Vikings Final Report Card

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I was as shocked as everyone else to discover Christian Ponder wouldn’t be playing at Lambeau. The stories circulating during the week about his injured elbow seemed like nothing more than injury report gamesmanship to keep the Packers guessing, and never did I actually think #7 wouldn’t take the field. Unfortunately the injury was very real and an overmatched Joe Webb was forced into the game, leading to an ugly end to an otherwise great season.

It’s hard to be too disappointed by the loss, after all, the Vikings were in rebuilding mode and hardly anyone expected them to win more than five games. Instead, we fans were treated to a roller coaster season in which the Vikings showed that they are a team on the rise.

Here are the final grades I would give to each position and how I think they can be upgraded going into next season:

QB-(C+): Christian Ponder started the season great, looked horrible in the middle, and finished strong enough to ensure his place as a started next season. While I’m not in love with him as much as Samantha Steele is, I can live with him going in as the #1 next season. But, and this is a huge but, the Vikings must have a competent back up on the roster. Whether it is Alex Smith, Matt Flynn, or Fran freaking Tarkenton, they absolutely must have a warm body capable of passing the ball should Ponder regress or bruise a different part of his delicate figure.

RB-(A+): Adrian Peterson had the best rushing season in NFL history, given how terrible the passing game was and the fact that he was coming off a brutal knee injury. Toby Gerhart will sign elsewhere in the offseason, so they will need to add a capable backup, but Peterson should have at least two more years of high level running in him, hopefully three or four.

WR-(D) Percy Harvin’s outstanding first half of the season is the only thing that saves this group from a rock bottom F grade, and even that bright spot is tarnished by his injury and subsequent erratic behavior. When Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher were injured, they were right there on the sidelines to support their teammates as they made playoff pushes. Where the hell was Harvin? There is no excuse for him not being there. I’d like to see the Vikings trade Harvin, sign a Greg Jennings or Dwayne Bowe, and then use a 1st or 2nd round pick on another receiver. Jarious Wright and Michael Jenkins can be serviceable as slot and possession receivers, respectively, but more talent is desperately needed. I only bring Jerome Simpson back if he accepts another super cheap one year contract.

TE-(C) Kyle Rudolph is an excellent tight end and deserves a B+ himself, but the utter failure that is John Carlson drags this group down. Unfortunately, I think the Vikings painted themselves into a corner with Carlson’s big contract ($9.1 million guaranteed? Really Spielman?), thus cutting him outright this offseason is unlikely. But they may be able to get him to restructure (so he won’t get cut next offseason), or, god forbid, he might somehow become more useful than a rubber crutch next season.  Rhett Ellison also may be in line for more pass catching should Carlson continue to suck like a nuclear powered vacuum.

OL-(B) While pass protection was mediocre until the last four games, the run blocking by this line gets them the B grade. LT Matt Kalil is an All-Pro in the making, John Sullivan is solid at C, and LG Charlie Johnson is decent and relatively cheap, so I can live with him returning. But the Fusco/Schwartz trainwreck at RG needs to be upgraded badly. RT Phil Loadholt, while a good run blocker, struggles in pass protection and takes far too many boneheaded penalties. He is now a free agent and I don’t want to see him in purple unless the Vikes can somehow get him on the cheap. The chances of this are slim and this may be the position the Vikings need to address with their 1st round pick or free agency. I don’t think a team can ever go wrong by making the offensive line a top priority, so if they go OL with early picks, I won’t complain. (especially if they get a top WR in free agency.)

DL-(B) I like this group, with the exception of NT. Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Everson Griffen, and Kevin Williams are all players in the good to great range and I will be happy to see them next season. Williams and Allen are both entering the final year of their respective contracts, so hopefully we will see the “contract year” boost in productivity. I could see the Vikes extending Allen’s contract next season (he’s got 3-4 years of prime football left in him), but not the older Williams, unless he is willing to play for less to stay. At NT, Fred Evans and Letroy Guion are not good; this spot sorely needs an upgrade.

LB-(C) Chad Greenway, who should be in the Pro Bowl, is the only high card in this crappy hand. Erin Henderson is not an NFL linebacker, and Jasper Brinkley isn’t much better, thus, after WR, I think this is the most critical position to address. The Vikings can get a quality LB in the third round, but if they can grab a stud in the 1st or 2nd, then they have to do it.

