Minnesota Vikings: At 2-7, What's Left to Cheer For?

Bill Hubbell@@billyhubbellContributor INovember 12, 2013

Minnesota Vikings: At 2-7, What's Left to Cheer For?

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    The 2013 NFL season has been nothing short of a house of horrors for the Minnesota Vikings.

    Like a car wreck on the side of the interstate, you feel bad for everyone involved, but you have a hard time looking away. Nobody watching the Vikings this season can get any sort of handle on an easy answer as to why things have gone so sour this season, but everyone can agree that Murphy's Law certainly applies: "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." 

    Minnesota has pushed that law to its absolute limits and sit at 2-7 after grinding out a 34-27 win over the hapless Washington Redskins last Thursday night.

    It's been a bizarre free fall for a team that finished 10-6 and made the playoffs last season. 

    A four-game winning streak at the end of the 2012 season not only raised expectations for this season but also helped cover up some warts that have grown exponentially in 2013.

    Many eyebrows were raised when head coach Leslie Frazier wasn't granted a contract extension following 2012's surprising finish, but now it looks like it's a long shot for Frazier to still be on the sidelines heading into the 2014 season.

    Quarterback Christian Ponder played decent football in that four-game winning streak and had the Vikings coaches and staff convinced he could be the starting quarterback of a successful NFL franchise. 

    To say that hasn't worked out would be a huge understatement. 

    Having said all that, there are still seven games to be played on the 2013 schedule, beginning with a brutal pair of road games at two of the toughest places to win in the league: Seattle and Green Bay.

    There will obviously be no playoffs for the Vikings in 2013, but there is still much to play for in the last seven games. Jobs will be won and lost over the last two months, everywhere from the front office and coaching staff to the guys on the practice squad.

    With the long-term in mind, let's take a look at five reasons to continue paying attention to the 2013 Minnesota Vikings.

The Quarterback Carousel Continues

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    Clint Eastwood starred in a 1966 film entitled, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly".

    Which of those three adjectives doesn't belong in a sentence describing the Vikings' quarterback play in 2013?

    Vikings general manager Rick Spielman flexed his "Absolute Power" in drafting Christian Ponder and then in signing free agents Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman. Those decisions have put everyone involved, Spielman, Leslie Frazier and all three quarterbacks "In the Line of Fire". 

    For many people, Spielman will remain "Unforgiven" for the Vikings' current snarl at the most important position in sports. With none of the three looking good enough for the job, the Vikings, "In A Perfect World", will find their "Million Dollar Baby" in next spring's draft and the reins will be handed over to "The Rookie," who will make a "Sudden Impact".

    If you don't know, those are all Clint Eastwood movie titles, and while the preceding paragraph was certainly a stretch, was it any more of a reach than when Spielman drafted Ponder 12th overall in 2011?

    Spielman has drafted well in his tenure as Vikings general manager, but he missed on his most important choice, his franchise quarterback.

    Ponder's poor start in 2013 gave way to two starts for backup Matt Cassel, who played well in a win over the Steelers and poorly in a loss to the Panthers

    Following the Carolina game, the Vikings signed another quarterback, Josh Freeman, who'd been waived by the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Freeman was wildly inaccurate in a game against the New York Giants, and instead of giving Vikings fans glimpses of a great future; he only gave them evidence as to why the Buccaneers waived him.

    So the Vikings now have three quarterbacks on their roster and the smart bet is that none of them will be playing if the Vikings hope for better days in 2014.

    As I've written here on numerous occasions, Ponder is a great guy and is easy to root for, but he just isn't talented enough to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. He has no pocket presence, poor accuracy and no feel for the game.

    Cassel is a 31-year-old journeyman who is best suited to being a backup.

    Freeman is still the most unknown of the three quarterbacks on hand, but his career is in a nosedive that parallels the Vikings 2013 season. Like a pitcher who's lost his curveball, Freeman's accuracy has gone completely haywire over his last 10 or so starts.

    You would think that the Vikings would like to get another look at Freeman at some point this season. He's big and has a strong arm, but if he can't figure out where he's throwing it, he's not the answer and won't be back with the team in 2014.

    Ponder will continue to get opportunities to show he can handle the job, but he's shown nothing that would indicate that he's figuring things out.

