A walk through the recent trajectory of the Minnesota Vikings feels a little like an acid test version of a historical tour. Minnesota's present started on a tarmac in August 2009 with since-deposed head coach Brad Childress whisking away Brett Favre in a black SUV, protecting the team's last ditch shot at salvation from a crowd of hungry cameras gathered to see a man who was by that point more curiosity than football player.
Things went well enough in 2009. Combined with one of the league's top defenses, Favre and the Vikings went to overtime in the NFC Championship game before losing to the Saints, the eventual Super Bowl champs. The 41-year-old's career came to an ignominious end the season after that. Favre threw 11 touchdowns and 19 interceptions, and failed to complete the last two starts of his career. Childress' tenure ended after 10 games, and Leslie Frazier took over the coaching duties.
The Favre experience made it that much more curious when the Vikings found another arm in the NFL antique store, taking Donovan McNabb home for a pair of late round picks. McNabb was really there as a bridge between the past and first-round pick Christian Ponder, but the veteran quarterback didn't really see things that way. Like the last old timer, McNabb caused more trouble than he was worth. Minnesota finally turned the page when they handed the reigns to Ponder last October, dumping McNabb completely in December.
If there's a lesson in Minnesota's recent past, it would probably be something about the high cost of short-term solutions. This is still a rebuilding year for the Vikings, who play in a stacked NFC North. Nevertheless, milestones of progress should be easier to see, and things should really be looking up well before the team moves into a new billion dollar stadium four years from now.
Even the most optimistic McNabb fan probably saw nothing more than him getting the Vikings by in 2011. The lockout left teams with a month to prepare, and that was hardly an effective way to welcome a rookie quarterback to the NFL. Minnesota lost its first four games, mostly by a close margin, including an overtime loss to the Detroit Lions. They finally picked up a win in Week 5 against the Cardinals and again three weeks later, before forced to suffer through a six-game losing skid.
Defensive end Jared Allen turned in a yeoman's effort, leading the league with 22 sacks, and the Vikings led the league with 50 sacks, which was tied with Philly. Unfortunately, that was Minnesota's only form of pass defense. Opposing quarterbacks had their way with a secondary made up mostly of afterthoughts.
Ponder took over under center in Week 6, replacing McNabb for a pounding at the hands of the Bears. His rookie debut is best described as up and down, typically of rookie passers. He threw 13 touchdowns along with 13 picks in an injury-riddle offense that eventually lost super star running back Adrian Peterson. Pass protection, or the lack thereof, made it that much more difficult for Ponder who was sacked 30 times.
Minnesota beat Washington after losing Adrian Peterson, something few would have thought possible. The week after that, the last week of the season, they played a tough game against the Bears, losing by a late field goal. Together the two games made a nice coda to their season, something to build on in the year ahead.
Best Free Agent Pickup
Some questioned the decision to avoid any of the big name free agent cornerbacks on the market, but luring players in the prime of their career to a rebuilding project is not easy. Instead, the Vikings signed former Ravens cornerback Chris Carr. The 29-year-old Carr struggled last season, thanks in part to string of aches and pains that limited his effectiveness. Minnesota signed him to a nominal one-year deal hoping he can recapture the outstanding play that made him an essential part of Baltimore's defense in 2010.
In fact, Minnesota's free agent class is the most second-chance group of any team. His foray into weed dealing over, Jerome Simpson adds depth to their wide receivers. Tight end John Carlson, if he can stay healthy, could allow the Vikings to have an effective two tight end attack paired with second-year player Kyle Rudolph.
2012 NFL Draft
It was maddening listening to the rumor mill suggest that the Vikings would draft anyone other than USC left tackle Matt Kalil. Beyond the first two quarterbacks taken, never was there an arranged marriage so perfect.
Not only did they draft an elite left tackle who instantly improves protection for Ponder, they somehow managed to hornswoggle the Cleveland Brown to give up a handful of picks to swap the third for the fourth pick in the draft. That gave the Vikings Kalil and the flexibility to swing another deal to move into the 29th pick to draft Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith, who fills a big need in the secondary.
Minnesota scored another one for the defensive backfield in the second round when they snatched Central Florida corner Josh Robinson. Hidden away at a small school, Robinson burst onto the scene at the Senior Bowl and could contribute right away for the Vikings.
Related: Vikings NFL Draft Grade
From SB Nation's Daily Norseman:
Let's be clear. There's a very good chance that the Minnesota Vikings will finish in fourth place in the NFC North again in 2012. The odds of them having the same miserable record, however, should be very slim. After all, quarterback Christian Ponder showed a lot of good things after being pressed into action last season, and that was with the thought that he was going to get killed from the blind side in the back of his head. Enter cornerstone left tackle Matt Kalil, whose presence should cause a ripple effect of improvement across the offensive line, giving Ponder the confidence that he needs to continue improving. Sure, the offense could be without Adrian Peterson for a while, but Toby Gerhart isn't exactly awful, and the weapons around Ponder have been upgraded as well.
On defense, the Vikings still have one of the best defensive lines in football, and the secondary will be better than last year for two primary reasons. . .the first being the return of cornerbacks Antoine Winfield (from injury) and Chris Cook (from a stint in the Minnesota Penal League), and the second being that they sure as heck can't be any worse than they were in 2011. They should have better depth in the secondary this year, too. If the secondary can simply climb to "slightly below average" from last year's level of "man, these guys are awful," it will go a long way toward making the Vikings a more competitive football team.
Are the Vikings a Super Bowl contender in 2012? Probably not. But they're going to be much closer to the middle of the pack this year than they will be to the bottom, barring a huge rash of injuries.
They Make The Playoffs If ...
Minnesota has a tough road ahead of them this season, such is the fate of rebuilding teams. However, defenses capable of sacking opposing quarterbacks 50 times can steal some games and make for a few surprises, if the rest of the team can keep from dragging them down.
If the Vikings are going to sneak into the playoffs, they need instant contributions from their secondary, a unit that will have to go from the league's worst to middle of the pack to be effective.
I'm tempted to say that they need Adrian Peterson to be healthy. Obviously, Peterson firing on all eight cylinders is a huge asset for any team, but Minnesota still managed to surprise without him last year. Toby Gerhart can be a fine running back. Led by Percy Harvin, the receivers and tight ends are capable of making things happen, and if Ponder can stay upright and continue a normal course of development, Minnesota should be able to score points.
Playoffs? Stranger things have happened.