A Bittersweet Season? Changes for the Vikings a Must Going Forward
Any time you watch one of those one-hit wonder shows, you always hear that tune of bitter angst and the hope of change sitting at the top of the countdown. Oh c'mon…you know the one I'm talking about," 'Cause it's a bittersweet symphony, this life…"
Who would have thought going into the 2011 season that an early 90s English anthem would resonate so loudly within the context of Viking nation after their 33 to 27 loss to the Green Bay Packers last week.
It is bittersweet after all, right? Here they sit at the bottom of their division, a division considered by many to be the toughest in the NFL, and we're not even at the halfway point of the 2011 season.
Countless injuries have plagued the positions the team is already weakest at, and that whole stadium situation seems to gain momentum with each passing day. Yet if you watched the game on Sunday, you realize that the Minnesota Vikings just might be the most interesting 1-6 team in the history of the NFL. Well, if not the history, certainly this year anyway.
Even though he's got a rather minimal five quarters under his belt, it's reasonable to consider that for the first time since the Daunte Culpepper era, the Vikings have found a long-term solution at the quarterback position in Christian Ponder. Whether or not he will ever mature into a pro-bowl caliber talent remains to be seen. It does appear, however, that the Vikings days of renting space to the veteran QB's of the NFL is over.
Aside from Ponder, the Vikings do posses a handful of other young prospects who will presumably have a bigger role in terms of who the Vikings plan to build around in the years to come. Setting aside the fact that they have perennial Pro Bowlers in Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson, the likes of Kyle Rudolph, Chris Cook, and Christian Ballard represent the youth this team can utilize in years to come.
The real problem, however, is that much of the rest of the roster is made up of guys who are inching closer and closer to the exit with each passing game.
Sure, they'll get a few more years out of Pro Bowlers Steve Hutchinson and Antoine Winfield. And yes, Jared Allen and Chad Greenway seem to be reaching the height of their prime. Yet when you truly look at the Vikings roster, you see that there are a lot of positions that need to be addressed in the near future if they want to compete with the Lions, and tigers,(Packers) and Bears of the NFC North. With that, here is a list of the positions the Vikings need to address first in the coming years in order to get back to that championship level.
No. 1 Defensive Backfield
It's hard to say whether they are more in need of a solid corner, or a Polamalu-style safety. One thing's for sure, though, the Vikings really struggle when it comes to stopping the pass. The new statement that seems to sweep the league continues to be that today's NFL is a "Passing League."
So the assumption can then be made that as important as it is to have a sold quarterback, it's just as important to have the personnel to stop opposing quarterbacks from going absolutely lights-out on your defense. Case and point: Aaron Rodgers going 24 of 30 for 335 yards in their most recent loss. The problem is, that wasn't a fluke for Rodgers as it's rather common that his best games usually come out against the Vikes.
It's not just Rodgers, either. Being in the NFC North ensures that you have to face the much improved Matthew Stafford, the hot or cold Jay Cutler and the heavyweight champion himself, Mr. Rodgers. Facing these quarterbacks once would be enough, but having to face off against them a total of six times in a given season spells trouble for just about any defensive backfield the Vikings can manage to put together.
So what does that tell you? The Viking's have to beef up their secondary if they want to compete with the elites of the NFL going forward.
If you look around the NFL, there are a handful of teams who aren't exactly juggernauts on the offensive side of the football, (Ravens, Jets) yet they manage to use defense in such a way that they are always mentioned among the game's elite teams.
On the other half of that equation, even though it is a passing league, you don't see too many teams who are able to simply outscore their opponents each game without the aid of a solid defense. The Packers and Saints do play that style in some cases, yet they still have the type of defenders who make enough big plays that it more or less evens out.
Simply put, the Vikings can have the best running back on the planet and an above average receiving corps, yet if they are unable to stop Aaron Rodgers from having career days each time they meet, it's going to be hard for them to compete in the foreseeable future.
Prediction: The Vikings need to spend one of their top two picks on a franchise cornerback or safety
All kidding aside, the Vikings receiving corp isn't as bad as the stats would suggest for the 2011 season. Problem is, the on the field results haven't been that stellar either. In Percy Harvin they have a dynamic playmaker who succeeds most when he either lines up in the slot, or is used in other various ways that aren't exactly predictable. In other words, he isn't a superb number one receiver in terms of running routes and being a down the field threat.
Of course, that isn't exactly an indictment on Harvin as a player, instead it plays as a reminder to the face that Harvin has never been considered to be the answer for the Vikings at the receiver position, and he shouldn't be now.
While Michael Jenkins does appear to have had generated some chemistry with Ponder, again we are talking about an aging veteran who is merely a short term fix as opposed to the long-term answer the team truly needs.
It's clear to see that Ponder likes to utilize the size and strength of a receiver who can outmuscle his defender. Hopefully Jenkins can provide that answer for a bit longer, however, it's clear that the Vikings need to address that need soon.
The Vikings do have great tight ends in Visanthe Shiancoe and Kyle Rudolph, and that should definitely be viewed as a positive going forward. However, it's clear that Ponder's options would be much more accessible if they were to be complemented by a big-time receiver liken to a Calvin Johnson or Roddy White.
Sure, it's unknown exactly how the receiving group entering the draft will shake out. Moreover, it's more unclear whether or not the Vikings would even target a top-tier receiver considering the Vikings have only drafted three receivers in the first round dating back to the 60s.
Drafting receivers has never really been a top priority for the Vikings front office. Considering the current landscape of the NFL and the Vikings depleted options, it's hard to ignore that receivers should be at the top of the list when draft time rolls around for Minnesota.
