Everything Falling Into Place

We Vikings fans should by now be called, as a matter of course, Long Suffering Vikings Fans.

It’s been more than three decades since the Vikings have appeared in a Super Bowl. Their best squad of the 70s, the 1975 team, had a Super Bowl berth stolen from them by the Hail Mary pass.

In 1987, the Vikings were a correctly run route away from probably making it back to the Big Dance.

In 1998, we assembled one of the best teams in the history of the league, set a season scoring record, lost only one regular season game, yet still couldn’t close the deal to make it back to the Super Bowl.

These days, we simply ask for a playoff appearance or two.

And so it is with resignation that we watched the Vikings blow a chance to secure their place in the post season this year by generously handing the Atlanta Falcons a win last week and watching the inevitable as the Packers collapsed to the Bears.

All the pieces are falling into place for yet another Vikings December collapse.

Now we have the far more difficult task of beating a New York Giants team that is infinitely better than the Falcons or hoping beyond hope for a Texans’ victory over the Bears.

You can see why we are Ye Of Little Faith these days.

But though I’m not holding out much hope for the post season this year, I will nevertheless focus on the positive.

First and foremost, the most positive development is the seemingly drastic turnaround of Tarvaris Jackson‘s game. After last week, his play has improved so much, in fact, that I had no reservations whatsoever of buying a TJax uniform for my nephew for Christmas.

He was thrilled.

As am I at Jackson’s turnaround. He’s making great decisions; his ability to run with the ball adds another dangerous dimension to the offense that opponents will have to defend. When defenses play man against us, there’s always the threat of Tarvaris ripping off a 15 yard gain (though I’d be perfectly happy if he’d learn how to slide at the end of them).

He’s made some fantastic throws. About the only throw he still has a problem with is the long ball. It baffles me that he apparently has absolutely no touch on a ball that I think is one of the easiest to throw.

Still, he moved the team up and down the field against a good Falcons team and were it not for the seven (seven!!) fumbles, the Vikings would have won the game. It wasn’t because of Jackson that we lost the game. If he continues his great play against the Giants, I think we will have seen enough to give us confidence that he is the quarterback of the future we’d hoped he’d be.

And if that happens, I think Brad Childress has secured his future as head coach for another year, regardless of whether or not we reach the playoffs this year. If TJax justifies Childress’ faith in him and considering the strides this offense has made this year, we should see Chilly return next year.

The question remains, though, of whether he keeps his offensive coordinator, Darren Bevell, as his playcaller. The Vikings offensive play calling has been uninspiring at best and consistently predictable.

The other big story on the offensive side of the ball this year has been Visanthe Shiancoe. Shiancoe has turned out to be the rockstar Childress predicted he’d be. Here’s another case where Childress’ talent evaluation has proven correct–though it took a mighty long time for the evidence to surface. Bernard Berrian‘s 99 yard touchdown reception was possible because Shiancoe is a legitimate threat; the safety bit on that play to cover Shiancoe, leaving Berrian all alone.

We haven’t had a big play tight end like Shiancoe since Steve Jordan. It’s been that long.

Adrian Peterson is, of course, Adrian Peterson. He’ll end the season as the leading rusher in the NFL this year. But he’s had eight fumbles this year and his fumbles last week cost us a game we needed to clinch a playoff appearance.

As phenomenally talented as he is, he needs to improve next year: 1) He has to stop fumbling and learn to switch the ball to his outside arm during runs, and 2) he needs to improve his pass blocking skills so he isn’t on the sideline on third downs and in obvious passing situations.

The defense has been outstanding and that bodes well for next year. Jared Allen has made all the difference in the world; by improving the pass rush exponentially, he’s improved the pass coverage that much as well. Defensive backs and linebackers do not have to cover receivers as long as they used to because we’re getting to the quarterback much faster this season.

