the offense as a deep threat the team so sorely lacked last season. And, frankly, he does. His career arc would suggest that the 2008 second-round draft pick is ready to turn into a serious threat for 70 catches, 1,000 yards, and six-to-eight touchdowns. But that’s what Bernard Berrian’s pre-Vikings career arc might have suggested too, and Berrian didn’t come shackled with a three-game suspension for having violated the NFL’s substance abuse policy. If Simpson can stay on the field and effectively stretch the defense, everyone from Christian Ponder to Percy Harvin to Kyle Rudolph to Adrian Peterson will have more room to operate. If not, the team will need a huge contribution from a batch of mediocre veterans (Devin Aromashodu) and mid-round draft picks (Greg Childs, Jarius Wright) to step up in a big way.
Christian Peterson is the Operations Manager at LeagueSafe.com and the Managing Editor of LeagueSafe Post, a new fantasy football content site. He has written for Vikings.com and is a co-host of the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on 100.3 FM KFAN. Follow him on Twitter: @CP_ChristianP
Before we wrap up Week 14 in a bow (or a "Te-bow" if you're a member of the national media who thinks mentioning the Broncos quarterback every 13 seconds is crucial to your ratings), let me offer Season's Greetings to one of Minnesota's favorite sons, Marion Barber III, running back, Chicago Bears.
Last Sunday in Denver, Barber screwed up twice in spectacular fashion, allowing the Broncos to pull yet another victory out from under their tails and further cementing 2011 as the Year of Tebow Unless You Live in Wisconsin and if You Do Boo-Hoo Enjoy Your Perfect Season While the Rest of the World Focuses its Attention on a Fundamentally Inept Quarterback Who Specializes in Amazing Comeback Victories.
Only one of Barber's screw-ups irked me, however. And not the one you're probably thinking of. Yes, he committed the unforgivable sin of Robert Smithing himself out of bounds while the Bears were trying to run out the clock against the timeout-bereft Broncs.
But that mistake merely gave the Tebows an extra 40 seconds and allowed them to tie the game. What really got under my skin is when Barber committed a crime against humanity, fumbling in overtime when he could have changed the future of the NFL as we know it.
Overstatement? Perhaps, but bear with me.
My biggest pet peeve as an NFL fan – bigger than 15-yard penalties for stupid end-zone celebrations, bigger than punt returners who catch the ball inside the 5-yard line (hello, Marcus Sherels, we're looking at you), bigger than Jon Gruden – is the regular-season overtime rule. It's always bugged me that a team can lose a game in overtime without touching the ball on offense.
Most Viking fans will recall the 2009 NFC Championship Game, unless you paid for expensive electroshock therapy to erase that memory, and my health plan at the time didn't cover elective brain realignment and yours probably didn't either. After 12 men in the huddle, and after a certain aging gunslinger ignored a wide-open Bernard Berrian and committed the cardinal sin of throwing across his body over the middle, the Saints won the coin flip, got a couple of first downs and kicked the game-winning field goal without the Vikings offense ever taking the field.
Now, I'll concede that between Adrian "Butterfingers" Peterson, Brad "Sideline Chaos" Childress and the good ol' gunslinger, the Vikings probably would have found a way to screw it up in overtime. But they at least should have had that chance.
My stridency toward this rule dates back to Sept. 17, 1995, when the Vikings lost a Sunday night game at the Metrodome against the Dallas Cowboys. Warren Moon led a late comeback that culminated in an 8-yard touchdown pass to Cris Carter in the waning moments of regulation, tying the score at 17. But Dallas won the coin toss, and everybody in the house knew that it was over the moment that silver dollar settled onto the Metrodome turf.
Both teams' defenses were absolutely spent. It was an unseasonably warm day, and a brutal slugfest left both squads gassed after 60 minutes. The overtime period played out as expected – the Cowboys methodically marched into field-goal position before Emmitt Smith broke free for a 31-yard touchdown run, and the Vikings lost without ever running a play in overtime.
The "purists" love to point out that defense and special teams are part of the game too, and thus both teams have an equal chance to win. "You don't like it? Stop 'em," they sneer while dreaming of a day when Dick Butkus decapitated running backs and Alan Page head-slapped his way to the Hall of Fame.
However, if that theory were pertinent to overtime, why does the team that wins the coin toss always elect to receive the kickoff? They know that playing offense is a distinct advantage, even more so these days with seemingly every rule designed to protect the quarterback and receivers at the expense of the defense.
Sure enough, those 2009 Vikings lost the flip, the Saints ran the kickoff back to their 39 and Cedric Griffin blew out an ACL on the play, putting a tired defense another man short. Eventually linebacker Ben Leber was called for a shady pass interference penalty that helped get New Orleans into field goal position, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Of course, that game helped the NFL realize that perhaps something as important as a trip to the Super Bowl shouldn't be so heavily influenced by the flip of a coin, so it instituted new rules for overtime playoff games – if the team that receives the overtime kickoff converts a field goal on its first possession, it must kick off and give the opposing offense a possession.
