The Minnesota Vikings are coming off a 12-4 season, a NFC Championship game appearance, and are returning basically every key player—especially one key player. They should be primed for another run.
And yet this season is seemingly destined to be filled with hardship and struggle for Minnesota.
With a tougher schedule this season, injuries to key players already, and another year on everyone's odometer, it will be difficult for the Vikings to duplicate last season's success. To improve on last season, to get to the Super Bowl or win the Super Bowl, will be exquisitely difficult for Minnesota.
But make no mistake, the Vikings still have the offensive firepower and the defensive fortitude to be a championship contender.
With the season opener tomorrow, let's preview what the Vikes have and need to do in order to win that elusive ring.
There were many upset fans after Sage Rosenfels was traded to the New York Giants. Thought to be the only competent, ready backup on the roster, Rosenfels was a good safety net for Minnesota to have.
But the Vikings are all-in for the Super Bowl, and nobody but No. 4 is going to get them there. Any injury to Brett Favre, any reason for the backup quarterback to come in besides mop-up duty, and Minnesota's chances would go down the drain. No reason to cry over spilled milk or traded Sage.
Favre is the all-time record holder for consecutive games played at 285, the Iron Man. But he is 40 years old going on 41, coming off ankle surgery, and already in need of shots to alleviate pain for that ankle. It stands to reason, logically speaking, that he will miss some time at some point in his career, and that sometime is now.
Favre has made a living playing in every game and proving people wrong, though.
If he can survive this year, if he can get protection, Favre still has the capability and the weapons around him—even while Sidney Rice is recovering from his surgery—to make oppositions pay.
The passing game looked a millisecond off in the preseason, but it took them a few weeks to gel last season as well. With old security blanket, Visanthe Shiancoe, and new security blanket, Greg Camarillo, not to mention Berrian, Harvin, and some Peterson guy, Favre and the Vikings offense should be peaking as the season goes on.
Maybe last season's Herculean statline won't be matched, but something close to it should be expected for Favre, if he can just stay healthy.
The Vikings will miss backup running back and third-down specialist Chester Taylor. One of the very few players from last year not on this year's roster, Taylor was invaluable as a runner, receiver, and blocker. He was able to replace Adrian Peterson on certain downs and the Vikings offense never missed a beat.
Whether or not rookie Toby Gerhart and promoted practice squader Albert Young can replace Taylor's production remains to be seen, and is highly doubtful.
Fullback Naufahu Tahi is an adequate blocker. That is all.
Stating the obvious, the stallion in the stable is Peterson, he of the mortal 1,383 rushing yards, career-high 43 receptions and 436 receiving yards, and league-leading 18 touchdowns last season. He is the one-man wrecking crew, a deterrent forcing the opposition into eight-man boxes and focused on the run. Even while Favre and the Vikings receivers are picking them apart down the field, the defenses still fear Peterson more.
According to all reports, he has worked harder than ever at securing the ball, his Achilles' heel, this offseason. If it works, time will tell.
Peterson should enjoy more lanes to run in with a healthy Steve Hutchinson in tow this season. With Taylor gone, Peterson looks to be a bigger part of the passing game as well. And with four tight ends on the roster, including three that could double as fullbacks, the Vikings seem to be preparing for some smash-mouth football.
Peterson could be looking at a big, big year ahead.
Brett Favre's first pass of this preseason was a 34-yarder over the middle to Percy Harvin, showing that despite surgeries and migraines and time apart, this is still a formidable combo.
The Offensive Rookie of the Year last season, Harvin believes the cause of his migraines has finally been found.
"We're feeling really confident. I know we said that a couple times, but I think this time we found what the main cause was. I'm not saying I'll never get a headache again, but hopefully we can slow it down a little bit," Harvin told reporters.
If that is the case, Harvin should continue to be the kick returner and become a more focal part of the offense, including the running game. More opportunities for Harvin is a good thing for Minnesota.
Harvin will have to improve to offset the loss of Sidney Rice for at least the first six weeks of the season. Sidney Rice was the jump ball, deep threat Favre loved to lob it too last season. Rice is just coming into his own as a receiver, drawing comparisons to Larry Fitzgerald. While not on Fitzgerald's level, Rice's ability in midair makes him an irreplaceable player.
But the Vikings have the talent to bide their time while waiting for him to get healthy.
