In Part 1 of this series, we identified five Vikings who will need to improve and/or deliver upon their potential for the team to have any shot at the playoffs in 2012. We continue now with the final five players on the list.
OL Phil Loadholt – Loadholt has had an up-and-down career thus far. He’s shown flashes of brilliance as a road-grading run blocker, but has been maddeningly inconsistent in pass protection. The same massive size that allowed him to rank as Pro Football Focus’s No. 1 run blocker in the NFL last year also causes problems against quick defensive ends and linebackers. PFF counts nine sacks allowed by Loadholt (only five tackles on either the left or right side allowed more) and a whopping 32 quarterback hurries (among the 15 worst tackles in the league). With Matt Kalil theoretically locking down the left side for the next decade, John Sullivan making big money in the middle, and a number of solid veterans vying for action at the two guard spots, the spotlight will be squarely on Loadholt in his contract year. If he can harness his obvious physical talent and improve his pass blocking, he could be in line for a big-money deal next offseason. It’s unclear if the Vikes would be interested in locking him up to a lucrative long-term deal, but they’d love for him to play well enough in 2012 to make it a tough decision.
RB Toby Gerhart – Loadholt’s ability to block for the Vikings running backs might be magnified in 2012 if Adrian Peterson is either forced to miss time or isn’t back to 100 percent this season. No matter what AP’s status is, Gerhart is going to play a big role in the Vikings backfield. Gerhart played very well in two different stints as the main Vikings ballcarrier last year; he scored once and went over 90 yards twice in a three-game span that Peterson missed because of injury in Weeks 12-14, then went over 100 yards on just 11 carries in the calamitous victory over the Redskins in Week 16. We can be sure Gerhart isn’t going to single-handedly win games like AP is (or was) capable of doing, but his ability to keep the chains moving will be pivotal to the development of Christian Ponder and the passing game. If Gerhart proves incapable of carrying the load in Peterson’s stead, the Vikings have virtually no depth behind him to turn to.
DL/LB Everson Griffen – The former fourth-round pick was viewed as a second-round talent coming out of USC in 2010, and the Vikings thus far have seen both the good (four sacks and frequent quarterback pressure as a part-timer last year) and the bad (a public intoxication arrest in 2011) from Griffen early in his career. The hope is that the off-the-field issues are behind Griffen as he attempts to transition from defensive line to linebacker in 2012. As an undersized edge rusher, Griffen is a bit of a square peg in the round hole of the Vikings’ 4-3 defensive alignment, but the ability to rush the passer will play in any scheme. Griffen has obvious physical talents (he was ranked as the No. 3 "prospect" in the NFL in a recent article by Football Outsiders), and if he continues where he left off in 2011 he could become a deadly counterpart to Jared Allen. Harrassing the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, and Jay Cutler is obviously of paramount importance in the NFC North, so getting a productive Griffen on the field will be a key challenge for the Vikings defensive coaching staff. Griffen has the makings of a star, but there are still a lot of questions to answer.
TE John Carlson – For distinctly different reason from Chris Cook, Carlson has a lot to prove in 2012 as well. The oft-injured tight end’s pressure to perform comes solely as a result of the jaw-dropping five-year, $25 million free agent contract he landed from the Purple at the start of free agency. The addition of Carlson was surprising not only because of the size of the contract, but because of the presence of second-year tight end Kyle Rudolph, who was expected to be one of Christian Ponder’s top targets after it became clear the Vikings wouldn’t re-sign free agent Visanthe Shiancoe. Carlson, who missed all of 2011 with a shoulder injury, must prove that he still possesses the pass-catching acumen he did while racking up 12 touchdowns in 2008 and 2009 in Seattle. His arrival means the team will roll out plenty of two-tight end sets, and they likely have grand visions of a New England-type offense that features two elite pass-catching tight ends, a dominant slot receiver, and just enough outside receivers to keep a team honest. It’s ludicrous to suggest that Ponder, Carlson, Rudolph, and Percy Harvin can even approximate the well-oiled machine run by Tom Brady in New England, but it certainly appears that’s the model. If Carlson gets hurt or if offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave proves incapable of using his assets efficiently and effectively, the natives are going to get extremely restless.
QB Christian Ponder – Ponder may be the most obvious name on this list, but he’s worth discussing. Even if it turns out the front office nailed every draft pick and every offseason acquisition (and, frankly, even if the other nine names on this list all go boom in 2012), none of it will matter if Ponder can’t take significant strides forward in 2012. While he brought some excitement and displayed moments of brilliance in 2011, there were plenty of rookie mistakes and, of course, plenty of nagging injuries. Assuming Ponder stays healthy, Vikings fans need to hope he learned from his mistakes last year, that his grasp of the offense will improve after a full offseason program, and that the efforts to upgrade the offensive talent around him will bear fruit. The Vikings will undoubtedly be happy if Ponder simply shows modest improvement over 2011 and at least limits his mistakes, but will that be enough for an impatient fan base that’s been rejuvenated by the new stadium? Will it be Ponder under center when the new stadium opens in 2016? If he treads water or regresses in 2012, will the team have to move on to Plan B already next year? Will Leslie Frazier be around to find out? Will Rick Spielman? Failure to develop a first-round investment in a quarterback can set a franchise back for years. No pressure, though, Christian!
Vikings fans are rightfully giddy about the prospect of Kyle Rudolph shredding opposing secondaries in his second season with the Purple. Last season, the rookie from Notre Dame showed flashes of brilliance as he got his feet wet while lurking in the shadow of Visanthe Shiancoe on the team's depth chart.
This year, Shiancoe is gone, and even though the Vikings signed former Seahawks tight end John Carlson as a free agent, Rudolph is expected to emerge as one of Christian Ponder's main targets. A number of factors seem to be working in Rudolph's favor. Consider:
Finally, it's an old football trope that wide receivers blossom in their second year in the league, but does the same hold true for tight ends? Consider a few recent success stories from the past decade:
Rob Gronkowski, New England
Rookie year, 2010 – 42 catches, 546 yards, 10 TDs
Second year, 2011 – 90 catches, 1327 yards, 17 TDs
Antonio Gates, San Diego
Rookie year, 2003 – 24 catches, 389 yards, 2 TDs
Second year, 2004 – 81 catches, 964 yards, 13 TDs
Jimmy Graham, New Orleans
Rookie year, 2010 – 31 catches, 356 yards, 5 TDs
Second year, 2011 – 99 catches, 1310 yards, 11 TDs
Jason Witten, Dallas
Rookie year, 2003 – 35 catches, 347 yards, 1 TD
Second year, 2004 – 87 catches, 980 yards, 6 TDs
Chris Cooley, Washington
Rookie year, 2004 – 37 catches, 314 yards, 6 TDs
Second year, 2005 – 71 catches, 774 yards, 7 TDs
So yeah, it's not exactly unprecedented for a young tight end to make a quantum leap between his first and second NFL seasons. Thus, check back in about six months to see how we might fill in the following blanks:
Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota
Rookie year, 2011 – 26 catches, 249 yards, 3 TDs
Second year, 2012 -- ?????
Patrick Donnelly is a Senior Editor at SportsData, contributor to the 2012 Vikings Yearbook, 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.
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