That change doesn't go as far as I would like – I'd prefer to see both teams get the ball regardless of the outcome of the first possession, meaning even those 1995 Cowboys would have had to stop the Vikings on that hot September night in the Metrodome.
But it's a start. The next step is to implement that change in the regular season as well, because in a 16-game season, one game is often the difference between a playoff berth and a January staycation.
Which brings us to Marion Barber.
When Barber coughed up that fumble, he cost Robbie Gould a chance at a game-winning field goal on the first possession in overtime. More important, he cost the world a chance at seeing Tim Tebow and the Denver Tebows defeated without giving Tebow an opportunity to pull off more of that great Tebow magic that has captivated the nation for the past two months.
Can you imagine the hue and cry, the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, had Tebow been denied the chance to touch the ball in overtime? God, it would have been glorious. ESPN would have gone wall-to-wall on every platform with indignant outrage over the injustice of the overtime rules. Skip Bayless might have had an aneurysm on live TV. The sun would have fallen from the sky, the rivers would have turned red with blood, the four horsemen of the apocalypse would have run roughshod over the 24-hour news cycle.
And, lo, the overtime rules would have changed for the 2012 regular season.
But no, Barber had to fumble, giving Tebow his chance to do that thing that he does, and we're still no closer to justice for the coin-flip losers.
And that's why Marion Barber is Public Enemy No. 1. For today, at least.
Patrick Donnelly is a Senior Editor at SportsData, contributor to the Maple Street Press Vikings 2011 Annual, and has covered the Vikings for FOXSportsNorth.com, Viking Update and the Associated Press.
For two teams that don't play in the same division, the Vikings and Cardinals have put together a pretty impressive run of memorable games lately. Sunday's game will be the sixth meeting between the teams in the last nine years, and four of the last five games have carried special significance for the Purple.
So join us, won't you, as we take a walk down memory lane and revisit this curious rivalry between the desert dwellers and the tenants of the tundra.
Nov. 7, 2010 – Vikings 27, Cardinals 24 (OT)
Fresh off the debacle in New England and the release of Randy Moss, Brad Childress needed his team to make a statement in the Metrodome in order to save his job. But for the first 55 minutes of the game, that statement appeared to be, "Fire the bum already!" The Cardinals led by 14 and the Vikings were spinning their wheels until Brett Favre briefly became The Ol' Gunslinger again, leading the offense on two TD drives in the final 4 minutes and 32 seconds and sending the game into overtime on a 25-yard strike to Visanthe Shiancoe with 27 seconds left.
Favre threw for a career-high 446 yards, including a 22-yard pass to Bernard Berrian (he must have had no other options) that set up Ryan Longwell's 35-yard game-winning field goal that temporarily calmed the fans' thirst for Childress' blood.
"I think they came expecting to see an execution, and it ended up a pretty good football game at the end," Childress said afterwards. But it was just a temporary reprieve for the 3-5 Vikings and their beleaguered head coach. Two weeks later, after a listless home loss to the Packers, the fans got their wish and Chilly got his pink slip.
Dec. 6, 2009 – Cardinals 30, Vikings 17
The Vikings were riding high at 10-1 when they traveled to Phoenix to take on the Cardinals in a nationally televised Sunday night game. The offense had been held below 27 points only once, in their lone loss at Pittsburgh a month earlier. But Favre threw two picks (after having thrown only three in the previous 11 games) and Adrian Peterson was held to 19 yards on 13 carries as the Vikings fell behind 21-10 at the half and didn't do much the rest of the way.
In many ways, this game was the beginning of the end for the magical 2009 season. Favre was seen quarreling with Childress and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell on the sidelines, the first actual evidence of the infamous schism that became an undercurrent of the final two months of the season. Throw in E.J. Henderson's gruesome broken leg, which forced rookie Jasper Brinkley into a key role the rest of the way, and this loss knocked the Vikings off-kilter on both sides of the ball.
Dec. 14, 2008 – Vikings 35, Cardinals 14
At 8-5, the visiting Vikings needed two wins in their last three games to wrap up a playoff berth, while the Cardinals already had sewn up the NFC West (their first division title in 33 years), and from the outset it was clear which team had shown up to play. Stepping in for the injured Gus Frerotte, Tarvaris Jackson threw a career-high four touchdown passes and the Vikings raced out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter. Berrian returned a punt 82 yards for Minnesota's first score, and Jackson later hit him on a 41-yard rainbow for another TD (too bad B-Twice wasn't on Twitter yet) and the rout was on.
