The Mall of America has the world’s largest indoor roller coaster. And the team that will take a two-year break from playing indoors has been riding the thing over the past few years.
From the heights of an NFC title game appearance in 2009 to the depths of 3-13 in 2011 to an unlikely playoff berth in 2012 to a 5-10-1 face splat last year, the Vikings has been sufficiently inconsistent to have almost as many head coaches as starting quarterbacks since the franchise’s latest high-profile failure, that “This is not Detroit!” moment in the Superdome more than four years ago.
Despite being much older than most first-time NFL head coaches, Mike Zimmer brings a fresh start to a franchise that needs a kick in the butt. Adrian Peterson, who doesn’t need a kick in the butt to continue to thrive despite ailments to pretty much every body part but his butt, thinks it will work. The PFT crew is for now skeptical, parking the Vikings just outside the bottom five as the 2014 season approaches.
They still have one of the best running backs in NFL history, who continues to move the chains and get looooooose for touchdowns even as his 30th birthday approaches. But in his seven NFL seasons, the Vikings have yet to find a passing game that complements Peterson’s running skills, with the exception of Brett Favre’s first season with the team.
If the passing game struggles again this year, it won’t happen because the pass catchers stink. Receiver Cordarrelle Patterson seems poised to have a breakout season, tight end Kyle Rudolph enters a contract year, receiver Greg Jennings still has a little something in the tank, and receiver Jerome Simpson has athletic skills that have yet to be fully utilized. With offensive coordinator Norv Turner drawing up the plays, one or more targets will be open on every snap.
The defense automatically improves at every level with the arrival of Zimmer, who has a knack for getting the most out of whatever he has to work with. Much has been done to improve the pass rush, which automatically will make the rest of the unit better. The real question is whether the most that this collection of defenders can muster will be good enough to slow down the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, and Matthew Stafford.
Kicker Blair Walsh continues to be a weapon that can deliver wins in close games, even though his conversion rate for field goals dipped below 90 percent in 2013 — and his accuracy at 50 or more yards fell from 100 percent (10-for-10) in 2012 to 40 percent (two-for-five) in 2013. It gets tougher with the home games outdoors, and Walsh’s skills won’t matter much if Turner opts to stretch the field and aim for touchdowns in lieu of playing the field-position game.
Until a quarterback emerges with skills that fit at least in the upper half of the league, signal-caller will continue to be the most significant weakness on the roster. Turner recently said veteran Matt Cassel will have a strong season, which implies he’ll be playing. But the team invested a first-round pick in quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, which implies the Vikings want him to be the guy, sooner than later. Maybe the internal competition will get someone to step up and take off. As long as it’s not Christian Ponder, that could be good news for a franchise that desperately needs a franchise quarterback.
While not necessarily a full-blown weakness, the offensive line has given the Vikings cause for concern. Left tackle Matt Kalil’s second season wasn’t as strong as his first, and the team’s sacks allowed spiked from 32 to 44. In the running game, the total yardage dropped from 2,654 (5.4 yards per carry) to 2,081 (4.9 yards per carry). Whoever wins the quarterback competition needs better performance from the five large men up front.
The linebacker position is in flux, with Chad Greenway expected to start on the weak side in Zimmer’s defense (which is comparable to Greenway’s strong side position under Leslie Frazier), rookie Anthony Barr to take the strong side, and Jasper Brinkley to play the middle. But Greenway could take some snaps at the middle spot, too, as he learns the first new defense for the first time since he arrived as a first-round rookie in 2006. For Greenway, another lackluster year could be his last in Minnesota.
At cornerback, the good news is that Chris Cook finally is gone. The bad news is that the position still lacks the talent necessary to match the great receivers in the NFC North. 2013 first-rounder Xavier Rhodes needs to step up quickly, as does free-agent arrival Captain Munnerlyn. Even then, it won’t be easy to slow down Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, etc.
Not long ago, the Vikings boasted one of the most potent front fours in football, a neo-Purple People Eaters consisting of Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Pay Williams, and Ray Edwards. All four are now gone, replaced by what ideally will become a Seahawks-style flurry of fresh bodies flying around opposing quarterbacks, from Everson Griffen to Brian Robison to Sharrif Floyd to Linval Joseph to Corey Wootton to Anthony Barr and beyond.
The biggest change on defense will be the scheme, with the Cover 2 and variations of it gone after eight seasons. Getting the new pieces playing together in the new attack will be critical to success.
On offense, the biggest name is the newest one: quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. He may or may not play in 2014, which will depend largely on whether new offensive coordinator Norv Turner thinks Bridgewater can get it done as a rookie — or whether Matt Cassel is the better option.
It begins with Bridgewater vs. Cassel vs. (in theory) Christian Ponder. The winner may simply win the chance to be the first guy benched, especially if the winner is Cassel.
At running back, Asiata and McKinnon will compete for the ability to spell Adrian Peterson and to replace him if/when he’s injured. Which has been happening too often lately.
The top four spots on the receiver depth chart are largely set — the question is whether Jerome Simpson or Jarius Wright will get the bulk of the opportunities when the Vikings use a third receiver in addition to Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings.
At defensive end, Corey Wootton concedes that Brian Robison will start on the left side, but Robison wants to continue to be a full-time player. Wootton could take away some of Robison’s reps.
Between Xavier Rhodes, Josh Robinson, and Captain Munnerlyn, two will start at cornerback. Look for Rhodes and Munnerlyn to draw the top two spots, with Robinson joining the nickel package.
The Vikings have the quiet confidence of a team flying under the radar with more talent that most realize. Quarterback play will be the most important ingredient between success and failure, and the defense will need to be able to gel — especially once the Vikings are again playing late-season home games in the elements.
A playoff berth this year or next will be regarded as a bonus. This team has the feel of a franchise on scholarship until the new stadium opens in 2016.
Which puts the Vikings near the bottom of the barrel as the 2014 season approaches.