Bernard Berrian, recently tabbed to be the team's punt returner in Week 1, is said to be 100 percent healthy now after an injury-riddled season. If he can be the speedy deep threat for Favre, similar to Robert Brooks in the mid-90s, the Vikings could add another dimension to their passing attack.
Minnesota traded for Greg Camarillo a few weeks ago and he proceeded to catch four passes, including two third-down passes that went for first downs, in his first preseason game. Camarillo finds the open space on the field, doesn't drop passes, and should make plenty of key plays to keep the chains moving this season.
The Vikings kept four tight ends on their final roster, but Jim Kleinsasser, Jeff Dugan, and rookie Mickey Shuler figure to be used mainly for blocking. Visanthe Shiancoe is the pass-catching tight end and Favre's favorite red zone target. He will see more action split-wide this season and could increase his stats from a career year last season, though 11 touchdowns will be hard to repeat.
Favre and the passing game will need a few weeks to come together just like last year, but only injuries will prevent them from being an aerial assault in the last quarter of the season.
The Vikings offensive line did not play up to par last season.
Steve Hutchinson was concealing injuries, playing near 75 percent capacity. Bryant McKinnie was his lazy self, playing near 75 percent capacity. John Sullivan was a first-year starter, getting bullied and pushed around by interior defensive lineman. Anthony Herrera was there. Rookie Phil Loadholt was possibly the best starting offensive lineman, and was barely adequate in pass protection.
It would have been good to address one of these concerns in the offseason. Instead, the Vikings brain trust went with the status quo.
They're hoping Hutchinson is healthy (which he is) and that he'll remain healthy. They're hoping that McKinnie, even when lazy, is a top 10 left tackle in the league, which he is (if only he focused more often). They're hoping that Sullivan grows and learns from his first season; unfortunately, a calf injury prevented him from preseason action, practice, and time with the rest of the starters. Backup Jon Cooper, a promoted practice squader, might start for Sullivan in the season opener, if not longer.
Loadholt should improve in his second season and further maximize his imposing 6'8'', 343-pound body.
Chris DeGeare is a road-grading, 6'4'', 330-pound guard who showed an ability to create alleys in the preseason. DeGeare is too green to be starting over Anthony Herrera yet, but by next season—maybe by the end of this season—he will be ready to start.
Ryan Cook is the last backup on the line, capable of filling in or spot starting at every position on the line, with possibly the exception of left tackle. Despite years of the fans hating him in the starting lineup, Cook is a versatile, useful backup.
The Vikings have the offensive line talent capable of dominating the line of scrimmage. But if Hutchinson gets too banged up again, and if the interior of the line plays like last season, they will be the downfall of the offense again: Incapable of consistently providing room in the open field for Peterson or protecting Favre from heavy punishment.
The Vikings possibly have the best defensive line depth in the league and possibly the best starting defensive line in the league.
Seemingly the best starting defensive line. More than likely the best starting defensive line. Probably the best starting defen...they have the best starting defensive line in the league, okay?
Pat Williams is only a two-down player now, but his impact on those two plays is clear to running backs. Kevin Williams is on the shortlist of best defensive tackles in the game, if not the best. Jared Allen is on the shortlist of best defensive ends in the game despite a growing pattern of disappearing in the spotlight and looking more and more like Mark Gastineau 2.0. Ray Edwards had the best postseason of anybody, is just entering his prime, and is now able to take advantage of the attention his three teammates take.
But the Vikings line doesn't end there. Defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy gets a great rush up the middle on passing plays. Defensive end and occasional defensive tackle Brian Robison has a non-stop motor and relentless pursuit. Defensive tackles Fred Evans and Letroy Guion are both big and quick in the trenches. Defensive ends Jaymee Mitchell and rookie Everson Griffen shouldn't get much playing time, but they both showed proficiency during preseason play.
Minnesota will be taking advantage of their talent and depth this season, strategically rotating lineman in order to magnify their line of scrimmage superiority, and they should be sending more than one lineman to the Pro Bowl yet again. The defensive line is still the strength of this team, the backbone.
The injury to E.J. Henderson was grisly, gruesome, and grotesque. Many, many people wondered if he would ever play again.
Somehow, someway, and with more work than we could ever imagine, Henderson is back and ready to play. And that is incredible for Henderson as a player and a person, an amazing feat that hasn't received the praise and awe it should. But, for the defense, it's even bigger.