The Vikings went on to beat the Giants in Week 17 to clinch the NFC North before losing to the Eagles and some guy named McNabb in the first round of the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Cardinals were destroyed in New England the next week, then rattled off a nice little four-game winning streak to reach their first-ever Super Bowl.
Nov. 26, 2006 – Vikings 31, Cardinals 26
Umm … OK, this one's not actually worth remembering. The Vikings got three TD passes from Brad Johnson (to Marcus Robinson, Billy McMullen and Jeff Dugan – I told you it wasn't worth remembering) while Cardinals rookie Matt Leinart threw for 405 yards, a mark he hasn't come close to matching since. Denny Green made his not-so-triumphant return to Minnesota that day, but his 2-9 Cards were no match for Chilly's 5-6 juggernaut. Arizona did tie an NFL record with two 99-yard touchdowns – a kickoff return by J.J. Arrington and a fumble return by Adrian Wilson – but the Vikings pulled out to a 31-13 lead in the fourth quarter and held on for what turned out to be a pretty meaningless win in a pretty meaningless season.
Perhaps the game was most notable for being the first meeting between the Cardinals and Vikings since …
Dec. 28, 2003 – Cardinals 18, Vikings 17
"NOOOOOOOOO! NOOOOOOOOOO! The Cardinals have knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs!" Yes, all the Vikings had to do was defend one more play and the NFC North crown would have been theirs, in Mike Tice's second season as head coach, no less.
But of course, we all remember Arizona quarterback Josh McCown scrambling to his right and heaving the ball into the end zone, where journeyman receiver Nate Poole hauled it in and got two feet down for a 28-yard touchdown that sent the Vikings home for the season, put the Packers in the playoffs, and gave Paul Allen his first dose of national airtime with that painful final play call.
(NOTE: Careful readers have pointed out that Poole technically did not get two feet down -- the Vikings were victimized by the lame "force-out" rule that's since been excised from the books. True. Also a distinction without a difference. It didn't make that flight back from Phoenix any happier for the Vikings knowing that if the play had occurred in a different era they would have won. And yet, thanks to those who have pointed out the discrepancy.)
So what will we remember from this year's Vikings-Cardinals game? Will it be the start of the Christian Ponder Era? Will Donovan McNabb save his job and get head coach Leslie Frazier his first victory since the interim tag was removed from his title? Or maybe Larry Fitzgerald will blow up for four touchdowns, Kevin Kolb will start earning that ridiculous contract he weasled out of the Cardinals, and Berrian will insult a nun on Facebook. As recent history has shown, almost anything is possible when the Vikings and Cardinals get together.
Patrick Donnelly is a Senior Editor at SportsData, contributor to the Maple Street Press Vikings 2011 Annual (on newsstands now!), and has covered the Vikings for FOXSportsNorth.com, Viking Update and the Associated Press.
At the risk of being told to "sit down n shut up" in the comments section below by the surly subject of today's rant, I'll ask anyway: why is Bernard Berrian still on the Vikings' roster?
The Vikings keep finding more creative ways to lose games, and in the wake of the ever-stupefying defeats, naturally fans are looking for somebody to blame. Leslie Frazier, Bill Musgrave, Tyrell Johnson, Ragnar … hell, there are probably some people still mad at Bob Schnelker.
But the No. 1 target of the fans' disdain is quarterback Donovan McNabb. The scorn is justified. McNabb has been everything we saw last year in his dismal stint with the Redskins – inconsistent, indecisive, and all too inaccurate. So naturally, Vikings fans and even some in the media have begun calling for Frazier to bench McNabb in favor of rookie Christian Ponder.
I understand the argument – I really do. McNabb has been just shy of terrible, three other rookie quarterbacks (Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert and Andy Dalton) are already starting even though Ponder was dubbed the most "NFL-ready" of the No. 1 draft picks, and the backup quarterback is always the most popular guy on the roster.
So I understand the calls for Ponder. I just don't agree with them.
To be clear, this is not a defense of McNabb. He's been the main reason for the three straight second-half collapses – the offense has done next to nothing after halftime all year, leaving the defense tired and exposed. He can't throw downfield (though his receivers and offensive line are a huge part of that dynamic), and when he had a chance to hit Bernard Berrian (!) with a potential game-winning TD on Sunday, McNabb's throw fluttered harmlessly out of bounds.
But this decision should have nothing to do with McNabb. Remember, when the Vikings traded for the veteran quarterback, they told us he was brought here to protect Ponder. The Vikings brain trust didn't want to rush the rookie. They didn't want to force-feed their No. 1 draft pick to NFL defenses before he was ready, and the offseason labor stoppage cost him valuable time to master Musgrave's offense.