I’ve had a lot of problems with Chad Greenway‘s play; his trouble shedding blocks and some of his decisions have been poor. But he’s made tremendous strides this year. With the return of E.J. Henderson next year, the Vikings should have a top-five linebacker corps next year.

Cedric Griffin has turned the corner with a vengance. He had another outstanding game last week: Staying with receivers, batting away passes, making Winfieldesque tackles, jamming receivers at the line, and playing in control. If he continues this progress (and there’s no reason to think he won’t), we should have a top-five cornerback tandem next year as well.

My only concern is Darren Sharper, who I expect will be allowed to leave for free agency after the season. It looks like Sharper has lost a step. He seems to be late in coverage and has consistently taken bad angles on tackles this year. Tyrell Johnson played well at the beginning of the season, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him start next year.

There’s a lot to be encouraged about for next year regardless of how this season turns out.

So, Um, What You’re Saying Is…

You can pretty much call me a fan of ProFootballTalk.com, but this “analysis” of how the NFC North will shake out this year is not particularly analytical nor insightful. So, it’s gonna be a battle between the Vikings and the Packers and the Bears and the Lions will not be a factor.

Just phoning it in:

Preseason – Minnesota Vikings Vs. NY Jets

  Preseason – Rams 
  Originally uploaded by vikingsfrenzy

Football season couldn’t have come at a better time. With the Twins being such frustrating teases all season long, hovering around six games back with a chance to get back in the pennant race but not being quite good enough to win the games they should win, it’s nice that they aren’t the only game in town anymore.

Vikings Free Agency

This off season was a particularly painful one for Vikings fans. In a weak market for receivers, the team went after one high profile guy in Kevin Curtis and settled on , a guy who had a well-deserved reputation for dropping passes. The team signed a tight end no one had ever heard of in , a special teams ace in linebacker , injured safety , receiver and another "wide receiver" , a guy who has never played football.

So you’re thinking, great, the rebuilding continues…with average players. I do not remember a more dispiriting Vikings off season.

The Vikings Draft

But then the rolls around and the picks give you reason to hope. is clearly a talented and explosive back but who has durability issues. We stocked up on receivers with , , and ; took a cornerback who was project to be a first round pick last year in ; got depth at linebacker with ; took a pass rushing defensive end in ; and got another young gun in quarterback .

The draft gave me a bit of hope. If he stays healthy Adrian Peterson could be an amazing running back; Sidney Rice, at 6′ 4" is a nice tall target and Allison and Chandler Williams have got speed. Then there’s Marcus McCauley, the first-round grade cornerback.

Hope springs eternal during the preseason and I’m perfectly happy to oblige.

The Vikings Preseason

The Vikings are heading into the 2007 season with essentially three number one draft picks. There’s Adrian Peterson, of course, but If you also count Marcus McCauley, who, as I said, most people consider a first round talent, and last year’s first round pick , who didn’t play last year because of injury, we’ve got three first rounders this year.

You have to figure the offensive line will be better–hopefully much improved–after a year together in the zone blocking scheme. So the only questions on offense are 1) playcalling, 2) , and the wide receiving corps.

The defense looks to have gotten stronger with a healthy Greenway, a healthy and , and the addition of McCauley and Mike Doss. I think we’ve got four starters at the corners, intense competition at safety, more speed at linebacker, and the only question is at the defensive end positions.

I was very impressed with last season and now he’s got a year’s experience under his belt. But it remains to be seen how will bounce back from his injury and has done nothing to warrant anyone’s confidence.

I don’t know if special teams can get much worse than last year, so we’ll see what happens there.

Preseason Games

So what do we know after two preseason games? So far, so good.

The Offense

The offense looks to be better for having been liberated from Childress‘ playcalling script.

Thus far, Tarvaris Jackson hasn’t done anything to make you groan but he hasn’t had many chances to make mistakes yet, either. He has lead a few impressive drives, he looks decisive, and he hasn’t had any center/quarterback exchange problems, so his concentration is good.

