The Minnesota Vikings are 7-1, and after this weekend’s results, they’re clearly in the driver’s seat in the NFC North.
So, the question is how’d they get there? Clearly, the massive upswing started one mid-August afternoon, when Brad Childress hopped into an SUV and finally delivered the Vikings a starting quarterback.
Nobody believes that Sage Rosenfels or Tarvaris Jackson would be sitting at 7-1, but Brett Favre isn’t the only reason why the Vikings in control of their own destiny this season.
Here’s a look at the seven things the Vikings have going right, and one thing they need to improve in the second half of the season.
1. The Favre Factor
Clearly the elephant in the room is Brett Favre. At 40 years old, Favre is having one of the best seasons of his career. His stat line, particularly 16 touchdowns against three interceptions, is practically unbelievable. Even when he was healthy and young, he didn’t often put up stats like that.
However, the greatest benefit that Favre brings to the table is faith. For all the talk of schisms and Favre’s prima donna status, every player in the Vikings locker room believes that Brett Favre can win any game on the schedule.
That’s not a benefit they’re willing to give a Tarvaris Jackson, as much as they may like him as an individual, or Sage Rosenfels. And so far, it’s something that’s borne itself out during the season.
Favre has built an instant rapport with his receivers, has developed his own audible and check down systems, and has put some flair into a very rough and generic offense in desperate need of some life.
2. Rookie Development
There’s little doubt, at least at the moment, that Percy Harvin will be the offensive rookie of the year. With all due respect to Baltimore’s Michael Oher, nobody has splashed onto the scene quite like Havin.
He’s picked up the offensive scheme faster than anyone imagined, and has become Favre’s favorite third down target. And while the “Percy-Cat” formation hasn’t delivered much fruit, Harvin has shown his versatility as a receiver, runner, and return man.
The Vikings’ other big draft pick, both figuratively and literally, was Phil Loadholt.
And while Loadholt has struggled at times, at least in part due to injury, he has made the right side of the Viking’s line infinitely better, and as he continues to develop this season, it’s clear that he will be a force in the running game.
Of the Viking’s other draft picks, Asher Allen has played well as the nickel back in Antoine Winfield’s absence, and linebacker Jasper Brinkley and safety Jamarca Sanford have both played very well in special teams coverage.
3. Cooking Rice
Sidney Rice flashed a lot of potential in two seasons, but injuries threatened to derail his talent. Last season, Rice only had 15 catches, with four touchdowns, but he never looked comfortable.
This season? Rice already has more than four times as many yards as he did last season. Part of that is due to his quarterback. But part of it is due to Rice elevating his play.
Working out with Larry Fitzgerald and Chris Carter this offseason has given Rice a shot of confidence. He’s running routes more effectively and efficiently, and as a result, he’s looking more and more like a number one receiver.
4. Jared Allen and the Williams Wall
Jared Allen is having a career year. 10.5 sacks at the midway point and three forced fumbles put him near the top of the league as a defensive lineman. Exactly what the Vikings had hoped he would be, even more so now that he’s playing healthy.
While Pat and Kevin Williams don’t have as gaudy numbers, what’s more important for the Vikings is that they’re playing. Their suspension is tied up in the court system, and Kevin, in particular, is making the most of the opportunity.
While Pat hasn’t been the dominant run stuffer he was in years past, he’s still doing a good job eating up space, and with Jimmie Kennedy playing well backing him up, he should be well rested down the stretch.
5. Special Special Teams
The Viking’s special teams were among the worst in the league last season, setting the wrong kinds of records for points allowed. They looked lost and missed easy assignments and tackles, most notably against Reggie Bush last year.
This year, however, the unit looks much improved. Partially because new coordinator Brian Murphy has a more tight scheme in place, but also because of the new blood on the field this season.
Percy Harvin, of course, has provided the Vikings with a spectacular kick returner, but perhaps more important is the return of Heath Farwell.
The Vikings’ leading tackler in 2007 missed all of 2008 with a knee injury. It’s no shock that Farwell’s return to the squad has improved the tackling significantly. In addition, the Vikings added two big hitters in Jamarca Sanford and Jasper Brinkley in the draft, as well as Canadian stand out Kenny Onatalu to shore up the coverage teams.
6. Scheme Change
Throughout his tenure as head coach, Brad Childress has been under fire for having too simple a game plan. The Vikings’ playbook was smaller than the one for Tecmo Bowl. Run up the middle, run up the middle, three yard pass on 3rd-and-4. It didn’t matter what personnel grouping was on the field.
Now, however, Brad Childress has been able to launch his much vaunted “kick ass” offense. Which means shaking up the packages on first and second downs, trying to find ways to bounce Adrian Peterson off tackle, and, shock of all shocks, passes for more than three yards.
It’d be dumb to suggest this didn’t have something to do with Brett Favre, of course, but most of it has to do with trust in the players on the field at any given time.
Phil Loadholt isn’t going to waffle under pressure like Ryan Cook.
Visanthe Shiancoe can actually catch passes. Sidney Rice has more than one good knee. Harvin is just as reliable as Bobby Wade, but can actually make plays downfield. All things the Vikings can count on this season that they haven’t had in a long time.
7. Soft Schedule
Of course it’s worth noting that the Viking’s schedule isn’t exactly threatening. They’re not 7-1 by accident. Well…I guess that depends on how you feel about the 49ers game.
Of their first eight games, the Vikings beat Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis all among the league’s worst. As well as Green Bay and San Francisco, two young teams that are still finding their groove. So the only “quality” win was Baltimore in Week Six.
But consider the rest of the schedule. They’ve got Detroit again, an up and down Seattle team, slumping Chicago twice, and Carolina. The only truly competitive teams that the Vikings play before the Playoffs are Arizona, Cincinnati, and the Giants. The Giants game will be at the end of the season when the Vikings are likely to have clinched the division, at least.
More importantly, however, is that the schedule clearly favors Brett Favre, since only the Chicago game on Dec. 28th will be played in a cold weather climate, and isn’t likely to be of much consequence barring a disastrous second half.
And consider that, unless the Giants suddenly charge and the Saints fall off, the Vikings are likely to be able to play every Playoff game in a dome or warm weather stadium, as well. This isn’t last season where he’s going to have to test his bicep in bad weather nearly every week.
-1. Missing Presence
There are a few negatives to the Vikings this season, of course, but one really glaring one. While many veterans are playing hard to keep the team in first place and try to secure a Playoff spot, many highly paid veterans haven’t shown up yet this year.
E.J. Henderson, who was the spark plug of the defense last season and was playing at Pro Bowl level before he got injured, hasn’t looked the same this year. He’s played decently as the Vikings’ middle linebacker, but he’s had a tendency to disappear in the second half when the team really needs him to make stops.
Bernard Berrian is another veteran who put up great numbers last year, and seemed well on his way to proving that he was worth his exorbitant contract. But since he missed most of training camp with a hamstring injury, Berrian has not picked up the new Vikings playbook or any connection with Brett Favre at all.
Finally, the bane of the Vikings’ defense this season has been the poor tackling of safeties Tyrell Johnson and Madieu Williams.
And while I’m willing to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt, seeing as how it’s his first year as a true starter, Williams is a six year veteran who needs to start playing to the standards of his $33-million contract.
With everything that’s gone right for the team this season, and with luck seemingly falling their way more often than not, it’s not difficult to see the Vikings as Super Bowl contenders.
The real question, however, won’t be answered until after the bye, when we find out how many of those seven bye week positives, can actually be maintained for the rest of the year.