Henderson is the glue in the defense, the bridge from line to secondary, the leader. A big part of the Vikings vaunted run defense, Henderson is adept in pass coverage and blitzing as well. His play was missed and needed during their playoff run, and if he can provide his normal level of play this season, the defense that held the Super Bowl-winning New Orleans Saints to 257 total yards in the NFC Championship game might be better.
Outside linebacker Chad Greenway has become a very good player, a smart, sound, athletic player with some untapped potential still. Ben Leber isn't highly regarded, but is a less athletic version of Greenway, with a higher penchant for interceptions and big plays. They combine with Henderson to provide a stout run defense, while being occasionally so-so in pass coverage.
Jasper Brinkley played some important football last season after E.J. Henderson's injury. He was shown to be a rookie several times throughout the learning process, but also showed a propensity for hard hits. E.J.'s brother Erin Henderson is an undersized, competitive outside linebacker who may one day be a good player, but as of now is a middling understudy. The other backups are special team leaders Kenny Onatolu and Heath Farwell, who are both exceptional on special teams, and shouldn't be on the field for any important play.
The team is thin at linebacker again, and like with most units on the team, an injury to one of the starters would be devastating. But, when healthy, it is a solid starting unit bolstered by a returning Henderson and a still-developing Greenway.
There has been a consistent theme throughout the past two decades for the Vikings:
The secondary is the weakest link on the team. By far.
There is hope Cedric Griffin will be ready for Week 1, but he is still coming off ACL surgery. Griffin led the team in interceptions last season with four, had 78 tackles, and is the only experienced Vikings corner in the prime of his career. After Griffin, the cornerbacks are either old or raw.
However, Antoine Winfield is still the best corner on the team, and still one of the best tacklers in all of football. His ability to cut off the run outside has been and still is vital to the Vikings rush defense. But his age is catching up to him in pass coverage, leaving him better suited to cover the slot position these days.
Lito Sheppard's age has caught up to him with pass coverage, and he isn't nearly the run-stopper Winfield is. If hidden and used sparingly, he'll be alright, but the AFC Championship game turned when he was forced to play every down because of an injury to a starter. Something to think about.
Chris Cook played like a younger, bigger Antoine Winfield in preseason, cutting the running back off at the knees a yard off the line and playing well in coverage. An injury might keep him out of the season opener, and he will assuredly have his rookie moments, but Cook appears to be a good building block for the future of the secondary and a potential X-factor this season.
Second-year corner Asher Allen is a fast, aggressive player who doesn't really know what he's doing yet. Fans shouldn't expect much from him and anything more is a bonus.
The safety position is a blight on the Vikings roster.
Madieu Williams has been one of the bigger free agent busts in recent team history, Tyrell Johnson has been one of the bigger draft busts in recent team history, and they're the presumed starters. Jamarca Sanford might end up starting and he is a heavy hitter with heavy, lead feet. Husain Abdullah and Eric Frampton are simply special teams players.
Maybe they should have re-signed Darren Sharper, huh? Hindsight and all, right?
Minnesota has the potential to have an above-average secondary, but they need something unexpected to happen to get there. A Lito Sheppard renaissance? Chris Cook as Defensive Rookie of the Year? Tyrell Johnson becoming the player the Vikings thought he'd be?
Otherwise, it will continue to be the weakest unit on the team.
Ryan Longwell is as steady as they go. Since coming over to Minnesota four seasons ago, he has made 96 of 111 field goals for an 86.7 percentage. In that time, he has only missed ten of 97 field goals under fifty yards. Nothing to worry about here.
Punter Chris Kluwe has got better at not outkicking his coverage and cornering his kicks. He still possesses a big leg and is an asset to the team, but no one likes to talk about how good a punter is. Except Raiders fans.
The coverage has improved over the past few years, with Farwell, Onatolu, and Abdullah leading the way. If Harvin continues to return kicks, that will be a bonus. The trade of Darius Reynaud leaves a hole at punt returner and backup kick returner and it is unclear who will fill in. Berrian will be returning punts in Week 1, but Asher Allen could see some time there as well.
The special teams is above-average with an elite kicker and elite kick returner, if Harvin remains there.
It's two steps forward, one step back with Brad Childress. Despite an incremental improvement of two wins every year (six wins in his first season, then eight wins, then 10, and finally 12 last season), the only thing I can think to say is "12 men on the field."
