A year ago, the Vikings had all the answers when they swaggered back into the Big Easy to start the season as a popular Super Bowl favorite.
Sunday, they take the field in San Diego toting all the question marks you'd expect from the consensus pick to finish on the south side of the Detroit Lions in the NFC North.
"There are a lot of questions that need to be answered, but you could say every year in the NFL is really the great unknown,'" Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield said. "We saw that first-hand last year, didn't we? Unfortunately."
The Vikings' coach, quarterback, dreams and, heck, even their stadium collapsed into a 6-10 heap a year ago. It ushered in the Leslie Frazier era and a 2011 season that is ... well, who knows what it is. Or what it's capable of becoming.
"Everybody is anxious to see how it turns out and how quickly we gel with all the new places in place," said Rick Spielman, Vikings vice president of player personnel. "I just know how we feel internally with how well training camp went, how some of these guys performed in the preseason.
"We feel like we have a pretty strong nucleus of young players who are going to step up and fill those voids, along with having the experience and quality of key playmakers we have from a veteran standpoint as well."
The Vikings have 34 returning players on their 53-man roster. They also have three former practice squad players, eight draft picks, one undrafted rookie, a guy from the United Football League, a waiver claim, four free agents and, of course, Donovan McNabb, their starting quarterback who was acquired via trade with the Redskins.
"No one knows what will happen and that's the exciting part," Spielman said. "But I think the expectations are just as high this year as they were at this time last year. I don't think you go in with any less expectations because you have some younger players, some newer players. The natural evolution of an NFL roster is you have to replace guys."
Running the gamut
The Vikings are both young and old. They have 16 players with fewer than three years of NFL experience, including nine rookies. But they also have eight starters who are 30 or older.
Their starting five offensive linemen have a combined 316 NFL starts. But their five backups have a combined one NFL start.
With players such as Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, Jared Allen, Chad Greenway, Winfield, E.J. Henderson and Kevin Williams -- when he returns from his two-game suspension -- the Vikings have the core talent to surprise their non-believers. They also head to San Diego with eight new starters, so, then again, who knows, especially in the rugged NFC North.
"Two of the teams in our division [Packers and Bears] played in the NFC Championship game last year, and the one that went on to win the Super Bowl [Packers] didn't win our division," Allen said. "And the other team [Detroit] looks like it's going to be pretty good. But you know what? We all have to prove ourselves on the field every year."
The Vikings' list of things to prove is lengthy and includes:
• A new offensive coordinator (Bill Musgrave) with a new system, a new quarterback, a new left tackle and no proven No. 1 receiver. Mix in the 4 1/2-month lockout and, well, let's just say it's been a rush job putting this offense together.
• A 34-year-old quarterback who was very good for 11 years in Philadelphia and very bad last year in Washington.
• A deep threat (Bernard Berrian) who's coming off back-to-back disappointing seasons.
• A No. 1 tight end (Visanthe Shiancoe) who missed the entire preseason because of a hamstring injury.
• A starting right guard (Anthony Herrera) coming off major knee surgery nine months ago.
• A five-time All-Pro defensive tackle (Williams) who has a two-game suspension and a painful bout with plantar fasciitis in his left foot.
• A weak-side linebacker (Erin Henderson) who's never started an NFL game and won the job because all of his competition got hurt.
• A starting right cornerback (Cedric Griffin) who has torn both anterior cruciate ligaments over the past two seasons.
• A starting left cornerback (Winfield) among the best at what he does, but is 34.
• A nickel back (Chris Cook) who had bad knees and damaged confidence last year and hamstring problems this preseason.
• A starting strong safety (Jamarca Sanford) who has only tentatively won the job and will have to rotate with Tyrell Johnson.
• A smallish, overachieving left defensive end (Brian Robison) who is stepping in as a starter this year. He's one of three new starters on the defensive line in Weeks 1-2.
• A head coach who has been only an interim NFL coach for six games, going 3-3 a year ago.
You get the idea, eh?
The road ahead
Four of the Vikings' first five opponents didn't make the playoffs last season, although two of them -- San Diego (9-7) and Tampa Bay (10-6) -- had winning records.
Then, beginning on Oct. 16, the Vikings have a 31-day span in which they play the Bears in Chicago and the Packers home and away in a four-game stretch. It's starts with a Sunday night game at Chicago and ends Nov. 14 with a Monday night game at Green Bay.
The answers to the Vikings' many questions probably will be in by then. If enough of them turn out positive, the Vikings could be a surprise team in the NFC. If too many of them turn out negative, the Christian Ponder era at quarterback might start sooner than people expect.
The ever-steady Frazier forsees calmer waters than most of his team's rabid followers.
"We're still a team that's one year removed from playing in the NFC Championship game," Frazier said. "So we've got some pieces in place on this football team to fight for an NFC North championship again."
Even if they are flying under the radar heading to the season opener in San Diego.
"It's not bad at all to be under the radar," Shiancoe said. "I have no problem with it, to tell you the truth. Who [cares]? You know what I'm saying. You got to go out there and play. Some teams that are predicted to do this or that before the season, by the end of the season, they look like hot garbage. You know what I mean?"
Yes. Vikings fans know exactly what he means.