NFC North Preview: Minnesota Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings are one of the most successful franchises in American football, but no one really knows it. The Vikings came into the league as an expansion team in 1961. Seven years later they were in the playoffs. A year after that they were in the Super Bowl. In the early 70s they would reacquire Fran Tarkenton (does anyone remember him playing a number of years for the Giants? Me neither) and dominate the NFC along with the Rams and Cowboys for most of the decade. They would make the Super Bowl three times and lose them all. While they were successful in the 80s and 90s, they would never return to the dominance of the 1970s.
All of that changed in 1998. That year the Vikings had one of the most statistically dominant teams of all-time. Led by hall of fame defensive tackle John Randall, resurgent pro-bowl quarterback Randall Cunningham, and some guy at receiver named Moss, the Vikings romped through the league at a 15-1 record. They put up 41 points in the first playoff game, and hosted the underdog Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game as overwhelming favorites.
And they lost when their kicker Gary Anderson – who had not missed a kick all season – missed a field goal. The Falcons would go on to get blown out in the Super Bowl, the Vikings would not come close to the Super Bowl again.
Until last season. In the offseason, some old quarterback named Favre joined the Vikings and, at the age of 40, proved the skeptics (including this skeptic) wrong by having one of the best seasons of his career. Behind an aging but still competent offensive line, Favre winged passes to rookie Percy Harvin, heretofore underachiever Sidney Rice, and veteran speedster Bernard Berrian. All of this was supplemented by one of the best running back tandems in the league in superstar Adrian Peterson and veteran third down back Chester Taylor. Likewise, the defense was bolstered by sack machine Jared Allen and the most dominating pair of defensive tackles in the league in Pat and Kevin Williams (the star caps twins!).
The Vikings edged out the Packers for the division title and destroyed the Cowboys in the division playoff game 34-3. Once again, they sat on the verge of a trip to the Super Bowl. Once again, Brett Favre was working his old magic. The gunslinger was back, whipping passes with reckless abandon and leading his offense down the field. America’s most popular athlete was capping his hall of fame career with a season of a lifetime (coincidentally, the quarterback who’s career most parallels Favre’s is former Viking Fran Tarkenton). The only thing that stood between the Vikings and their fifth Super Bowl trip was the plucky New Orleans Saints.
While the Saints were formidable and playing at home, the Vikings were favored. People were awed by Favre, and the Vikings simply had more name talent on both sides of the ball. Once the game started, it was obvious that those expectations were justified. They almost doubled the Saints in yards gained and had a 31-15 edge in first downs. Favre threw for over 300 yards, Petersen rushed for over 100, but…
But there’s always a “but” with the Vikings. They turned the ball over 5 times, the last of which came with the team driving for a potential game winning field goal when Favre inexplicably rolled out and threw back across his body toward the middle of the field and was intercepted. A faux pas that every quarterback from Pop Warner to High School to Division III college ball is routinely lectured not to make. The Vikings drive was stopped. The Saints got the ball to start the overtime and went down to score and win.
The patron saint of the 2009 Vikings had committed the ultimate quarterback sin, and it cost the Vikings a trip to the Super Bowl.
This year the Vikings are picked by many to return to the glory of 2009. That is, if Favre decides to return. Once again, the “diva in dungarees” has decided to leak to the press that he might retire. Again. Yet, shortly after that announcement, he leaked to the press that he might come back. Again. If he gets more money. Again. The smart money is that he will return for a very large raise. Again. However, he might not like what he sees when he gets back. If he doesn’t come back, the Vikings certainly won’t like what they see, as his backup is the very poor Tavaris Jackson.
Favre’s heroics last season were memorable, but they papered over a lot of cracks in the rest of the team; specifically in the offensive line. While Favre doesn’t seem to age (still making great throws, still making rookie mistakes), his buddies in the trenches do. Two years ago, the Vikings had the best left side of the line in recent history. Bryant McKinnie, Steve Hutchinson, and Matt Birk led a line that dominated the opposition. Then Birk left in the offseason, McKinnie got old, and Hutchinson’s play declined from “the best left guard in the history of football” to “really good.” It all added up to the Vikings doing well despite their offensive line, not because of it. And they’re another year older this year.
So is Adrian Peterson, who has seen his yards per carry decrease in each of his three seasons despite a steadily increasing workload. This year he is without all-world backup (but suspect starter, sorry Bears’ fans) Chester Taylor, so he is likely to see more carries. His new aide-de-camp is rookie Toby Gerhardt, a back from Stanford who doesn’t have much wiggle, but does have power if he gets up a head of steam. Unfortunately for Toby, there are no Oregon State’s in the NFL (except maybe Detroit, which might be being a little unkind to Oregon State…).
The receivers are still solid, but there is a lingering feeling that they were made solid by Favre, and if he doesn’t come back or if he slows down a bit, their production will lag. To add to those worries, rookie wunderkind Percy Harvin is suffering from migraines in training camp and may not be healthy all year.
The defense has similar issues. While Jared Allen still lays claim to being one of the best pass rushing ends in football, one has to wonder when Pat Williams will start to decline. Either way, this is likely to be his last season in the middle. But even with a decline there, the Vikings have Allen and Ray Edwards as two great pass rushing threats which make the defense go. The linebackers will be relying upon EJ Henderson to get healthy from a horrific knee injury, and to see further improvement from underrated Chad Greenway and the platoon of Ben Leber (run defense) and Jasper Brinkley (pass defense). Henderson’s health is key.
The secondary is a mess. Antoine Winfield is their best cornerback but he is aging. They signed underachiever Lito Sheppard to man the other side of the field. Rookie Chris Cook is likely too raw to make much of a difference this season. Their starting safeties, Tyrell Johnson and Madieu Williams, are very weak. Without any improvement, the Vikings could be exploited by teams who can pass.
But the problem for other teams isn’t that they can’t take advantage of the Vikings weak secondary, it’s that they don’t have TIME to take advantage of the Vikings weak secondary. With Allen, Edwards and the Williams boys, the team has one of the best pass rushes in football, and it keeps teams from loading up deep by putting opposing QBs under pressure or on their backsides.
They’ll need to keep doing that if they hope to repeat last year’s run. The heart of the offense is another year older. So is the heart of the defense. The Vikings still have the skill position players to match up with almost anyone, but without a healthy, committed Brett Favre at quarterback, they’ll be lucky to beat the Bears out for second in the division. If Favre comes back, they will still struggle to best the Packers and will likely not repeat last year’s heroics.
* * *
1 At New Orleans
5 At New York Jets
7 At Green Bay
8 At New England
10 At Chicago
11 Green Bay
12 At Washington
14 New York Giants
16 At Philadelphia
17 At Detroit
Prediction: Favre returns, but it’s more New York Jets Favre than Green Bay Packers Favre. The Vikes might squeak in with a wild card, but they won’t beat the Packers. 9-7. 2nd in NFC North. If Favre does not return, they will be looking at rebuilding.