Two weeks ago, in the aftermath of the Vikings' loss to the Colts and in the days leading up to their game against the 49ers, football fans and pundits alike (yours truly included) were saying the Vikes "were who we thought they were." Maybe they'd win a few more games than last year, was the wide-spread belief. Maybe they'd go 5-11 or 6-10. But this wasn't a playoff team. Not yet.
Only those infected with the kind of blind homerism that manifests itself in predicting a win for the Vikings every week with no regard for facts or reality thought the 2012 edition was significantly better than last year's team. Everyone, including most homers, thought the Vikings would lose to the 49ers. Nearly as many thought their 11-game losing streak against their division would continue this past Sunday in Detroit.
Those Vikings homers are the ones looking pretty good right about now.
As it turns out, just two weeks after losing at Indy these Minnesota Vikings are on the short list of the NFL's biggest surprises at the quarter pole of the season.
A quick aside: Minnesotans love getting national attention and respect. As a lifelong Minnesotan, I know this first-hand. It must be something in the lake water. Either that or it stems from some kind of widespread self-esteem issue that permeates the region. We want everyone to know that we aren't flyover land. We're not covered in snow drifts 10 months a year. We're good enough, we're strong enough, and gosh darn it people should like us… and our sports teams. So we go out of our way to pat ourselves on the back and point out things we do well in an effort to get the attention of the national narrative and force the mainstream media to overcome their East- or West-coast bias.
Take heart, Vikings nation. Your first-place Vikings are getting noticed by the national media. Wins against the 49ers and Lions – two playoff teams a year ago – have earned them growing respect on a national stage, even a few accolades.
For proof, look no further than the Inter-web's NFL Power Rankings. For the uninitiated, "Power Rankings" are a weekly 1-to-32 ranking of all the NFL teams, done by most large networks, newspapers and sports web sites. They are exactly what they sound like: someone's opinion of the NFL teams ranked in order from best-to-worst.
These NFL Power Rankings universally had the Vikings near the bottom in the 28-32 range prior to Week 1, and rightfully so given their 3-13 record a year ago and lack of giant free agent signings or splashy rookies.
Things look differently four weeks later. With the possible exception of the Arizona Cardinals, no team has enjoyed a bigger leap in the eyes of the national "experts."
Here's a sampling of where some Internet outlets have currently placed the Vikings in their Power Rankings:
In other words, the Vikings are now middle-of-the-pack good. They are respectable. They are worthy of mention. They are no-longer also-rans or doormats in the eyes of national football experts. That's a far cry from a month ago when no one was paying attention or giving them any chance of being good.
So you're saying there's a chance.
More accolades: Peter King calls Christian Ponder this year's "pleasant surprise" in this week's "Monday Morning Quarterback" column. CBS Sports' Pete Prisco calls Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier "an early candidate to be the NFL Coach of the Year." FOX play-by-play commentator Tom Brennamen is seemingly the president of the Percy Harvin Fan Club, saying if he could have any offensive player in the NFL on his team it would be Harvin. Upon reflection, Brennamen clarified himself by saying he'd rather have Harvin than any other non-quarterback. Good enough. SI.com NFL columnist Don Banks devoted 600-something words to the Vikes Monday, concluding "Even if next to no one saw them coming, these Vikings aren't going away."
Indeed, the Vikings are winning games instead of settling for moral victories, and for that they are earning a measure of respect. The upcoming schedule is suddenly dotted with winnable games -- even some games in which the Vikings will be favored. Serious thoughts of a playoff run –though still just in their infancy -- are no longer considered complete and utter folly.
Buckle up, Vikings fans. Your team has graduated to relevance. Next up: being a contender. We'll see if they are ready to take that next step.
You can follow Bo on Twitter at @Bo_Mitchell
Even when you're riding high at 3-1 and shocking the world with back-to-back wins over 2011 playoff teams, some people just aren't satisfied. Yes, the Vikings knocked off the Lions 20-13 on Sunday afternoon, but given the Eeyorean nature (did I just coin a term?) of the Purple's fanbase – well-deserved, mind you, after 52 years of frustration – the win just wasn't "pretty" enough to satisfy some Helga-horned observers.
Most of the postgame grumbling was aimed at the Vikings offense, which produced just two Blair Walsh field goals and advanced the ball into the red zone once all day. And while it's true that Christian Ponder finished with a mere 111 passing yards – the fewest in a Vikings victory since Brett Favre's first game (Sept. 13, 2009, at Cleveland), when Brad Childress' foot was still firmly on the brake pedal – a deeper dive into the stats reveals an offensive performance on Sunday that was anything but … well … offensive.
