A Christmas Eve win over the Redskins helped the Vikings avoid what would have been their worst season ever. But the win came with a stiff cost.
First, the Vikings lost running back Adrian Peterson to a torn ACL in that game. Second, the Vikings’ victory caused the team to miss out on a chance to flip a top-two pick for three first-rounders and a second-rounder.
The disastrous season, which started with a string of squandered leads and featured a few flat-out butt-kickings, could have ended better if it had started better. And so the goal in 2012 will be to start better.
Whether they can is a much different issue.
Defensive end Jared Allen came within a Brett Favre duck-and-cover of setting the single-season sack record, and Allen remains the brightest spot on a dim-bulb defense. He continues to play hard and effectively no matter whether the team is winning or losing, and the team would be winning a lot more than losing if more players had his skill and his attitude.
If running back Adrian Peterson can forget about his torn ACL and play with the reckless abandon that already has made him one of the all-time greats, he’ll force safeties toward the line and give the work-in-progress passing game a chance to develop. Even if he’s not 100 percent, the presence of underrated 2010 second-rounder Toby Gerhart gives the team a potent 1-2 punch at the position.
The passing game could get a boost from the health of quarterback Christian Ponder, which could get a boost from rookie left tackle Matt Kalil stepping right in and performing up to the potential that made him the fourth overall pick in the draft. Though it’s hard to call an unproven rookie a “strength,” left tackles taken high in the draft tend to thrive far more often than bust.
The short answer? “Every area not listed as a strength.”
The most glaring flaws come in the defensive secondary, where 35-year-old tackling machine Antoine Winfield continues to be the cornerstone. Beyond him, it’s a potential house of horrors, especially with key backup Asher Allen abruptly retiring and the jury still out (figuratively . . . now) on Chris Cook. The safeties will be new, which is good news only because last year’s safeties were so bad.
It’ll be hard to make the guys who defend pass routes much better in practice, given that they don’t have to face much in the way of high-end talent in the receiving corps. Percy Harvin possesses the most talent by a wide margin, but he hasn’t been used as much as he should. Newcomer Jerome Simpson has promise, even though he’ll be on ice to start the season, after pleading guilty to selling leaves of something other than iceberg lettuce. Top-to-bottom, the receiving corps will need the running backs and tight ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson to make defenses pay less attention to the guys on the outside.
The quarterback position remains a significant liability, in large part because Christian Ponder remains unproven. Regarded as a panic-driven pick in 2011, the 12th overall selection struggled through injury and bad decisions in his rookie campaign. He could prove a lot of people wrong as soon as this season; until he does, plenty (like me) will believe they should have given Joe Webb a chance to complete the unlikely climb from sixth-round receiver to high-end NFL signal-caller.
The offensive line takes a hit with the cap-driven departure of veteran guard Steve Hutchinson. Even though his skills have diminished, his absence creates a leadership vacuum that will need to be filled, possibly by center John Sullivan.
The weakest part of the roster was weakened by the decision to cut Cedric Griffin and the unexpected retirement of Asher Allen. Neither guy was all that good; the problem is that the replacements may not be much better.
Flush with cap space, the Vikings made only one mini-splash in free agency, signing tight end John Carlson to a five-year, $25 million contract. Along with Kyle Rudolph, Carlson will be counted on to make the fans forget about Visanthe Shiancoe (even if one certain image of him will never be burned from anyone’s brain).
The thrust of the effort to improve comes from laying a foundation of young talent, from left tackle Matt Kalil to safety Harrison Smith (the Vikings traded back into the first round to get him) to cornerback Josh Robinson to a pair of former Arkansas wideouts, the Vikings need to hope that these inexperienced players: (1) have real talent; and (2) can grow up, quickly.
New defensive coordinator Alan Williams also needs to grow up quickly. A long-time defensive backs coach and Tony Dungy pupil, Williams replaces Fred Pagac, who is still with the team. The good news is that, if Williams performs like the last former defensive backs coach and Tony Dungy pupil who served as the team’s defensive coordinator, the Vikings will be much better on defense. The bad news is that, if Williams performs like the last former defensive backs coach and Tony Dungy pupil who served as the team’s defensive coordinator, Williams may not be with the team for very long.
Both safety jobs are up for grabs. First-round pick Harrison Smith is expected to grab one of the spots, if not right away then eventually. His former Notre Dame teammate, converted cornerback Robert Blanton, could end up in the other safety position. For now, the jobs are Mistral Raymond’s and Jamarca Sanford’s to lose.
The cornerback depth chart behind Antoine Winfield remains wide open. Whether it’s Chris Cook as the starter and rookie Josh Robinson or veteran Chris Carr or former Bears cornerback Zackary Bowman as the nickel and/or dime backs, they’ll need to step up against the NFC North’s passing assaults.
Beyond Percy Harvin, the receiver hierarchy is unsettled. Jerome Simpson is the favorite at No. 2, but he begins the year with a three-game suspension. Other candidates include Devin Aromashodu, the Arkansas duo of rookies (Greg Childs and Jarius Wright), and Michael Jenkins.
In 2011, a slow start, thanks to multiple blown leads, doomed the Vikings. In 2012, the scheduling gods gave the Vikings a Week One home game against the Jaguars and a Week Two road trip to Indianapolis, where Andrew Luck will be making his debut at Lucas Oil Stadium. Win those two, and things get very interesting when Randy Moss and the 49ers come to the Metrodome in Week Three.
Throw in a pair of games with the Lions and contests against the Titans, Redskins, Cardinals, Bucs, and Seahawks before the bye, and the Vikings could enter the six-game stretch run at 5-5 or better.
The key word is and will be “could.” Since coming within a whisker of the Super Bowl in 2010, the Vikings have lost 23 of 32 games. For a variety of reasons, a perennial winner has developed a recent culture of losing. Until a critical mass of players have the talent, the experience, and the desire to get back to the way things were, things will be rough.
Even if they lose all 16 games, 2012 won’t be a complete disaster. After all, the Vikings finally got their new stadium.