DB-(B) The reason I grade this group this high is the crazy improvement over last season. Harrison Smith is on his way to being a star, Chris Cook is a very solid cover corner, Josh Robinson is an improving speedster who can be excellent, and Antoine Winfield is the wily veteran who has already said he is returning next season. I could live with Jamarca Sanford returning at safety, but I wouldn’t be excited about it. The Vikes do need to add another CB and S to create more depth, but the core of this group is young and talented, which bodes well for the future.

ST-(A-) Chris Kluwe’s up and down season is what keeps this unit from getting a solid A. Blair Walsh is the league’s best kicker, the punt and kick coverage units were outstanding, and punt and kick return were both solid, with a TD for each. Of course not having Harvin would be a huge setback for KR, but Marcus Sherels has done a decent enough job where I’d be okay with him taking over PR and KR duties next season. Not many worries with these units.

Coaching-(B) They were far from perfect, but the fact is that the Vikings coaching staff turned a 3 win pile of dung into a 10 win playoff team in one year. Leslie Frazier doesn’t wow me, but at the same time I can’t find any real holes in his performance. He doesn’t challenge stupid plays, he doesn’t call idiotic timeouts, and he seems to be a guy players want to play for. He has earned a contract extension and should get one soon. Bill Musgrave had good moments and terrible moments, but it is hard to know which is due to Ponder’s uneven performances and which is due to Peterson’s dominance. As the Vikings add more WR talent and Ponder improves (hopefully), then we may get a better idea of the competence/creativity of Musgrave’s playcalling. Alan Williams did a fine job in his first year as DC, as the Vikings finished 7th in the NFC in scoring defense, a number that would be much higher if Ponder hadn’t been giving the ball away in the red zone so often. Overall, this staff deserves kudos, but the test will be to see if they can improve upon it next season.

Given what was expected of the Vikes, it was a great season. How good this team is next season rests primarily with Christian Ponder, but as was shown this season, the Vikings can be good even if he isn’t great. I was very encouraged by the way Ponder finished the year, and I think the Vikes can go into next season fairly confident that he can be a decent QB. Not great, but a guy that can win with talent around him. As long as they continue to add talent, (especially at WR, LB, and OL) then there is every reason to believe they will be even better next year.

I can’t wait.

 

I Was Wrong

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Before the season began, I declared that the Vikings could be a 9-7 team with an outside chance at sneaking into the playoffs. This prediction was met with guffaws, snorts, and numerous questions as to what illicit substance I must be smoking. Well, I am glad to say that I was wrong.

I was wrong because the Vikings did not finish 9-7,  they finished 10-6. Nor was I correct about them sneaking into the playoffs, because as it turns out, the Vikes charged into the postseason by winning their last four games, seizing the chance to control their own destiny.

Yes, I was wrong, but if being wrong is this much fun, I don’t ever want to be right.

Of course we Vikings fans have had things to grouse about this season (i.e. Christian Ponder’s struggles, Percy Harvin’s poor attitude, questionable offensive playcalling, etc.), but we have had much more to celebrate. For example:

-Harvin’s first half of the season, when he led the league in receiving, terrified opposing kick coverage units, and turned himself into an early favorite for MVP.

-Adrian Peterson having the second greatest season by a running back in NFL history a mere nine months after major knee surgery, a performance so impressive he will likely be this year’s MVP.

-A draft class that is as good if not better than any in Vikings history. To wit, Matt Kalil is already one of the best left tackles in the league, Harrison Smith is the best safety the Vikings have had since Robert Griffith, Josh Robinson has been a solid performer at cornerback, Jarious Wright has become Ponder’s top target, and Blair Walsh is hands down the best kicker in the league.

-Huge wins over San Francisco, Houston, and Green Bay, three of the best teams in the NFL.

Not bad for a team in rebuilding mode that many people expected to only win five or six games.

I will admit that a part of me considers everything from here on out to be gravy given how the Vikings obliterated expectations and provided tons of excitement this season, but make no mistake, I want to see a Vikings victory this Saturday just as badly as your average Packer fan wants to see their cholesterol drop.

Beating the hated Packers again would be the cherry on the sundae, the unexpectedly large Christmas bonus, the free bonus track on Justin Bieber’s new album. In other words, it would take something sweet and make it all that much sweeter (just kidding about the Bieber song, see: exact opposite). And the Vikings are perfectly capable of making it happen.

There is no reason to think Adrian Peterson won’t rush for around 200 yards again; he did it the first two times against the Packers. The defense should play better with Antoine Winfield available the whole game. Aaron Rodgers played about as perfect of a game a quarterback can play last week, yet the Vikings still won. And if the weather at Lambeau turns squirrely in any way, that favors the Vikings running-based attack. There are many things to be encouraged about.