First, the ugly totals: Detroit outgained the Vikings 341-227, had 23 first downs to the Vikings' 15, and even won the time-of-possession battle (30:42 to 29:18) despite rushing for just 55 yards.
However, those totals are skewed by two factors:
1. Because the Vikings scored touchdowns on Percy Harvin's kickoff return and Marcus Sherels' punt return, they only had nine offensive drives, compared to Detroit's 12. That matters. The Vikings' average drive on Sunday lasted seven plays and covered
45 25 yards, so if they had managed average performances on those two drives forfeited to the special-teams touchdowns, you can tack on 50 more yards of total offense. (NOTE: Thanks to reader flipside42 for catching that transcription error. Time to switch to decaf.)
2. Wide receiver Jerome Simpson made his Vikings debut and had a huge impact on the game, despite his pedestrian totals of four catches for 50 yards. He also used his speed to draw two pass interference calls against Detroit's Bill Bentley, both of which put the Vikings into Lions territory and led to Walsh field goals. Those 57 yards of penalties don't count toward the total offensive output.
Thus, if you give the Purple 50 more yards for two average drives the offense missed (could have been more, could have been less) and if you add on the 57 penalty yards drawn by Simpson, the 227-yard game from the offense looks a bit more respectable at 334 yards.
And yes, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts we'd all have a Merry Christmas. But those of you who want to find the cloud in Sunday's silver lining of a victory should look beyond the surface-level statistics before you start moping about the Vikings offense.
Patrick Donnelly is a Senior Editor at SportsData, a contributor to the 2012 Vikings Yearbook, and has covered the Vikings for FOXSportsNorth.com, Viking Update and the Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @donnelly612.
Unfortunately, Minnesota sports fans suffering from a lack of enough actual victories have become all too accustomed to moral victories the last couple years. I loathe moral victories as much as the next guy. Legitimate contenders for anything played with a ball or puck should never be satisfied with moral victories and you will never get any Vikings player or coach to admit that some kind of moral victory is ever good enough.
I suspect a small percentage of the more unreasonable Vikings fans eagerly lap up the team's company line about 2012 not being a rebuilding season. Reasonable fans, who comprise the vast majority of the jaded Vikings nation, know better. One year after going 3-13 is not the time to be thinking playoffs – even in today's "worst-to-first" NFL.
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
There seems to be conflicting news lately regarding Adrian Peterson’s ability to suit up for the first game of the 2012 regular season. Peterson himself believes he’ll be in the lineup, and head coach Leslie Frazier hasn’t ruled it out. Other published reports, however, suggest that opening the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list is a realistic possibility. There are some technical details related to the different types of PUP lists that I won’t get into here (basically, if Peterson is placed on the preseason, or active, PUP list, all it means is that he can't practice with the team, and it leaves open the possibility that he could ultimately wind up on the regular season PUP list, which would mean he'd have to miss a minimum of six games).
LeagueSafe’s Paul Charchian, while appearing on the Paul Allen show on KFAN 100.3 FM a few weeks back, raised the idea that putting Peterson on the PUP list could possibly be the best option the Vikings have. By doing so, the team would effectively be protecting Peterson from himself. By all accounts, AP is a freak of nature, and he’s ahead of schedule in his recovery from the torn ACL he suffered late last year. He’s such a fierce competitor, it wouldn’t shock anyone to see him suit up in Week 1. But what if he’s not fully healed? What if he can’t cut like he’s used to, and as a result he re-injures himself? And, if he’s truly not 100 percent healthy (by team doctor standards, not his own), why would the Vikings risk putting him on the field?
It’s a sticky situation, for the sole reason that doing what’s best for the organization in the long haul (i.e. giving Peterson a mandatory 6-game vacation at the beginning of the season) would be an admission that the team doesn’t have realistic intentions of fielding a competitive team in 2012. You and I both know it’s a rebuilding year, but the Vikings would never admit that – not before the season has even begun. And you can bet Leslie Frazier, with his job on the line, isn’t going to admit that (which is another concern, really… if Peterson says he’s healthy, Frazier has every motivation to believe him and put him on the field immediately).
For the sake of argument, let’s look at the first six games of the 2012 schedule and analyze what kind of impact not having their best offensive player on the field might have on the team’s win-loss record.
Week 1 (vs. Jaguars): The Jaguars stunk last year. They were 1-7 on the road. They’ll enter 2012 with a second-year quarterback (Blaine Gabbert) who was even less impressive than the Vikings’ own second-year guy. If you’re looking for a strength, though, it’s probably their defense. Jacksonville finished 11th in total defense, and ninth against the run. Only three teams allowed less than the 3.8 yards per carry (YPC) surrendered by the Jaguars in 2011. A healthy Peterson would give the Vikings offense a huge boost against a solid Jags front seven, but this is still a home game the Vikings should win even if the capable Toby Gerhart is forced to carry the load.