Still, with all his faults, he has proven to be a very prepared coach with a prepared, ready, and able team.
Last time we saw Leslie Frazier's defense, they were swarming Drew Brees and stifling one of the best offenses in the NFL. He probably should have received a head coaching position somewhere this season, but thankfully for Minnesota, he did not. With the defensive line depth and Henderson back in the lineup, Frazier figures to have some tricks up his sleeve and keep the Vikings defense near the top of the league.
Darren Bevell is listed as the offensive coordinator. It's a lie. Favre is the coordinator.
The coaching staff clearly gets the team equipped and organized for game day and it is hard to quibble with what they do—outside of the occasional flareup from Childress, the micro-managing control freak. But with Frazier's ingenuity and game-calling and Bevell's ability to get out of Favre's way, no real complaints here. And it is good for team continuity that the coaches are coming back.
But sometimes you watch what they do and ask, "Why?"
Week 1: @ New Orleans Saints
Week 2: Miami Dolphins
Week 3: Detroit Lions
Week 4: BYE
Week 5: @ New York Jets
Week 6: Dallas Cowboys
Week 7: @ Green Bay Packers
Week 8: @ New England Patriots
Week 9: Arizona Cardinals
Week 10: @ Chicago Bears
Week 11: Green Bay Packers
Week 12: @ Washington Redskins
Week 13: Buffalo Bills
Week 14: New York Giants
Week 15: Chicago Bears
Week 16: @ Philadelphia Eagles
Week 17: @ Detroit Lions
The first eight weeks of the season is a minefield. Save the Lions game, which might not be a gimme game itself, the Vikings could very easily find themselves in the loss column after every game. Granted, with Minnesota's run defense, the Dolphins and Jets games might not be as harrowing as they seem. But the first half of the schedule could leave the Vikings in bad shape for the rest of the season.
The second half of the schedule doesn't look so hot either. Save the Bills and Cardinals games, which might not be gimme games themselves, the Vikings could find themselves out of the playoff picture by Week 16. Granted, Jay Cutler might be injured by the time the two Bears games roll around and the NFC East might have beat each other by then, so it might not be as harrowing as it seems.
But this schedule looks to be a doozy. Especially compared to last season, when the Vikings played five games against playoff teams—including two against Green Bay.
Something to keep in mind: Minnesota's bye last season was in Week 9, a perfect time to catch a break in the season and recoup. Then they played the Lions, a perfect tune-up game to get back in the groove.
This season, they have an early bye in Week 4, and then play Monday night against the Jets.
There is a difference here.
However, it is usually a bad idea to project what teams will end up having a hard or easy schedule in the preseason because of all the variables in the season. Teams play below expectations, or above expectations, injuries happen, the season happens. The Vikings might end up having one of the easier schedules in the league, who knows.
Right now though, it doesn't look that way.
The beginning of the season will look like the beginning of the end at times.
Minnesota could start the year 0-2, but it's a marathon, not a sprint. A 4-4 start would be fortunate, because 2-6 isn't outside the realm of possibility. As long as the Vikings are at or near .500 when Sidney Rice returns, things will be looking good, because they just need to make it to the playoffs.
Home-field advantage, with their schedule and with Green Bay in their division, is a pipe dream. If the Vikings can exceed hopes after their inauspicious start to the season, and win the division and garner either a home playoff game or a first-round bye...wow. But the playoffs, even with their schedule and with Green Bay in their division, is very achievable.
The Vikings will need some breaks, like Steven Hauschka missing a 44-yard field goal or Greg Lewis catching a miracle. They will need great performances from their regarded and unsung players. They will need an inspired play call at the right moment.
Minnesota just needs to make it to the playoffs. Get their foot in the door. Stating the obvious, if they can get there, then they've got a chance.
They have the three straight home games in weeks 13, 14, and 15, against the Bills, Giants, and Bears. If they can get into that stretch with five, six, or more wins, they should be in good shape. The season finale is at Detroit, a team that will be looking to cap off what should be a good development year.
That said, they are still the Lions, and the Vikings want to have eight or nine wins going into that game, with only a win in Detroit standing between them and the playoffs.
They should be able to do that. They should be able to make the playoffs and should be a team to reckon with in the playoffs.
Now, we just have to wait and see how the season unfolds.