In the first meeting in Green Bay, the Vikings held the Packers to 23 points and would have won the game if it weren’t for two horrible red-zone interceptions thrown by Ponder. Since then, Ponder has been much better and is showing more and more poise in the pocket. If this trend continues, then the Vikings will have a great chance to win the game and extend their surprising season. I, for one, think it will happen.

I am predicting the Vikings to win by three points, 27-24. But, if the Vikings win by ten points, then I will do the only respectable thing I can do: I will stand up, be a man, and admit that I was wrong.

 

 

 

 

Ponder’s Final Exam

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If I were to grade Christian Ponder’s overall performance in a Vikings uniform, I would give him a C-minus. He has had moments of greatness, such as the San Francisco game, and moments of putridity, such as the Packer game in Lambeau a few weeks ago. Clearly, the putridity has outweighed the greatness, but Ponder can boost his grade significantly with a strong performance in the most important game of his career.

What would constitute a strong performance for Ponder? I would say at least 200 yards passing, one TD, and no interceptions, along with two or three key scrambles for first downs. These aren’t Brady, Brees, or Rodgers numbers, they are basic minimums that any QB that belongs in the NFL should be able to muster. And Sunday’s game will be Ponder’s chance to show that he really does belong.

The team does not ask much of him. Adrian Peterson is carrying the offensive load; the defense is getting turnovers and giving them a chance to win; and the special teams continue to be outstanding. In reality, Ponder just needs to not suck, and anything over that is a bonus.

Luckily for Ponder, Charles Woodson will not being playing in the game. While the Packers do have other defensive backs that can take the ball away, Woodson is a wily veteran, and would almost assuredly get at least one pick. Ponder needs to take advantage of this situation and find Rudolph, Simpson, and Wright when they are open. He has to.

The offensive line has been pass protecting much better the last few weeks and you could see that reflected in Ponder last week as he stayed in the pocket more and planted his feet on many of his throws, leading to more completions to guys wearing purple jerseys. With no crowd noise to worry about, Ponder has every opportunity to settle in this week and be confident and comfortable when looking to pass. There is no excuse for playing poorly in a home game this important.

So, Ponder has a chance, in my mind anyway, to raise his grade to a B-minus just by playing a solid game and helping the Vikes into an improbable playoff birth. But if Ponder folds like origami in this must win game, his grade will drop to an F, and then the Vikings will have no choice but to bring in another QB next season. This would be a huge waste of draft picks and/or cash that the Vikings could use to bolster other parts of their rapidly improving roster.

Cheat if you have to Christian, we need you to pass this test.

 

 

Peterson and the Playoffs

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The Rams have a solid defense, but apparently no one told Adrian Peterson. Then again, no matter who the Vikes face, Peterson just cuts, blasts, and sprints his way by all of them. His last eight games have been the greatest running performance over an eight game span in the history of the NFL. Oh, and the Vikings are also right in the thick of the playoff race. Not bad.

The Rams had been playing well and were confident they could vault past the Vikings with a home win, all they had to do was shut down the run and let Ponder make his usual bushel basket of blunders. That plan did not go as envisioned for the plucky team from St. Louis.

Despite putting 9 and 10 players in the box to slow the run, Peterson found daylight again and again, using some nice blocking to augment his insane speed, power, and agility. And as for our beleaguered QB Ponder, well, he was lackluster once again, but he managed the game well enough to allow Peterson and the defense to win the game.

So the Vikings find themselves somewhat in control of their own destiny. If they win their last two, they will most likely go to the playoffs. (I possess neither the patience nor the IQ to thoroughly digest all the playoff scenarios, but this is what I’ve been told.) Obviously winning in Houston will be a difficult task, but by no means impossible, as the Texans, despite their gaudy record, have not been their sharpest lately. Indeed, the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars went into Reliant Stadium a few weeks ago and put up 37 points, and if the Jags can do it, the Vikes sure can.

If the Vikes can win next week, then they will have to beat the Packers in the Dome. The Packers also have not been that superb as of late, as evidenced by their getting crushed by the Giants, barely beating the Lions twice, and being handed the game in Lambeau where the Vikes were on their way to winning until Ponder magically transformed an NFL football into a leather helium balloon. Bottom line, the Vikings can and should beat the Packers in two weeks, especially if the Packers’ playoff seeding is locked in by then.

