Scoggins: Vikings are happy campers heading to Mankato

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 23, 2013 - 6:01 AM

Compared with last year, the team enters training camp with much more optimism.

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Though the Vikings are coming off a playoff appearance, the continued development of Christian Ponder will be the key for a postseason return.

Photo: CARLOS GONZALEZ • cgonzalez@startribune.com,

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A procession of luxury vehicles will stream down Hwy. 169 on Thursday as the Vikings report to training camp in Mankato. Unlike last summer, they’re not dragging a perception of doom and gloom with them.

The Vikings arrive as a playoff team, not one that’s facing a painful rebuild. A year ago this time, every conversation focused on the health of Adrian Peterson and whether he would be ready to start the season or, worse, if he’d ever be the same after tearing up his left knee. Silly us.

The big talker this offseason focused on who will play middle linebacker. This is a more desirable starting point for coach Leslie Frazier, who oversaw the largest single-season turnaround in team history but now faces a different kind of challenge.

The Vikings silenced those of us who thought a three-win season in 2011 was a portent to more struggles. Now, they must prove that a 10-win season was not a one-hit wonder that came primarily on the strength of an inspired MVP campaign by the best football player on the planet.

Though a fundamental question at quarterback lingers, the Vikings will reconvene as a team that is expected to compete for a division title and playoff spot, and anything short of that will be a disappointment.

“We can’t settle on what we did last year,” veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. “We jumped over the bar that people had set for us. We have to expect to get there and beyond this year.”

This is the beauty — and quintessential marketing tool — of the NFL. The Vikings delivered another testimonial on the league’s unpredictable nature, which might just serve as Frazier’s message when his players gather again. Assume nothing.

Every NFL season offers surprises, both good and bad, and 32 teams feel hopeful as they head to training camp. Realistically, the Vikings could have a better team but worse record because so many variables come attached to every season. Injuries, of course, often determine a team’s fortunes. The Vikings also face a tougher schedule. That’s nothing more than guesswork, though, because in the NFL, it’s not so much who you play but when you play them that matters.

Given truth serum, the Vikings’ decision-makers didn’t anticipate being in this position so quickly after overhauling the roster in a youth movement last offseason. If they truly expected to be a playoff team, they wouldn’t have released veteran Sage Rosenfels in camp and left themselves so vulnerable at backup quarterback, a move that cost them any chance in the playoff game at Green Bay.

The Packers remain the pacesetter in the NFC North, but the Vikings have earned the right to be in that discussion. The gap between those two no longer requires binoculars. The glaring difference, of course, lies at quarterback and the Vikings’ ceiling hinges on Christian Ponder’s improvement.

If Ponder can play like the quarterback we saw the final few weeks of the regular season, the Vikings’ future looks even brighter. If his performance continues to pinball all over the map, the Vikings likely will be starting over at that position in 2014. This season will provide the ultimate judgment on Ponder, because he’s more seasoned and surrounded by better talent.

We should know by now that it’s unwise to doubt Peterson, but it’s also foolish to bank on him repeating his 2012 effort. That was a historic season, not an annual expectation, even for a guy who seems superhuman.

So much has changed since last summer and not only concern over Peterson’s knee. The Vikings must replace Percy Harvin and Antoine Winfield and anyone who minimizes their absence is wearing Purple blinders. But General Manager Rick Spielman has done a nice job reshaping the roster and finding young players capable of making an immediate impact.

Every season begins with a message, and Frazier’s approach last summer was masterful. Even though his job was on the line, not once did Frazier complain about his team’s youth movement or allow it to become a crutch. He also sold his veterans on the belief that a team’s age and external expectations don’t determine a season’s direction.

That’s a good lesson as the Vikings approach training camp. They’re coming off a playoff appearance and are trending in the right direction. Expectations are higher. But as they proved last season, the narrative can change abruptly.

They should welcome this challenge. It sure beats the malaise that greeted their arrival in Mankato last summer.

 

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com.

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