Just how much better can the Vikings be in 2012? That’s a question stimulating much debate right now. The oddsmakers have their hunch, slotting the Vikings as the worst team in the NFC North with 25:1 odds to win the division.

Yep, that’s about right.

My pre-training camp projection (subject to change but likely not by much): a 6-10 season. That may not seem like major improvement. Until you step back and consider that would be doubling the success of 2011.

Right now, that 6-10 prognostication draws very different reactions from the eternal optimists and the eye-rolling naysayers.

To explain, here are six reasons the Vikings will be better this fall and 10 reasons why they still may not be very good.

Why the Vikings will be better
  1. The offense has a chance to be much improved. Bill Musgrave wanted to make tight ends a major part of his offensive attack and general manager Rick Spielman responded by courting John Carlson as one of his high-priority free agents. Signing Carlson and pairing him with second-year tight end Kyle Rudolph should provide an added dimension. On top of that, the offensive line has been solidified, thanks in no small part to the drafting of left tackle Matt Kalil. If the starting five up front – Kalil, Charlie Johnson, John Sullivan, Brandon Fusco and Phil Loadholt – stays intact, the Vikings should make noticeable improvement in protecting the quarterback. Now add the acquisition of Jerome Simpson as a vertical threat and consider the explosiveness and versatility of Percy Harvin and you can see why quarterback Christian Ponder is optimistic about what’s ahead.
  2. This is the NFL. Quick turnarounds are nearly as frequent as Sunday afternoon beer commercials. Just look at the 2011 playoff bracket. Six of those 12 teams didn’t make the postseason in 2010. The San Francisco 49ers finished 6-10 in 2010 and then went to overtime in the NFC Championship game last season. The Detroit Lions, who posted a combined record of 8-40 between 2008 and 2010, won 10 games last season. For the Vikings, making the playoffs in 2012 is probably a far-fetched goal. But making up ground should be doable.
  3. Despite the obvious youth movement, this team does still have star power. Consider the veteran standouts who have been to the Pro Bowl: Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Antoine Winfield and Chad Greenway on defense. Adrian Peterson on offense. Harvin has the potential to join that Pro Bowl fraternity, too. If the Vikings’ biggest stars stay healthy and play to their potential, they can catalyze the rebuilding effort.
  4. The early-season schedule seems soft. An opening weekend visit from Jacksonville gives the Vikings a golden opportunity to start with a win. A trip the following week to play the Colts (2-14 last season) could provide even more momentum. In the first eight weeks, the Vikings have five home games and five contests against opponents who had eight or fewer wins last season. Is it crazy to think the Vikings could head into their Week 11 bye week with a 5-5 record? Absolutely not.
  5. The close losses in 2011 may have made last season seem worse than it was. The Vikings were 1-8 in games decided by six points or fewer. Just climbing back toward .500 in those nip-and-tuck games will help immensely. That will require the defense to come up with more late stops than they were able to a year ago. It also means Ponder must cut down on his mistakes and deliver more clutch play late in close games.
  6. The positive energy percolating through Winter Park right now is contagious. For all the criticism head coach Leslie Frazier absorbed last season – much of it justified – his biggest accomplishment may have come in keeping the locker room from fracturing. Frazier seems to have a knack for keeping players’ attention and this offseason that has helped create a very ambitious and energized atmosphere around Winter Park. That may sound like little-league optimism. But if the Vikings can channel that enthusiasm into making rapid improvement in training camp, their youthful spirit gives them a chance to climb a few rungs up the NFC ladder
Why they still won’t be very good
  1. No one can say with any certainty that Ponder is the answer at quarterback. Ponder started 10 games last season and was responsible for producing only one victory. And the Vikings needed Carolina kicker Olindo Mare to miss a 31-yard field goal in the closing seconds to steal that win. (Note: Ponder also started the Vikings’ 33-26 win over Washington on Christmas Eve. But he left the game with the Vikings tied 10-10 early in the third quarter. Joe Webb led that victory charge, producing 23 second-half points.)