I’d love to see the Vikings in the playoffs as much as anyone, but if they do miss out I won’t be overly crestfallen. The reason I would take such disappointment in stride is that no matter how you slice it, the Vikings season has been a success. Yes, the QB position still needs to be addressed, and yes, another WR, O-lineman, and LB are sorrily needed, but overall the Vikings are vastly improved over last season, and that really is the point for a team that was 3-13, isn’t it?

Frazier, while not knocking my socks off with game plans of genius, has shown enough to be given at least one more season. (Even if the Vikes finish 8-8, the Wilfs will bring him back.) And if Rick Spielman’s next draft is as outstanding as this year’s was, then Frazier will have that much more talent to work with. The future is getting brighter.

For now, we can all settle in and watch AP shoot for the NFL rushing record and hope that Ponder learns how to plant his feet before he throws, two things that, if accomplished, will make the playoffs a real possibility.

 

 

 

Floaty McPass and the Tale of the Lambeau Choke

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Now we know who Christian Ponder is, and he isn’t an NFL quarterback.

Despite showing promise earlier in the season, Ponder has strung together several atrocious games in a row. He is not improving. The Vikings as a team are much improved over last season, but Ponder is not. The two crucial interceptions he threw yesterday cost the Vikings a win in Lambeau field and torpedoed their playoff chances in the process.

What is most astounding is that Ponder was uber-crappy on a day that Adrian Peterson was super human, rushing for 210 yards. The Packers were concentrating solely on stopping Peterson, yet Ponder still was unable to be even close to average. All the Vikes needed was their quarterback to be average yesterday, and they would have won the game. Frustrating to say the least.

Ponder (aka, Floaty McPass) underthrew a wide open Peterson, floated a pass to a wide open Rudolph instead of zipping it to him (which allowed the defense to catch up and keep Rudolph out of the end zone), and threw across his body on both of his god awful, game costing red zone interceptions.

Ponder rarely plants his feet when he throws. He scrambles and throws back across his body, and the resulting pass ends up well behind the receiver, which just happens to be where defensive backs usually are, or he puts so much air under the pass that any open receiver is triple covered by the time the ball arrives.

Yes, his pass protection hasn’t been the best, and his receiving corps is subpar, but even a mediocre quarterback can make a play or two under these circumstances. Ponder has lost his confidence, and there is no telling if or when it will ever come back.

The Vikes are 6-6, much better than most people thought they would be, but if the purple had a QB that was even semi competent, they would be 8-4 at worst. The defense has been pretty good, Adrian Peterson has had an MVP type season, and Percy Harvin is one of the best offensive weapons in the league, yet the play of Ponder has been so putrid it outweighs them all.

Barring some type of miracle career resurrection over the last four games by Ponder (assuming Webb doesn’t take over), the Vikings have to be on the lookout for a franchise quarterback. Draft or free agency, it doesn’t matter, the Vikes are in need of a competent passer.

Oh, and whoever they get, please make them wear a jersey number other than 7, because the Vikings don’t need a third knucklehead quarterback further eroding the legacy of Fuad Reveiz.

 

Rock Bottom

It is hard to believe that the Vikings ran for 243 yards against Seattle, yet still lost the game. It reminds me of one of my all time favorite stats: Under Glen Mason, the Gophers ran for 400 yards in a game twice…and lost both times. While the Gophers suffered more from a porous defense, the Vikings suffered from a non-existent passing game.

What happened to Christian Ponder? Through the first part of the season, he appeared to be cementing his place as the Vikings QB of the future. But the past few weeks he has looked just plain awful. While a good part of the blame does belong to the offensive line, Ponder still found ways earlier in the season to be effective with little protection. That is no longer the case.

Why can’t the Vikings even complete the most basic of passing plays? There are four options.

1. Ponder is not an NFL QB and just isn’t good enough.

2. This offensive line couldn’t block high school players much less NFL players.

3. The coaches play calling and scheme are not playing to the strengths of the players.

4. The WR are not getting open.

I don’t agree with #1, because Ponder has had several games where he has looked excellent; he has the skills to be at least an above average QB. I completely agree with #2, as Ponder is usually running for his life, and far too many times this season an opposing blitzer has gone untouched and crushed Ponder. There is also plenty of merit to #3, as when Ponder and the line are struggling, there are simple plays that can be called just to help establish some type of rhythm. (Kyle Rudolph, anyone? Hello?) And #4 also has some merit, although the WRs must be getting open at least some of the time.

All of these struggles in the passing game are doubly perplexing given how good the Vikings’ running game has been. A good running game is supposed to open the passing game and allow a team to run play action passes. But it appears that opposing teams are letting the Vikings get their rushing yards and forcing Ponder to beat them, which he just hasn’t been doing lately.