But if Jackson isn’t the real deal, then we’re in real trouble.

Against St. Louis, the Vikings got the ball to Troy Williamson early and frequently and the receiver caught all the catches you expect him to make. On the one he didn’t haul in, it was a difficult catch because the ball was thrown high and Williamson had a receiver draped all over him. He probably should’ve caught it, but at this point, who are we to quibble? It’s progress.

Against the Jets, Williamson got a long bomb down the right sideline and he fought for position with the defender, got the position, looked to have a bead on the ball with his hands in position for the catch but the safety came in to swat the ball away before Williamson could have a chance at it.

It is notable that they haven’t yet thrown to him down the left sideline. Williamson has historically had the ball slip through his arms on deep passes where he’s had to look over his right shoulder. That’s something to watch for in the remaining preseason games.

Bobby Wade is as advertised. He’s a catch and run slot guy who has caught nearly everything thrown to him. So far he’s proved me wrong about him being stone-handed. He did not make a tough third down pass that would have given the Vikes a fresh set of downs but he did have a defender all over him. Still, he should’ve caught the ball. He’s shown several times that he’s got the ability to make people miss and make a lot of yards after the catch, so that’s very good.

Wad is also an excellent blocker, a talent he showed off on Peterson’s 43 yard run against the Jets by sealing one defender to allow Peterson to get out on the edge, then moving on to another which freed Peterson up for a long run.

What little we’ve seen of Sidney Rice thus far has been good. He’s a big guy who’s not afraid to catch the ball in a crowd. Aundrae Allison and Chandler Williams have yet to make an impression, but Martin Nance has had a few nice nabs.

New tight end Visanthe Shiancoe has not yet shown up as a receiver, so we’ll watch for him to make some plays.

We didn’t get to see much of what Adrian Peterson can do against the Rams but man did we in his performance against the Jets. The shake and bake, the spin, the acceleration; we haven’t seen that in a running back since Robert Smith. You could see his power when he hit congestion at the line and moved the pile. For all his toughness, we didn’t see a lot of that from Chester Taylor last season. Peterson looked like he was hitting the holes a little too quickly at times but the patience should come. If he learns to pick up blitzes effectively, we could be in for a lot of entertaining football. Here are Peterson’s highlights from the Jets game:

The offensive line looks good enough but depth is still an issue; against the Jets, demonstrated yet again his trouble picking up the outside rush.

The Defense

Well, it looks like the defense will still be the strength of the team and very possibly much better than last year.

The defense has been fantastic thus far. Against the Rams, linebacker Dontarrious Thomas took his pick 82 yards to the house for the Vikings’ only touchdown and safety Dwight Smith picked Marc Bulger to end another Rams’ drive. Against the Jets, both Darren Sharper and Chad Greenway returned interceptions for touchdowns and rookie Brian Robison recovered a fumble for a score.

I think the secondary is stronger than last year. A healthy Tank Williams and newcomer Mike Doss provide competition and depth at the safety spots. If they both make the team, we’ll have experienced starters as backups regardless of what the depth chart looks like.

At the corners we’ve got Winfield and , who I liked a lot last year. He’s got a year under his belt and should only improve. Marcus McCauley has looked solid so far and Dovonte Edwards is healthy and had a pick against the Jets. Those two will battle for the nickel spot and regardless who wins the spot, we’ll have an upgrade in both speed and talent at both the nickel and the dime positions.

At linebacker we lost Napoleon Harris and so E.J. Henderson will move to the middle linebacking position. He didn’t fare so well at that position early in his career but he had a fantastic season last year and let’s hope that experience and maturity will help him excel at the Mike position.

Ben Leber returns after a solid season last year and Greenway is healthy. Chad Greenway didn’t do much against the Rams but he was outstanding against the Jets. In addition to scoring on an interception return, he lead the team in tackles and sniffed out a screen and tackled the Jets’ back for a loss. He’s very fast, so our drop coverage in the Tampa 2 will probably improve. Dontarrious Thomas provides depth as a roaming backer but with rookie Rufus Alexander lost for the year (what is it with linebackers and season-ending injuries?) with an ACL injury and Jason Glenn retiring, we’re a little thin at the position.

