Vikings Insider: Four yards and a cloud of ... improvement?

  • Article by: KEVIN SEIFERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 8, 2007 - 2:51 PM

"Incremental" is the coach’s word for the pace at which the Vikings expect to get better.

Imagine yourself in Chester Taylor's shoes for a moment. Or, for a quicker ride, step into those of Adrian Peterson. Whatever your personal style, you are striding purposefully toward the line of scrimmage, the ball tucked safely under your arm.

You scan earnestly for daylight, at the same time bracing for the initial hit. You've gained 3 yards when Brian Urlacher plows into you. Your shoulders are low, and you fall forward for a solid 4-yard gain.

This is how running teams move the ball: 4 yards at a time, falling forward, protecting the ball. They move methodically in the right direction.

So as the Vikings pin their offensive hopes this season on a running game that features Taylor and Peterson, there seems no better metaphor to describe the direction of the franchise.

In the second year of coach Brad Childress' tenure, no one at Winter Park believes the Vikings have built a legitimate Super Bowl contender. But like a running back churning for positive -- if not game-breaking -- yardage, the Vikings believe they have made, and will continue to make, progress toward that goal.

Asked often about the topic this summer, Childress returned to the same word: incremental. It carries multiple definitions, but the general meaning is an augmentation of some kind — even if it is, according to dictionary.com, "barely perceptible."I can't tell you it's leaps and bounds," Childress said midway through the preseason. "But I see us getting better at things every week."

Genuine progress of any kind should satisfy Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, who spoke with disarming honesty during the offseason when asked about the team's immediate fortune. Wilf acknowledged "it will take a couple years" to build a title contender, adding he hopes to reach such status sooner, but "we can't expect that."

A reasonable person can question why the team can't move quicker in this salary cap-induced era of fast turnarounds. But it's hard to question Wilf's assessment of the franchise's reality.

The Vikings finished 6-10 last season with a strong defense and a veteran quarterback at the helm. Half of their victories came in tightly contested games decided by five or fewer points.

As they open 2007, the Vikings will be relying on second-year quarterback Tarvaris Jackson to guide them through close games. Jackson has been handed a group of pass catchers with some talent but almost no history of production, a combination that will enable opposing defenses to stack heavily against the run.

Their own defense, skilled and mature, could rank among the NFL's top 10. But it should be noted that last season's group, which finished No. 8 overall, could not turn around a losing season.

Those factors and others caused one prominent member of the organization to offer this opinion recently: A fair goal is to finish .500. A 9-7 record, and a chance at the postseason, would be cause for celebration. Many respected observers, both inside and outside of Winter Park, share that assessment.

Childress, asked this summer what would constitute a good season, spoke more in terms of building than in quantifiable accomplishment.

"Good fundamental football," he said. "To be a physically tough team to beat. To have a mentally tough attitude, and that means dealing with any adversities that come your way, whether it be when you're behind in the score or when you have people out of the game. A hot day, being a mentally tough team.

"That to me would be good, and that would manifest itself in terms of wins on the football field."

Such modest short-term goals might not sit well with a fan base that tasted deep playoff runs in 1998 and 2000, and then sat patiently through a three-year plan to get Randy Moss, Daunte Culpepper and a paper-thin expense structure to the Super Bowl.

The Vikings have appeared in two playoff games in the past six years. This year could make it two in seven. So as the season begins Sunday, hardcore fans might want to look for more subtle steps — like if they fall forward.

Kevin Seifert • kseifert@startribune.com

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