    The Vikings' quarterback of the future is currently playing on Saturdays.

Who's Worth Keeping on Defense?

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    Of all the unhappy surprises the Minnesota Vikings have foisted on their fan base in 2013, the startling ineptness of their defense is the most dumbfounding.

    One thing to keep an eye on the rest of the way in 2013 is watching to see what defensive players earn their way back on to the team in 2014.

    It's a unit that ranked in the middle of the pack statistically in nearly every category in 2012. They were decent, with some good young pieces that made you think they would be even better in 2013. 

    Then they added two first-round picks in last spring's draft in defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and Xavier Rhodes. They also drafted two linebackers from Penn State in Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti, who added needed depth at that position.

    Things looked very good heading into 2013.

    Except that general manager Rick Spielman made one move that seems to have completely destroyed the unit. 

    One hour after free agency started on March 12, the Vikings released cornerback Antoine Winfield. Winfield was due $7.25 million in 2013, and rather than make him an offer for a lesser deal, Spielman simply cut him.

    What has losing Winfield done to the defense?

    It's gone from the 16th ranked defense in the league last season to 30th this year. It's giving up almost 50 more yards and 10 more points per game.

    The secondary, especially without the injured Harrison Smith, has been abysmal. It can't cover anyone, and on the rare occasion where defenders are in position to make a play, they fail.

    You could make a legitimate case that every player on the defensive side of the ball deserves an F grade for the season. How bad is it? Much-maligned second-year cornerback Josh Robinson is third on the team in tackles.

    The vaunted trio of defensive ends, Jared Allen, Brian Robison and Everson Griffen, who are all playing for new contracts, are on pace for just 18 sacks combined.

    The Vikings defense is a mess and it needs to be overhauled. It's looking less and less like Jared Allen will be back in purple next fall. Allen is a warrior and the type of guy you love to have on your team, but he just isn't playing up to the dollar amount he'll be looking for next season.

    Kevin Williams is probably playing his last games for the Vikings as well. Williams has been a constant for over a decade in the middle for Minnesota, and although he played fantastic against the Redskins, he isn't having a great year on the whole.

    Erin Henderson and Chad Greenway are piling up tackling numbers, but neither one is anything close to a dominant player. They are both too slow in getting to spots and are making too many tackles way too far down the field.

    Defensive coordinator Alan Williams has left much to be desired in 2013. The Vikings have given up far too many difference-making drives late in games that have cost the team dearly. 

    Kevin Patra of NFL.com reports that players were openly questioning the defensive play calls down the stretch in last week's loss to the Cowboys.

    The Vikings defense simply has to start playing better for the team to not continue it's nosedive. Jobs can be won in the next two months. Or jobs can continue to be lost. 

Can Any of the First-Round Picks Play?

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    There were all sorts of congratulatory bouquets being tossed around Winter Park after the Vikings seemingly came away with a bumper crop of draft picks, including three first-rounders that supposedly met both criteria of need and value.

    What we know about those three first-rounders after nine games is that Cordarrelle Patterson is a phenomenal kick-returner.

    If you've blinked, you probably missed the impact plays made by fellow rookies Sharrif Floyd and Xavier Rhodes.

    Floyd, who had been ranked as the top interior defensive lineman on many draft boards, has made zero impact so far. Fellow first-round pick Sheldon Richardson has been a dynamo for the New York Jets with an amazing 41 tackles on the season. The Panthers talented pair of rookie tackles, Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short have both been excellent, with 25 and 16 tackles respectively. They have eight tackles for loss combined.

    Floyd? He has seven tackles total.

    Rhodes has made a slightly better impression than Floyd, but that's not saying much. Rhodes is still looking for his first interception (something that just makes him fit in with the Vikings secondary) and only has two passes defended to go along with his 33 tackles.

    For comparison's sake, third-round pick Tyrann Mathieu, who many teams shied away from in the draft, has 56 tackles, six passes defended and two interceptions

    The Chiefs' Marcus Cooper, picked 223 spots after Rhodes and subsequently waived by the 49ers, has 14 passes defended and two interceptions.

    Patterson is clearly an electric football player, and the Vikings coaches have to find more ways to get the ball in his hands. He's on pace for just over 30 catches, which is absurd considering all the talent he's shown in his limited opportunities.

