It’s late October, with the Vikings in sole possession of first place in the NFC North while carrying a 5-2 record.
We haven’t been able to write that sentence since 2016. (Wait, that was just last year).
You can be forgiven if you forgot about that. You can similarly be forgiven for recognizing that this 5-2 start feels so much different than last year’s 5-2 start. We only know how one of those seasons ended (hint: not well), but we can also use it as a cautionary tale — and more so a reason for hope.
2016: The Vikings last year responded to Teddy Bridgewater’s catastrophic knee injury by investing heavily in a trade for Sam Bradford after concluding backup Shaun Hill couldn’t salvage the season. Bradford performed admirably under the circumstances, but it set the tone for a season of scrambling to patch holes.
2017: When Bradford was hurt after one game, the Vikings calmly turned to backup Case Keenum — a wise offseason investment that signaled GM Rick Spielman had learned from the past. Keenum has been more than adequate in playing the bulk of the last six games, helping the Vikings to a 4-2 record in that span.
2016: The Vikings had a tenuous plan built around Matt Kalil and Andre Smith being healthy and productive tackles. They were not, and by the seventh game of the season the offensive line across the board was crumbling.
2017: Free agent tackles Mike Remmers and Riley Reiff have been solid, as has rookie center Pat Elflein. Depth is still a concern, meaning the injury that knocked Reiff from Sundays’ game – while not deemed serious – needs to be monitored. But again, this is a deficiency Spielman has at least addressed adequately so far.
2016: Through the first five games last season, the Vikings were plus-11 in turnover ratio – an unsustainable but massive benefit that most of us glossed over as they started 5-0.
2017: Through seven games this season, the Vikings are plus-1 in turnovers. They’d surely like to be better (having taken it away eight times and given the ball away seven), but there is at least this: Their record is not a reflection of something unsustainable.
2016: Here we find the biggest difference of all. The Vikings were 5-2 after seven games last year, but the last two of those were losses. The second of those was a Halloween game in Chicago, a 20-10 loss where Bradford was sacked five times and Matt Asiata had the longest reception. This is when Mike Zimmer’s eye problems started. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner resigned a couple days later. The chaos was evident, even if the record suggested things could be saved. The spiral continued, of course, to an 8-8 finish.
2017: This season, too, might have turned in Chicago. An immobile Bradford was sacked four times in an unwatchable first half. Keenum came in, stayed clean and did enough to salvage a 20-17 victory – the first of three consecutive wins that has Minnesota at 5-2 now. That record assures nothing and momentum can be fragile (as last year proved in both cases), but the benefit of hindsight sure makes us feel like this one is a lot different.