Prediction: The Vikings will use a third or fourth round pick on a Receiver while targeting one of the top free agent receivers available.
#3. Offensive Line
If there is one area that the Vikings have always excelled at throughout their rich history in the NFL, it's surely the offensive line position. With the likes of Randall McDaniel, Kory Stringer and Matt Birk representing the Vikings O-line alumni, it's evident that domination along the offensive line is something that's always been of extreme importance within the Vikings organization.
Their traditional of O-lineman continued even as recent as 2009 when we saw two of the Vikings starting line members reach the Pro Bowl in Steve Hutchinson and current Raven, Bryant Mckinnie. Within the last 16 months, however, the line has appeared to weaken as age, injuries and transaction moves have plagued what was once a dominating force.
The Vikings undoubtedly need to figure out how much Steve Hutchinson has left in the tank as a superior lineman in the NFL. So far, every Viking game this year showcases that Hutchinson still dominates almost every defender he comes in contact with all the while opening up huge gaps for Adrian Peterson to run through.
With 10 competitive years of of NFL action logged, however, you wonder how much longer he will be able to keep his standard at such a high level. Even with Phil Loadholt slowly coming into his own as respectable starter, it's obvious that the Vikings will need to make a few acquisitions going forward in order to get their line back to the dominant level it once was.
Some have suggested that the offensive line is of upmost importance for the Vikings when the draft rolls around. After all, there usually isn't a collection of franchise lineman available on the free agent market at the conclusion of a season.
Taking all of that into consideration, would it be wise of the Vikings to utilize their top pick on a franchise lineman who could block for Peterson for the remainder of his career? The direct answer to that question will be better answered once this season plays out and we see how well the current group is able to protect Ponder for the remainder of the season.
Until then, enjoy the play of Hutchinson as it could be a fleeting symphony of destruction Viking fans will surely miss.
Prediction: The Vikings will use either their first or second draft pick on an offensive lineman.
#4. Defensive Line/Linebackers
Simply stated, this is a tough one. In general, the Vikings still have three or four of their best players scattered throughout both the defensive line and the linebacking corps, and some of those players (Jared Allen, Chad Greenway) will most likely be productive Vikings for another five to six years. Toss in the fact that another handful of the players in said positions are at least good enough to have starting jobs in the NFL, and you have to at least speculate as to the what's and why's of the defensive woe's of the 2011 season.
Along with every other position plaguing the Vikings, the Vikings need to figure out whether they will be able to improve at these positions enough to compete in the NFC North. No longer are the Vikings assured of a few wins just by proxy of showing up against the Lions or the usually depleted Bears.
The teams that used to grant the Vikings a handful of wins have now improved their rosters enough to be true contenders in the NFL. If the Vikings want to ensure that they will not be left behind, beefing up the defensive line and linebacking corps is an absolute must.
If you flash back to the 2009 Vikings, you'll likely remember that the team had one of, if not the best defensive fronts in the NFL. Aside from the perennial Pro Bowlers already mentioned, Pat Williams, Ray Edwards, and Ben Leber filled in the other positions nicely enough that it was difficult to put together much of an offensive attack against the Vikes.
This, in turn, left teams with the impression that they were going to have to gain their yards through the air. The intimidating, run-stopping culture has been a staple in Minnesota for years. It's clear, though, that it's a fleeting entity that may disappear altogether if they fail to make a few personnel moves before next season.
Sure, the word is still out on players like Brian Robison and Erin Henderson. Moreover, they could eventually materialize into the type of gritty players that essentially perform above the sum of their parts.
Heck, maybe they end up turning into Pro Bowlers who have starting spots on the Vikings roster for years to come. Sure, it would be nice if (within the context of this dreadful season) the Vikings managed to find a few diamonds in the rough for the future. But can you really plan for the future around players who are still unproven? Well, it appears as though the Minnesota Vikings may just try.
Prediction: They make a few changes but most of the defensive front returns.
What's to Come?
In general, the Vikings have always done a rather spectacular job of adding just the right pieces into the lineup in order to stay competitive year after passing year. The Viking fans are a bit lucky that they haven't been treated to too many catastrophe's (aside from this one) liken to what fans of the Lions and Browns have had to go through over the last decade.
Sure, there have been some rough stretches and disastrous seasons along the way. (1984 and 2001 anyone?) Yet the Vikings have never really found themselves in a position like this before. With that, it's abundantly clear that many questions have to be answered going forward.
In a sense, it's a continuous cycle in the NFL: A handful of teams will be good for a certain amount of time, then their players start to get old which gives way for a new crop of teams step up to the elite level. After all, It happened to many dynasties of the NFL's past, (Cowboys, 49ers, Jets) and in a sense, it appears that it may be happening for the first time to the Minnesota Vikings.
When the Vikings added Brett Favre in 2009, it was believed that that team had a short window with which they would compete for a title. After all, Brad Childress even said on more than one occasion that he was essentially putting all of his chips into one basket in hopes of winning now. When you think about it, the Vikings have never truly subjected themselves, or their fans to what most would consider to be a rebuilding transition.
With so many questions looming over the state of the Vikings, (from on the field personnel issues to political stadium issues off) the time may be perfect for Zygi Wilf and Leslie Frazier to acknowledge to themselves and the fans that they are in the midst of an all out transitional faze.
Sure, at first it would be a bitter pill to swallow in that you want to watch a team who can compete for a Super Bowl. Yet watching a product with the promise of growth like Christian Ponder is always better than watching an aging entity like Donovan McNabb who tries to hang on a bit too long. After all, admitting you have a problem is half the battle, trying to fix it is what comes next.