It seems as though the rest of the league has figured out what the Vikings tendencies and tells are, and it is time for the coaching staff to be creative in breaking those tendencies and mixing it up to keep opposing defenses guessing. I wouldn’t say Russell Wilson is a much better QB than Ponder, yet Seattle showed a creativity on offense (WR pass, multiple WR sets, delays, and misdirections) that kept the Vikings defense on their heels and allowed Wilson to get into a groove. The Vikings coaches have to find a way to get Ponder playing like he was earlier in the season.

The Vikes are 5-4 and still better than most people thought they were going to be, but the dream of playoffs some of us entertained a few weeks ago has faded fast. This Vikings team is still two offensive lineman, a WR, a LB, and a CB away from being a legitimate playoff team, so not making the playoffs wouldn’t be a big surprise nor a disappointment. But the huge question remains: “Is Christian Ponder the QB of the future?”

There are no other QBs on the roster that are the long term answer, so the Vikings best bet is to play out the season with Ponder and hope he gets his mojo back. If he does, great, they can draft for other positions. If not, it will be time to wheel and deal to move up and take another swing at a rookie QB. It’s really all they can do.

 

 

 

Smell the Roses

Yes, Christian Ponder played terribly last Sunday. Yes, the Vikes had way too many penalties. And yes, they let the Cardinals hang around instead of putting then away when they had the chance.

Fortunately, for at least this week, I don’t care.

The reason I’m not dwelling on these glaring shortcomings is because the Vikings are 5-2, which is the number of victories most “experts” thought the purple would have for the entire season.

We Viking fans have to take a moment and soak in the unexpected success our favorite team has achieved thus far. We have to appreciate that it appears as though the Vikes nailed the draft this year, as their top three picks (Kalil, Smith, and Robinson) have all been very good to excellent. Most importantly, we have to remember that the Vikes were not supposed to be any good this season, yet they are 1/2 game out of 1st place almost halfway through the season. We have reasons to smile, so why not enjoy it for a bit?

What else do we have to celebrate?

How about Adrian Peterson coming back from ACL surgery in only eight months, being the NFL’s 3rd leading rusher, and still looking like he has yet to hit his peak?

Or the rebirth of the Vikings defense, which has been getting plenty of sacks, turnovers, and big hits, all while allowing the 6th least amount of points, an impressive ranking that would surely be a few spots higher if Ponder hadn’t been serving up easy points to opposing teams the last few weeks.

What about the special teams, which has scored TDs, covered kicks fantastically, and had a rookie kicker rocket long field goals and touchbacks with ease?

Then there is the continued evolution of Percy Harvin, who, now that he has been incorporated more heavily into the offense, has turned into a legitimate MVP candidate.

Why worry about the few areas of ugliness when there is so much to love right now? Why complain about a few dead trees when the forest itself is so beautiful? The bottom line is that the Vikes are winning, so who really cares how they get it done?

At this point, the Vikes are not a Super Bowl caliber team, but they have shown they are at least playoff caliber. Good defense, special teams, and a running game can take teams quite a ways in the NFL. Let’s be glad we have that; it’s light years beyond where this team was last season.

Let’s not forget that Christian Ponder has looked very good for most of this season and is still very early into his career. I think he’s earned the chance to have the rest of the season play out before any of us make a final judgement as to whether he is a true franchise QB or not. Just imagine how much better he could be if he had decent pass protection and another talented receiver.

So the next time you want to cry and moan that your favorite football team, despite vastly outperforming all expectations, is not good enough, just remember the only wise words to ever escape from the pie hole of former Vikings head coach Mike Tice: “Enjoy the season”.

That’s what I’m doing, at least for this week.

A Choke of Genius

I get a sick feeling in my stomach whenever the Vikings play the Arizona Cardinals. Why, you ask? Well, sit back and let me tell you an amazing story. It’s a story that most Vikings fans know the ending to, yet few of them are aware of the full story and its deeper meaning, which, when realized, makes the heartbreaking ending that much more crushingly painful. Enjoy!

 

A Choke of Genius

When you think of all the colossal chokes the Vikings have had throughout their existence, you likely picture one of their many Super Bowl or NFC title game implosions. But what if I were to tell you the most mind-blowing choke perpetrated by the purple was not one of these big games, that there was a feat our beloved Vikings pulled off that gets so little attention, is so astonishingly underrated, that to ignore it is akin to giving Einstein credit for all of his discoveries except the Theory of Relativity. That feat would be the entire 2003 season, when the Minnesota Vikings led the NFC North division for every single second of the regular season, and still didn’t make the playoffs.