    Granted, the Vikings trio of first-round picks hasn't been given a ton of opportunities to shine, but that should change over the next two months. This team is not going anywhere near the playoffs. Put the youngsters on the field and see what they can do.

There's Always Adrian Peterson

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    The Vikings coaching staff has much to answer for in a season that's collapsing faster than a snowman in July. The offense, defense and special teams all have left much to be desired in one of the most disappointing seasons in Vikings history.

    There are too many issues to point at for a quick fix to work, too many areas where Minnesota looks both outmanned and out-coached. 

    If you want one number to summarize the team's failings, you have plenty to choose from: A team quarterback rating that sits at 71.3, 25.3 points lower than quarterbacks who've played against them. Just three interceptions from the 10 defensive backs who've seen extensive action, two of those from Harrison Smith, who might be done for the season. A wide receiver corps that has two touchdown catches on the season. 

    Those are all telling stats, but how about this one: In four of the Vikings losses, Adrian Peterson has averaged just 13.5 carries. That's right, the defending MVP of the league has had fewer than 20 carries four times already, including an astonishing three-game stretch where he only had 36 carries.

    While it's true that score and situation often dictate a running back's touches, how can the Vikings coaching staff explain away a game where a quarterback who'd had four practices with the team was asked to throw the ball 53 times? 

    The Vikings have one offensive weapon that they can count on and they've repeatedly taken him out of the flow of the game. Yes, awful play at quarterback hasn't helped keep the offense on the field, but the play-callers need to do a better job of getting Peterson touches.

    In a season that seems dismal for Peterson, especially when held up against 2012, he is still fourth in the league in rushing and is on pace for 1,400 yards and 18 touchdowns on the season. 

    Unfortunately, the clock is ticking on the career of one of the best Vikings of all time. Peterson is a joy to watch, bringing an otherworldly combination of talent and desire to the football field. 

    His play this year has been slightly uneven, partly due to some nagging injuries, partly due to his offensive line not performing and partly due to the quarterbacks in front of him not performing.

    But with Peterson there is always hope. He many never equal the 10-game stretch he closed the 2012 season with, but everyone who watches knows that the next huge run and the next scintillating highlight could be on the very next handoff.

Let's Address the Elephant in the Room

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    The temperature of Vikings fans was tough to gauge after last Thursday night's 34-27 win over the Washington Redskins. 

    While it was nice to see the team win and look at least a little bit better than it had for the past month, there is a large percentage of Minnesota fans that figure that winning more games really doesn't do them any good this season.

    This all begs the question: Is it okay to root for your team to lose?

    Of course it is, you can root for whatever you want. If you feel like the team is best served by finishing among the worst teams in the league this year to help get a high draft pick that it can use on a possible franchise quarterback, there's nothing wrong with that.

    I'll note here that what you hope for from the comfort of your couch really has no bearing on what actually happens on the field (regardless of what the numerous light beer and chicken wing advertisements tell you).

    NFL football teams won't tank games. (Although Leslie Frazier seemingly calling a timeout for the Redskins with under a minute to play on Thursday night sure raised some eyebrows. If the Redskins had tied the game up, that timeout would haunt Frazier until the day he is fired.)

    Jobs are too scarce and careers are far too short for players in the NFL to not give their all in every game. It's not like any of the other major professional team sports where there is always another game a day or two later. The NFL season is short and game days are intense and pressure-packed.

    Players know that every play they put on tape will be watched and evaluated by their team and every other team and that their future in the league depends on maximum effort.

    That doesn't mean that it's wrong for you to want a higher pick in next spring's draft. 

    The 2013 Vikings aren't going to make the playoffs. They are more than likely are going to be looking to the draft to find a quarterback who can hopefully lead a resurgence beginning in 2014. Whether that quarterback will be Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Mariota or Brett Hundley, Minnesota will probably have to pick in the top five to get the guy it wants.

    Yes, there is a large group of hard-core fans that think that anyone who ever wants his or her team to lose isn't a fan at all, and that's okay too. 

    The Vikings are about to embark on a brutal seven-game stretch that probably favors those fans who want a higher pick in the draft. 

    For the Vikings, the remaining seven games can be looked at as tryouts for players all over the field. If they pick up a couple of wins and find a couple of players who deserve more chances along the way, then so be it. 

    Root for whatever you want.