Thus, it really doesn't matter if McNabb throws for 39 yards in a game, or can't hit an open man in the end zone, or throws ball after ball at his receivers' feet. Because this decision isn't about McNabb – or at least it shouldn't be.
The only factor that matters is whether Vikings coaches believe that Ponder is ready to start. If there's any chance that playing Ponder right now will risk long-term damage to his development – or endanger his health, given the Vikings' pass-protection issues of late – there's no reason to throw him to the wolves right now.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this team is not Super Bowl-bound. I'll admit that when the season started, I thought the Vikings were about an 8-8 team – maybe they'd catch a few breaks, win a couple tossup games and pull out a Wild Card berth. Well, they've now had three of those tossup games, and they've lost them all.
Sure, it's frustrating to watch an over-the-hill McNabb waste three straight impressive performances by the Vikings defense with second-half performances that would make Spurgeon Wynn cringe.
But even if you think Ponder gives them the best chance to win right now, there's no sense in calling on the rookie quarterback to save the season, because there's nothing to save.
The Vikings traded for Donovan McNabb to serve as a bridge to the Christian Ponder Era. No need to cross that bridge until you have a better idea of what's on the other side.
Patrick Donnelly is a Senior Editor at SportsData, contributor to the Maple Street Press Vikings 2011 Annual (on newsstands now!), and has covered the Vikings for FOXSportsNorth.com, Viking Update and the Associated Press.
Donovan McNabb has been here before. Just three years ago while playing for the Eagles, McNabb was so horrendous during an 8-for-18, 59-yard performance against the Ravens he was benched at halftime. In 2005, while leading what was at the time one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses, he inexplicably recorded a 131-yard, 0-TD stinkbomb against the Cowboys. The year before that, he threw for just 109 yards against the Steelers in a season in which he ultimately threw for 3,875 yards and 31 touchdowns. In Week 7 of 2003, he accumulated a paltry 64 yards before going on to throw for at least 236 in seven of his next nine games.
And it’s not just McNabb. Even the best of the best are capable of laying the occasional egg. Last year, Tom Brady threw for 163 yards or less four different times. He finished the season with 3,900 yards and 36 touchdown passes. In Week 14 of 2006, Brady threw for just 78 yards and no touchdowns in an unexplainable 21-0 loss to the Dolphins. Even Peyton Manning is not immune to the occasional crap-the-bed performance. Late in 2008, he threw for just 125 yards while tossing two interceptions. In 2005, he twice threw for less than 125 yards in what was otherwise a typically Peyton-esque season of excellence.
I’m not defending the performance of McNabb nor the Vikings offense as a whole in the Week 1 loss to the Chargers; I’m merely illustrating that there are times when even the best quarterbacks on the planet go out there and fall flat on their facemasks. And maybe, just maybe, McNabb deserves the benefit of the doubt – at least for the time being.
Case in point, he nearly always bounces back in a big way from sub-standard performances. Dating back to 2003, McNabb has thrown for fewer than 175 yards seven times (excluding games in which he was injured and forced out of the game and meaningless Week 17 games in which he made only a token appearance). In those seven games, he averaged just 127 passing yards, completing 51% of his passes and throwing two touchdown passes with four interceptions.
In the seven individual games immediately following those seven Tarvaris Jackson-like flops, McNabb has averaged 313 passing yards, completing 64% of his passes while throwing 15 touchdowns and four interceptions. Included in those numbers is the 260-yard, four-touchdown performance the week after he was so horribly awful that he got benched at halftime. Thus, optimistic Vikings fans (assuming such a thing exists) can embrace the idea that No. 5 has a history of redeeming himself in a hurry.
Thirty-nine yards is an absurdly low total for an NFL quarterback. Tarvaris Jackson generated more yards last week in a single play (a 55-yard connection with “Doug Baldwin,” who may or may not be an actual NFL player) than McNabb could muster in an entire game. If he’d managed even the 127-yard average referred to in the above analysis of McNabb’s previous faceplants, there probably wouldn’t be the same level of public outcry.
Heading into Week 2, there’s an outside chance Donovan McNabb has forgotten how to play football and Christian Ponder will be the Vikings quarterback in a matter of weeks. There’s a chance Bill Musgrave, in a fit of amnesia, doesn’t remember how to call an NFL game. There’s a chance the offensive line won’t give whoever is under center any time to throw. There’s a chance Bernard Berrian and Michael Jenkins will prove incapable of providing McNabb with viable options to throw to. But if history is any guide, there’s an equal chance we’ll look back at Week 1 and remember it not as a huge embarrassing failure heaped solely at the feet of Donovan McNabb, but instead as merely a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
Christian Peterson of LeagueSafe.com is also a contributing writer at Vikings.com and a co-host of the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on Saturday mornings on KFAN 100.3 FM.
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