Sound impossible, doesn’t it? But do not for a second underestimate the ability of the Vikings to blow it when it counts, for this is a franchise that has accumulated a sky-high pile of boners that includes four Super Bowl losses, the Herschel Walker trade (one of the worst in NFL history if not all of sports), and four NFC title game losses since 1987, each one lost in spectacularly idiotic fashion. (Most notably the debacle in 1998 when the 15-1 Vikings lost at home to Atlanta after Gary Anderson shanked a field goal after not missing one the entire season.) These were all painful and moronic, yet none of them defied the laws of probability the way the reality-bending 2003 squad did.

Mike Tice was in his second year as head coach, and the deadly combination of Duante Culpepper to Randy Moss was still making regular connections. When the first second ticked off the clock in the season opener against the Green Bay Packers, the Vikings were 0-0, technically tied for first with the other three teams in the NFC North. The Vikings started off the season by beating the Packers—their most likely competition for the division crown—and finished week one tied with Detroit for first place. In week two, the Lions lost and the Vikings won, giving them sole possession of first. The Vikes then followed that up with four consecutive wins, pushing their record to a glorious 6-0 that was made even stronger by a 3-0 division record and a 5-0 conference record. The 3-3 Packers and the 1-5 Bears and Lions were becoming hard to see in the rear view mirror. So, if you were a Vikings fan after week six you were already planning your playoff parties and feeling that same magic of the 15-1 1998 season, except you felt that this time they would finally win it all. They had to. They just had to.

But then the reverse purple magic kicked in, and the Vikings lost their next four games. Any four game losing streak at this point would be a swift kick to the groin, but what made this stretch particularly vexing was the teams they lost to: the Packers, Giants, Chargers, and Raiders. While a loss to the hated Packers was maddening yet understandable,  the other three losses were especially bizarre given that the other three teams were über-crappy and would all go on to finish the season at a dismal 4-12. How the hell was a team that had been flying high at 6-0 now losing games to three of the worst teams in the league? This inexplicable free fall had allowed the 5-5 Packers to climb to within one game of the reeling Vikings.

The schizophrenic pattern of not knowing which Vikings team would show up went from happening over long stretches of games to now being compressed week to week. To wit, they beat the Lions, got pasted by the Rams, crushed Seattle, and then somehow lost to the awful Bears. The Packers, meanwhile, went 3-1 over the same stretch, so when week fifteen was finished, the Vikings were sharing first place in the division with another team for the first time since Week 1. And with the 12-2 Kansas City Chiefs up next for the Vikings, things were looking bleak.

But the Vikings held true to their maddening unpredictability and annihilated the Chiefs 45-20 at the Metrodome. So the next evening when Brett Favre played brilliantly the day after his father passed away and led the Packers to a 41-7 rout of the Raiders, it didn’t really matter to Vikes fans, because the purple had just beaten the best team in the NFL and their last game of the season would be against the lowly 3-12 Arizona Cardinals. As a Vikings fan, you had every reason to be confident.  It had taken a few weeks, but the Vikes had righted the ship and the team that had cruised out to a 6-0 start was once again running strong. The Vikings and Packers were both 9-6, but because the Vikes held the tiebreaker, all they had to do was beat a crappy Arizona team and the division title was theirs. All of the confusion, heartache, and frustration of the roller coaster season would be washed away by beating a bad team that was riding a seven game losing streak; a team that was likely to get the number one pick in the draft and therefore had every reason to not even try.

But these are the Vikings. If there has ever been a franchise that can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, it is the purple. The Vikings struggled in the first half and went to the locker room down 6-0. Many of the fans in Tempe that day were wearing purple and gold, a mass exodus of Minnesotans getting out of the frigid late December weather to celebrate a division title in the sunny heat of Arizona. Despite the lethargic first half effort, as a Viking fan you knew they could come back in the second half. And they did.

The Vikings rattled off seventeen unanswered points, and with 6:48 left in the game, they had a comfortable 17-6 lead. Meanwhile in Lambeau, the Packers were pounding the Broncos, but the cheesehead celebrations were subdued by the stadium scoreboards showing that the Vikings were running away with the NFC North title.