  2. It’s easy to forecast a Ponder breakthrough but much harder for that to actually happen. Teams with putrid young quarterbacks always like to point out that Peyton Manning threw 28 interceptions as a rookie and posted a 71.2 quarterback rating but then matured into a Super Bowl champion, an MVP and a shoo-in Hall of Famer. The logic: even the legends of the game tend to struggle early in their careers. Those same optimists, however, rarely point out that there have been other highly-touted quarterbacks who struggled as rookies and never got much better. (See: Tim Couch, Cade McNown, David Carr, JaMarcus Russell).
  3. By the same token, it’s easy to witness a resurgence like the 49ers enjoyed last season and cling to that as proof that quick turnarounds are viable in the NFL. But chew on this stat when setting your timetable for the Vikings’ rebuilding effort: Between 2001 and 2010, 44 teams finished a regular season with four wins or fewer. Only 16 of them (36.4 percent) climbed back to .500 the following season.
  4. Adrian Peterson may not be Adrian Peterson this fall. Yes, Peterson’s recovery has gone well since he tore his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee seven months ago. And sure, he’s still vowing to be back in action by the time the regular season starts. But even if Peterson does return in September, can anyone really say with certainty that he’ll be back in top form? It’s just as likely that Peterson may have lost a bit of burst, a bit of confidence in his ability to cut, a bit of aggressiveness due to the injury. Toby Gerhart is an encouraging Plan B. But he’s no Adrian Peterson.
  5. The receiving corps is still a major question mark. Percy Harvin, the team’s best receiver, spoiled his offseason with a dramatic case of mini-camp unhappiness. Keeping the dynamic playmaker healthy and happy all season will be a weekly chore. Jerome Simpson seems to have the potential to be a dynamic deep threat. But he’ll be suspended for the first three games and hasn’t yet proven he can be a consistent playmaker. Jarius Wright and Greg Childs are rookies who are almost certainly in for some growing pains. Michael Jenkins is old, coming off a season-ending knee injury and may not make the 53-man roster. And is anyone really counting on Devin Aromashodu and Stephen Burton to have big-time seasons? In a league that’s becoming increasingly pass happy, the Vikings may still have the most ordinary unit in the NFL.
  6. As soft as the schedule seems early, the Vikings’ post-bye week slate is brutal. At Chicago three days after Thanksgiving. At Green Bay the next week. A rematch with the Bears on Dec. 9 followed by road trips to St. Louis and Houston. A finishing game at home against the Packers. If the Vikings squeeze two victories out of that closing six-pack, they should feel fortunate.
  7. The NFC North may be the toughest division in football. Were it not for the Vikings. It’s not inconceivable to think that the Packers, Bears and Lions could all be in the playoffs come January. It’s also worth noting that the Vikings have dropped their past 11 division games, their last win in the North coming Sept. 26, 2010 – a 24-10 win over Detroit. That’s a troubling trend that’s difficult to ignore.
  8. Remember how bad the secondary was last season, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 68.2 percent of their passes for 4,019 yards, 34 touchdowns and a bewildering 107.6 rating? Well, the unit responsible for that has been overhauled dramatically. (So long Cedric Griffin, Benny Sapp, Asher Allen and Tyrell Johnson.) Still, to regroup the Vikings will be relying heavily on a horde of young players to get things right. That means a whole lot of responsibility will fall on the shoulders of rookie safety Harrison Smith, second-year safety Mistral Raymond and third-year corner Chris Cook. Don’t be surprised if rookies Josh Robinson and Robert Blanton see their share of action as well. Put all that youth on the field and growing pains will be inevitable.
  9. New defensive coordinator Alan Williams has no previous experience running a defense. Williams spent his past 10 seasons as a defensive backs coach in Indianapolis, where he worked under Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell. He’s a bright guy. Energetic, too. And he has a strong relationship with Frazier, the two having worked together with the Colts in 2005 and 2006. But can Williams breathe life into a defense that was so atrocious last season? With no track record as a coordinator, who knows?
  10. Blair Walsh is the only kicker currently on the roster. And last season, as a senior at Georgia, he missed 40 percent of his field goal attempts. If the Vikings plan to win more close of those games this year, they won’t have much margin for error. And they certainly won’t be able to afford any prolonged Walsh cold streaks. Just for reference, the kickers for the 12 playoff teams last season combined to make 83 percent of their kicks. The four teams that failed to convert 80 percent of their field goal attempts were the Giants, Ravens, Broncos and Steelers.

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