The Minnesota Vikings may not be in contention for the NFC North title this season, but they're finally rebuilding and closer to being a dangerous team than critics realize.
Last year, the Vikings were dreadful. 3-13 only begins to tell the story of a team rife with injuries and lacking any meaningful direction. It was a team simultaneously trying to rebuild its talent-starved roster and avoid the negative effects of needing to rebuild. As the record suggests, they failed.
This isn't a new phenomenon for the Vikings.
Covering the Vikings was my first professional sports experience. Back when Bleacher Report was just the twinkle in someone's eye, I covered Minnesota pro sports for a small-town AM radio station that didn't really care about pro sports. Because of that tiny little radio station, I was able to attend every Vikings home game, training camp and some practices for a number of years.
Even then, the cracks had begun to show.
Bryant McKinnie was considered a franchise left tackle, but his play didn't always (or ever) reflect the headlines around him. He rarely was forced to play uncovered by a tight end, and most of the impact on that side of the line was due to teammate Steve Hutchinson.
The defense—while dominant—was aging, and the scheme—while effective—was uniquely designed to beat an offense (the West Coast) that was falling out of favor. In the cyclical NFL, Minnesota was stuck on the downswing.
The offensive skill positions weren't much more talented. Outside of the young (and, at that time, ridiculously shy) Adrian Peterson and a scrawny kid named Sidney Rice, Tarvaris Jackson didn't have a ton of weapons to throw to—if he managed to beat out one of the many veterans the team brought in to replace him.
The coaching staff, too, was a mess. Brad Childress, a product of Andy Reid's success in Philadelphia, was never the Xs and Os guru he was purported to be. Darrell Bevell, who coached quarterbacks in Green Bay long after their successes with Mark Brunell, Aaron Brooks and Matt Hasselbeck, was overmatched as a play-caller. On defense, Leslie Frazier had collected a group of Tampa 2 devotees who were good at what they did, but what they did was falling out of style.
Then Brett Favre happened.
Favre, like any good quarterback, covered over a multitude of the Vikings' past sins. A good quarterback with a lightning-quick release and cannon on his arm can make an offensive line look better than it is. A dangerous passer can clear out the box for the running game. An effective offense can put the pressure to score (and throw) on opponents, increasing the ferocity of the defense's pass rush.
Timing can be everything in the NFL, and the timing of Favre's marriage to the Vikings was perfect. Green Bay was still finding it's way under eventual superstar Aaron Rodgers—great, but not the elite team they are now. Detroit was still washing the Matt Millen stink off of them. Chicago had just traded the farm for Jay Cutler and hadn't yet built the team around him.
The Vikings were not bad when Favre arrived, but they were not as good as their record looked.
Favre was a bridge hastily built to cover the widening gap between the talent level of the Vikings and the rest of the league. For one season, it worked. Favre was enough to bring the Vikings to 12-4 and the NFC Championship game, nearly the Super Bowl!
Then Brett Favre happened again.
Favre was old, everyone knew it. He was done, everyone knew that too. He had been run ragged in 2009 and had no desire to play in 2010—no matter what kind of over-the-top exceptions they made for him. Eventually, he would be coaxed back, but it took a truckload of money to do it. Favre was not shy in telling the NFL Network (via PFT) that he played because, "First of all, the money was too good."
In 2010, the bottom dropped out.
Hutchinson got hurt, making McKinnie look like the average player he had been all along. The defensive backfield had a number of injuries, forcing the pass rush to do (literally) all of the work on defense. Age finally got to Pat Williams, and water started to pour through the Williams Wall. Suddenly, a team that had been first in run defense from 2006-2008 and second in 2009, was ninth.
The team was ripped up by its roots in 2011 and didn't look any better. Christian Ponder was a disappointment (especially when compared to Cam Newton and Andy Dalton) in his rookie season, and Adrian Peterson, when he wasn't injured, wasn't able to find a ton of running room. Defensively, losing Pat Williams, Ray Edwards and Ben Leber made a huge dent, and the unit fell from eighth in total defense to 21st.
However, 2011 was important to the Vikings—a year they had been putting off for too long. Because of 2011, 2012 and beyond looks much brighter and when this year's team is put under a microscope, things don't look so bad.
Matt Kalil is probably the Viking most important to the team's future, as he's truly the best left tackle Minnesota has had since Gary Zimmerman. He immediately improves both his spot on the line as well as the left guard spot as Charlie Johnson slides over. The right side of the line is better as well with second-year player Brandon Fusco battling free-agency acquisition Geoff Schwartz.
Of course, the spotlight will be on Christian Ponder to step up in Bill Musgrave's offense. The Vikings are still probably a year off from giving him the tools he needs to succeed, but with better protection and an infusion of receiver talent (though, no one truly elite) in the draft, Ponder's excuses will be running out.
Speaking of Ponder, one of the many storylines buried under Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning coverage this offseason is the Vikings' sudden tight end depth. John Carlson was added to Kyle Rudolph, who may be the best young tight end outside of Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham. Having both Carlson and Rudolph will allow the Vikings a lot of offensive flexibility, improve the running game and provide valuable outlets as Ponder's pocket moves around the field.
On defense, the Vikings are still working on repairing the Tampa 2 but have moved away from their strict adherence to the scheme. Like most teams in the NFL, the Vikings can no longer be defined by their base set and have more flexibility between man and zone coverages and even (gasp) have been caught blitzing more in recent years—a no-no among Tony Dungy disciples.
The additions of Harrison Smith, Chris Carr and Josh Robinson give the Vikings more defensive backfield depth than they've had in a long time. There's still plenty of work to be done in every level of the defense (Kevin Williams, like Pat, cannot play forever), but it is in better shape to start crawling back into the NFL's best than it was last year or even the year before (statistical rankings aside.)
Reasonable expectations for the Vikings this season—especially in the NFC North—aren't great. We're still talking single-digit wins and a lot of cold walks home from the Metrodome as the new Vikings stadium is being planned just a block or so over.
Vikings fans can take heart, however, as the mediocrity this team had resigned itself to is finally past. To be good in the NFL, most teams have to be truly bad first, and the Vikings have hit rock bottom and are rebounding nicely.
The Vikings will sneak up on some teams in 2012, teams that don't respect Ponder's ability to beat them through the air or who hope they can contain Peterson. Teams will think of the Vikings as the failing super power of 2010 or the hapless bottom dweller of 2011 and find themselves on the business end of a butt-whooping.
Scariest of all, for opponents, is that the Metrodome will start rocking again.
While there is much to hate about the NFL's dreariest stadium, the capability for crowd noise is second to none. With any sort of competitive team on the field, the people of Minnesota will don their Viking caps and blast their Gjallarhorns, screaming "SKOL!" as loudly as their hearty midwestern lungs will allow. The mistakes will pile up for unprepared adversaries and this young team could get rolling in a hurry.
Sleep on the Minnesota Vikings if you wish, but the Vikings themselves are sleeping no longer. While they won't be one of the NFL's best teams in 2012, they are becoming (quietly) one of the fastest improving teams.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."