The Cardinals strung together a drive and scored a touchdown on fourth and goal from the two yard line but missed the two point conversion, leaving the score 17-12. But the drive took nearly five minutes off the clock, so when the Cardinals lined up for an onside kick, there was only 1:54 remaining. Vikings fans still had reason to be confident, because the only touchdown the Cards had scored the whole game was against the Vikings’ prevent defense, so even if they recovered the kick, what were the chances the Cards could drive half the field in less than two minutes? Slim to none, right?

Not quite.

The Cardinals recovered the onside kick at their own 42. Their terrible offense had 58 yards to go with only one timeout. Immediately, as usual with the Vikes, disaster struck. On first down, Vikings CB Denard Walker was called for an unbelievably bone-headed 28 yard pass interference penalty, making it first down at the Minnesota 30. Josh McCown then completed a 5 yard pass to Emmitt Smith followed by a 14 yard pass to Nate Poole. On 1st and ten from the 12, Smith ran for a 4 yard gain. Vikings fans’ stomachs were churning. How could they blow this? What the hell were they doing?  Just when it seemed the impossible nightmare was about to happen, the Vikings D finally fought back.

Kevin Williams beat a triple team and sacked McCown for a nine yard loss and forced the Cards to use their final timeout with 31 seconds left. It was 3rd and 15 from the 18 yard line, McCown took the snap, only to be sacked again, this time by Chris Hovan.  As he was sacked, McCown fumbled, but the ball was recovered by a Cardinal lineman. It was 4th and 25 and the Cards had no way to stop the clock. They hurried to the line and were able to get the snap off with only four seconds left. Vikings fans were going bonkers; their team was going to win the division. The clock ticked down to zero, McCown rolled to his right and threw the ball to the right back corner of the end zone. Nate Poole (a guy who would end his NFL career with only two TD catches) made the catch, got one foot in, and was then pushed out by Denard Walker and safety Brian Russell. The referees ruled that Poole was forced out (a rule that no longer exists, by the way) and then signaled touchdown. The booth review confirmed the initial ruling and the game was over, 18-17 Cardinals. The Vikings had lost with zero seconds left on the clock in the last game of the season.

The Vikes finished 9-7, while Seattle and Dallas, both at 10-6, claimed the two Wild Card spots. The hated Packers won the division and the mayor of Green Bay even invited Nate Poole to attend the playoff game in Lambeau where he was given the key to the city. (Although the Packers’ next game would be the famous “4th and 26″ loss to the Eagles. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.)

So there you have it.The 2003 Minnesota Vikings, after leading the NFC North division for every single second of the regular season, did not make the playoffs.

Only the Vikings.

Back to Earth

I love Blair Walsh as much as any Viking fan, but I want his workload reduced. Instead of using all his energy blasting those field goals, how about we give the kid’s leg a break and let him chip in a few more extra points? How can we do that? Score. More. Touchdowns.

That was the difference in the game: the Vikings settling for field goals. With three chances deep in Redskins territory, the Vikes’ offense stalled each time, leaving them with a paltry nine points to show for such a dominating start. They had a golden opportunity to completely take the Washington crowd out of the game and crush the Redskins’ spirit. Great teams end the first quarter with at least 17 points.

Other than our overworked kicker, there were three negative aspects that stuck out:

1. Poor O line play: Ponder never seemed comfortable in the pocket—probably because the pocket was non-existent. The Redskins got way more pressure than they should have. I saw Geoff Schwartz out there for a while at right guard, which means either Brandon Fusco was hurt or was getting torched consistently. Phil Loadholt also seemed to forget how to block. This must improve.

2. Weak pass rush: RG3 is the most accurate passer in the NFL (Ponder is 2nd!); he does not need to be given extra time to find his receivers. The Vikings’ secondary is improved, but not to the point where they can be effective when the opposing team’s quarterback is allowed to sit in a La-Z-Boy and puff on a pipe while he leisurely looks for an open receiver.

3. Still no deep passing threat: Not that Ponder had lots of time to attempt any deep throws anyway, but opposing defenses will continue to stifle the offense until the Vikes prove they can complete a pass beyond 20 yards with some degree of consistency. If Jerome Simpson ever plays again (he is rumored to still be alive), then perhaps the Vikings will see fewer defenders stacked in the box, leaving them more room to operate.

A few other random observations from yesterday:

  • The most painful part of the game was watching the interception returned for a TD by Madieu Williams. Not just because it allowed the Skins to score, but because Williams is one of the worst safeties to ever steal an NFL paycheck. A lobotomized mannequin has better coverage skills than what he showed through his 3 excruciating years as a Viking.
  • The Vikes need another good receiver like North Korea needs democracy, so when John Carlson gets cut (hopefully before the end of this season), the Vikes can use that dead money to sign the best free agent receiver during the off season.
  • No doubt about it, RG3 is a great player, but if Mike Shanahan continues to run those option plays, RG3 will be concussed out of the league within 2 years. He’s too good of a passer to jeopardize him that way and Redskins fans should be worried.