Ray Edwards has been a rock star at defensive end so far this preseason; in both games he’s put consistent pressure on the quarterback and his rush of Chad Pennington caused the ill-advised pass that Greenway picked off for a score.

It has been rookie Brian Robison who has had the most eye-opening performance this preseason. He had one sack against the Rams and was absolutely unstoppable, putting constant pressure on the passer. But I withheld judgment until I got to see him play against a first-team line. Against the Jet, Robison had four tackles, one sack, and a fumble recovery for a touchdown.

I was wrong about Robison. When the Vikings picked him, it looked like a reach to me. I was really wrong. The guy is lightning-quick. He made D’Brickshaw Ferguson look like he was playing in water and put some pretty good moves on the tackle on his way to the quarterback.

On one play he motored in around the tackle and though he didn’t have a chance for a sack, he batted the ball out of Kellen Clemens‘ hands for a forced fumble that the Jets recovered. On the very next play, the Jets center snapped an errant ball that Clemens couldn’t reach from the shotgun position.

Robison, of course, was there in the backfield and as Clemens reached down for the ball, he smartly pushed the quarterback out of the way, and all in one motion scooped up the ball, and dove into the end zone for the score. A lot of players would have either tried to tackle the quarterback or dove for the ball but Robison realized he’d have a clearer path to the ball by simply pushing the QB out of the way.

If Erasmus James returns to his former self and we can get either Edwards or Robison to play the opposite side, we won’t have to worry about whether or not Udeze fulfills his promise.

‘s defense looks very much like ‘s of last year, except with more blitzing. It’s been effective. We may even see some .

Special Teams

Vinny Ciurciu doesn’t seem to have improved the coverage units measurably, so that remains a weakness. , however, may just beat out for the punter position on the strength of his kickoff power and his directional punting ability. Reyes’ kickoffs haven’t been particularly consistent but at least he’s hit some to the one and three yard lines. Neither Kluwe nor Reyes has displayed much power on their punts, but Reyes can do the coffin corner.

It was impressive to see the field goal unit quickly assemble on field as time ticked away before the half of the Jets game and nail a 54 yard field goal as time expired.

And, by the way, it was a 54 yard field goal. Outside. In wet weather. Last year, was solid inside the forty but had trouble with the longer field goals.

Next Saturday: Seattle Seahawks

We should get to see some extended play of Tarvaris Jackson on Saturday and I expect he’ll throw a lot. Expect the ball to be thrown primarily to Troy Williamson, Sidney Rice, Aundrae Allison and Visanthe Shiancoe.

The defensive spotlight will shine on Erasmus James to see how his recovery has progressed.

Free Agency Delayed

On the positive side, the delay of till, at the earlies, Monday, gives me some extra time to put together my 2006 NFL Free Agency Resources post. On the downside, damn, we gotta wait!

Had talks broken down for good, as they appeared they had, the would have been in the sweet position of being $24 million below the cap while most other teams would have to cut high-priced veterans, flooding the market with talent, lowering the asking prices for all free agents, in an environment when only a couple of teams–the Vikes and most prominent among them–would be in a position to pay anyone anything.

The Vikes could practically have had their choice of free agents at bargain prices. That would have put them in the enviable positon of not only being positioned to get the top picks of the free agent litter, but it would have also greatly reduced the bargaining leverage of such players as and .

But had that happened, the Vikings had better win the Super Bowl because with a lack of an agreement and, as a result, a salary-capless 2007 season, the Vikings would all of a sudden have transformed into the of football, a small market team trying to compete against major media market free spenders such as the .

The downside would have been far to dire; let’s count ourselves luck for the repreive.

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