Week 2 (at Colts): The NFL schedule-makers did the Vikings another favor with a Week 2 matchup against the rebuilding Colts. Indianapolis was easily the worst team in the NFL last year, and this will be the second career start for rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. Jared Allen might kill the kid, and the Colts spent the offseason surrounding Luck with offensive weapons while completely ignoring a defense that allowed nearly 27 points per game. Only two teams allowed more than the 144 rushing yards allowed per game by the Colts in 2011. For the second week in a row, it’s a defense Toby Gerhart is perfectly capable of exploiting, and it seems fair to say that if the Vikings lose, it won’t be because they couldn’t get their ground game going.
Week 3 (vs. 49ers): This is a loss either way. The 49ers are good. Their defense is even better. Opposing running backs scored just two touchdowns on the Niners last year, and only one back ran for more than 76 yards against them. It’s the kind of game a rare talent like Peterson can have a huge impact on, but if you think the 2012 Vikings can realistically beat a team that was a couple of botched kick returns away from the Super Bowl last year, I’ve got some land in Arden Hills I can sell you.
Week 4 (at Lions): Peterson destroys the Lions. In his career, he’s averaged 99 rushing yards per game and scored eight times in nine matchups. Ideally, against a high-powered Lions offense the Vikings game plan would focus on grinding out yards on the ground and keeping Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson off the field. A full-strength Peterson would obviously be ideal in this scenario, but the Vikes employed the same strategy successfully with Gerhart late last year. During a wild 34-28 loss that ended on the infamous and controversial Joe Webb non-facemask penalty in the waning seconds, Gerhart gained 90 yards on a healthy 4.7 YPC. That’s not to say Peterson wouldn’t have gone for 150 yards on the same 19 carries, but the Vikings were obviously able to move the ball on the ground despite not having AP at their disposal. Plus, like the 49ers game in Week 3, a road game against a 2011 playoff team isn’t a game you’re expecting to win anyways.
Week 5 (vs. Titans): This is where it starts to get tricky. The Titans weren’t a playoff team last year, but they went 9-7 and had a top-10 defense in terms of points scored against (a shade under 20 per game). But their run defense was mediocre, at best – they gave up nearly 130 rushing yards per game at a clip of 4.5 YPC. For a non-playoff team like the Vikings, a home game against a slightly above average team is the type of game you absolutely must win to begin to turn things around. Dynamically talented players like Peterson are the types of players that tip the scales in a game like this. Without him, I feel much less confident of a Purple victory.
Week 6 (at Redskins): Well, isn’t this fitting? The final game Peterson would miss if placed on the regular season PUP list would be a rematch with the team that injured him in the first place, in the same building. If Peterson were in uniform, you can bet the revenge factor would be high, and he’d be very motivated to exorcise the injury demons in a big way. The Redskins are also in re-building mode, however, and they weren’t very good last year. You probably remember that the Vikings somehow beat the Redskins on Christmas Eve last year, without Peterson and without Ponder, both of whom left the game early with injuries. Gerhart gained over 100 yards on just 11 carries, and Joe Webb tossed two touchdown passes to lead the improbable win. Like the Week 5 win over Tennessee, a road tilt against a non-playoff team breaking in a rookie quarterback seems winnable on paper, and again it’s the type of game where a healthy Peterson might very well mean the difference between a win and a loss.
By my count, the first four games of the season should result in two wins and two losses, no matter if Peterson plays or not. The difficulty is that Weeks 5 and 6 both seem like winnable games, but perhaps not if the team is missing its most explosive player.
That assumes Peterson is 100% healthy, though, and even if he is ready for Week 1 it’s highly unlikely he’ll be his usual, explosive self. Most running backs aren’t back to their previous level of play until the second season after their injury, and some are never the same.
I don’t envy the Vikings front office on this one. If their star player, who they’re paying $8 million this year, declares himself healthy in training camp, it will be nearly impossible to keep him off the field. While going the PUP route would erase the temptation to put him in game action before he’s truly ready, it feels like an unrealistic scenario. The best course of action would probably be to carry him on the active roster, but don’t suit him up until Week 5. If he’s even 90 percent of his old self, having him on the field in Weeks 5 and 6 might be the difference between a 4-2 start and a 2-4 start.
Christian Peterson is the Director of Operations at LeagueSafe. He is a contributing writer for Vikings.com and a co-host of the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on KFAN 100.3 FM. Follow Christian on Twitter: @CP_ChristianP
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