Overall, even with all the dumb mistakes (yes you, Ponder) and subpar line play yesterday, the Vikings were still within one score with 3 and a half minutes left. On the crucial 3rd down play, they sold out defensively and came after the Skins, but RG3 just beat them with his feet. It’s hard to be too upset about that play and it is even harder to be too upset about what has happened this season. I mean, how many of us thought the Vikes would be 4-2? I have been accused of being an insatiable Purple Kool-Aid drinker, yet even I didn’t think they would be this good.

The Vikes take on the Cardinals and Buccaneers in the Dome the next two weeks. These are two winnable games that, quite frankly, they must win in order to have a chance at the playoffs. Now that the Vikes have been brought back to earth by this loss, hopefully they will learn from it and get back on their trajectory of rapid improvement.

How do the Vikes take that next step in becoming a legitimate playoff team?

More extra points and fewer field goals.

 

What good teams do

Don’t look now, but the Vikings are a good team. I said good, not great. It’s not just a 4-1 record that makes them a good team, it is how they have gone about amassing that record. They rallied for a victory in a game they almost let slip away versus Jacksonville, they upset a heavily favored 49ers team, they won a divisional game on the road by shutting down Detroit’s powerful passing game, and now they went out and dominated a crappy team, just as a good team should.

Yes, they did blow it against the Colts, but as the Packers found out yesterday, Andrew Luck has a knack for finding Reggie Wayne in the clutch. And even if the Vikes had won in Indy and were 5-0, I still wouldn’t call them a great team. They need to prove they have a viable downfield passing game, and settling for field goals as often as they have won’t beat other good-to-great teams.

But those are two minor complaints given that nearly every other facet of the Vikings’ play has been solid thus far.

Running game? Not explosive, but productive enough to be effective. (9th in the NFL)

Passing game? Also not explosive, (24th in yds/game), but Ponder has the 10th best passer rating and has used his speed to create some key plays. While he has had a boneheaded toss or two, he has had many more passes that were things of beauty. He may not have locked in the title of “franchise QB” just yet, but he is closing in on it.

Special teams? Oustanding. Kick return touchdown, punt return touchdown, Kluwe has been decent, the kick coverage teams have been solid, and Blair Walsh (aka Leg-a-Tron) has been more than the Vikings could have hoped for with his booming touchbacks and field goals.

Run defense? Fantastic. (6th in the NFL) Kevin Williams is back to being dominant, the linebackers are fast and hard hitting, and despite giving no prior indication that he was anything more than a potted plant with a helmet on, Letroy Guion is becoming a force at nose tackle.

Pass defense? Very good. (14th in NFL in yds/game) I thought the Vikes would be improved in this area (it would have been impossible not to improve on last season), but never did I expect them to be this good. Josh Robinson and Harrison Smith are hitting opposing receivers as though they just insulted their mothers, Antoine Winfield looks rejuvenated, and Jamarca Sanford has been forcing fumbles and batting away passes at such a high rate that Mistral Raymond will return from injury only to find himself on the bench.

Overall, the Vikings defense is 7th in the NFL in yds/game allowed and 6th in points/game allowed. Sure, they haven’t faced a ton of great offenses yet, but no matter how you look at it, this is an astronomical improvement over last season.

The Vikings have a chance to make some real hay over the next five games. They play at Washington, get Arizona and Tampa Bay at home, go to Seattle, and then get the Lions in the Dome. With the way the Vikings have played thus far, it is entirely reasonable to expect them to go 4-1 during this stretch. If the Vikings are 8-2 after ten games, my head may explode.

But will the other shoe drop? Isn’t that what we Vikings fans are always waiting for? Will they regress and lose to a mediocre Washington or Tampa team? Will they make a stupid mistake in Seattle that costs them the game? Will they come out of the next five games with only one win?

It’s possible, but I doubt it. The Vikings have shown they belong in the playoff conversation, and if they continue to improve and do what they should do over the next five games, then they will have put themselves in a great position as they head into the brutal six game final stretch of the season. (Packers twice, Bears twice, and St. Louis and Houston on the road.)

So where will this season end up? No one really knows, but at this point, even the most cynical and sky-is-falling purple pessimist must conclude only one thing.

The Vikings are a good team.