A year ago, the Vikings had legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, for the first time since 2009. Then came the late August news that quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s knee had been shredded without contact, ending his 2016 season and maybe more.
So much for the Super Bowl aspirations.
Then came the stunning trade for quarterback Sam Bradford, and an unsettled sense of optimism returned to Minnesota. Then came a Week One win in Tennessee with Shaun Hill under center, an accomplishment that in hindsight should have been regarded as a big deal, given that the Titans aren’t the Titans they’ve recently been.
Then came a surprising win at home over the Packers to properly christen a new stadium. Even with the loss of running back Adrian Peterson to a torn meniscus, the title-game train returned to the tracks, as the Vikings eventually racked up five straight wins.
And then came the part when it all went to sh-t.
From 5-0 to 3-8 to 8-8 and that’s that. Along the way, offensive coordinator Norv Turner abruptly quit, coach Mike Zimmer had multiple eye surgeries, and the offensive line played well enough to open no holes for the tailbacks and plenty in the body of Bradford. Somehow, the spindly-legged quarterback with the oversized Joe Montana physique survived the year.
This year, the Vikings have no clear expectations. They could go 4-12. They could go 12-4. The former is more likely. Something in the middle is the most likely.
Biggest positive change: Although Peterson may have a back-to-the-future-style season in New Orleans, the Vikings had to end a decade of hitching their offensive wagon to one of the best running backs in league history. Quarterback play never thrived much around him, possibly because the quarterbacks (along with everyone else) were always waiting for Peterson to save the day with a blast through the line of scrimmage, a bullying of a linebacker or a safety at the second level, and a “he’s loose!” exclamation from the loudmouth in the radio booth. They saved $18 million in cash and cap space by moving on from Adrian, and they jumped up in round two after running back Dalvin Cook slid out of round one. Cook may now be getting loose from time to time, but the Vikings need to never again put all of their eggs in one running back’s basket. Through their 10 years with Peterson, the Vikings made it to the playoffs only four times and won only one playoff game.
Biggest negative change: It’s not really a change, it’s that things have stayed the same at the quarterback position. Sam Bradford continues to be the starter, Teddy Bridgewater continues to rehab, both have one year left on their current deals, and no one really knows who the starter is going to be later this year or beyond. And that’s a problem. Leadership is critical when it comes to the quarterback position, and the team equipping the quarterback to lead is an overlooked but critical part of that dynamic. With the Vikings not making it clear that either guy is “the guy,” neither guy will be able to lead the team the way he’d like to, or more importantly the way he needs to. If they’d sign Bradford to a contract extension, that would slam the door on Bridgewater, who remains a fan favorite locally and a player who through no fault of his own has had his career derailed. But they can’t dump Bradford, go with Case Keenum, and wait for Bridgewater, either. Perhaps the best-case scenario would be for Bridgewater to make remarkable strides in camp (he’s recently been working out without a knee brace) and for some other team to suffer the same hardship the Vikings did a year ago, allowing Minnesota to unload Bradford and recoup the first-round pick they gave up for him — unless they’ve already decided discreetly that Bradford is the guy, and that they’re not ready to cut the cord on Bridgewater for P.R. reasons, or in the event Bradford suffers a similar physical fate. If that’s the case, the Vikings need to find a way to make sure the locker room realizes that Bradford’s voice is the one to be heard, for 2017 and beyond.
We’d like to crack a beer with . . . Alex Boone. This one’s the easiest perhaps of all teams. Boone is candid and frank and the addition of a beer (or 10) would only get the mountain of a man to say all the things we’d love to hear him say about what went wrong last year and what needs to go right this year, and who hasn’t been on board and who needs to get on board.
Coaching thermometer: It’s getting warm in the land of ice fishing and red snow cones in the vicinity of wood chippers. While only a grossly sub-.500 finish would likely put Mike Zimmer in immediate danger, that could happen if: (1) the offensive line continues to struggle; and (2) Zimmer’s defense continues to engage in self-leg urination with games on the line. Something in the 7-9 to 9-7 range gets him at least one more year; a division title and a progression at least to the divisional round re-establishes Zimmer as the captain of a ship that has now gone more than four decades since sailing to a Super Bowl.
How they could prove us wrong: The offensive line needs to become effective and remain healthy, allowing for the kind of cohesiveness that opens holes for Cook, Latavius Murray, and Jerick McKinnon. Bradford, who shockingly stayed healthy a year ago, needs to do it again. The receivers, led by Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, need to allow the passing game to have a default plan much more dynamic than short throws to tight end Kyle Rudolph. And the defense needs to get back to being a force that doesn’t need much of a second-half lead to clamp down on an opponent and secure a win. The loose notion that they can turn things around simply by scoring 20 or more points in every given game feels a little like the Randy Ratio, the catch phrase of the last Mike’s final year on the job as coach of the team.