Missing Rings: 2009 Minnesota Vikings

When you think back to the NFL before the free agency era, you rarely had the chance to see players take on their former team. Not with the venom or emotion we have seen post 1993 as players left as salary cap casualties with something to prove. We watched Hall of Famers like Marcus Allen & Thurman Thomas move to divisional rivals knowing they had 2 shots a year to get some payback. Yet over the years this was rarely seen at the QB position.

Favre’s locker at The Pro Football Hall of Fame on display the day of his induction.

The last true time we saw this was when Joe Montana was traded out of San Francisco to make way for Steve Young. They had rebuilt on the run and were still among the league’s elite and no longer needed their young QB looking over his shoulder at a living legend who played the same position. In 1994 they faced off in an epic week 2 battle that captured the nation’s attention. We wouldn’t see a match-up of this magnitude again for another 15 years.

Now of all the long standing rivalries in the NFL there are few with more hatred between two teams like that of the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings. Theirs is a clash of lifestyles, cultures, teams, and an envy from Vikings fans and players of the Packer’s globally revered NFL legacy.

Although the Packers have won 13 championships it’s the legacy of Vince Lombardi and their being “Team of the 60’s” that NFL Films and books have elevated these teams & players to mythic status. Minnesota on the other hand is largely remembered for losing 4 of the first 11 Super Bowls with very few of their great players being recognized by  Pro Football Hall of Fame. One example is Paul Krause, the NFL’s All Time Interceptor with 81 passes. It took 20 years for him to make “The Hall” after a 16 year career. Could you imagine any player who retired #1 in any major statistic waiting that long to make the journey to Canton?? I didn’t think so.

Had the Vikings won those 4 Super Bowls they would have been remembered as the “Team of the 70’s.” There are only 5 members from the Vikings enshrined compared to the 12 from the 60’s Packers and that will increase to 13 when Jerry Kramer gets in this year.

From the mid 90’s on it seemed as though the Viking organization was constantly searching for a QB. The Vikings spent the better part of 2 decades with teams good enough to make the playoffs but not “the guy” to get them over the top. They shuffled in an aging Warren Moon, an enigmatic Jeff George, resurrected Jim McMahon, had journeymen like Sean Salisbury, and revived a retired Randall Cunningham.

In ’98 Cunningham was the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year as he threw for 34 TDs. Super rookie Randy Moss set a record with 17 TDs as the Vikings roared to a 15-1 regular season and set the NFL scoring record with 556 points. They were a meteor and was the best of the Denny Green era however they were upset in the NFC Championship 30-27 and had to watch Super Bowl XXXIII.

Lost in this sea of futility, the Green Bay Packers became the center of the universe with the emergence of Brett Favre and the free agent signing of Reggie White. When they won the ’96 Super Bowl, Favre was in the midst of 3 straight MVP seasons and Viking faithful seethed with envy. The hated Packers had become one of the glamour teams and Favre had become the face of the league.

Peterson sets the NFL single game rushing record at 296 yards vs. Chargers.

This went on for years as the Vikings, with Randy Moss, could make the playoffs yet could only muster 1 more championship appearance. Once there, the lights went out in a 41-0 loss to the Giants in the 2000 NFC Championship. The most explosive player in football and they couldn’t field a champion with him. After his departure lightning struck again when they landed future Hall of Famer in RB Adrian Peterson in the 2007 draft. His rookie year saw him rush for 1,341 yards highlighted by an NFL record 296 yd rushing performance against San Diego. Yikes! His combination of speed and power might have been the most frightening at its zenith in NFL history. If they only could get a quarterback with him they could be lethal…

Elsewhere in the NFC North the Packers had retooled and Favre had become the grand old man trying to get back to the Super Bowl. Gone were the gunslinger days where Brett had to will his team to victory, he was getting by on guile. Timely audibles, leadership and staying controlled within Coach McCarthy’s offense led to a 13-3 record and homefield advantage. Early in the year he eclipsed Dan Marino to become the NFL’s all time touchdown passer, against the Vikings no less. In his 17th season he was the sentimental favorite to win a title in a swan song season that seemed predestined. But alas… the New York Giants upset Green Bay 23-20 in the NFC Championship. Favre had thrown a fatal interception in overtime to Corey Webster…and it was over.

The saga of Brett retiring and unretiring began as the Packers wanted to move on with a young Aaron Rodgers. Having his championship appetite whet he didn’t want to retire. Green Bay didn’t relent and he became a free agent and wound up playing the 2008 season with the New York Jets. He wasn’t inspired and seem to go through the motions and retired again… but when the Vikings came calling… this sent shockwaves through the NFL and a rejuvenated Favre hit the ground running.

Football fans everywhere took sides waiting to see Favre with the hated Vikings take on his old team. Packer fans were outraged he went to Minnesota and felt betrayed. Social media was in its infancy but comments “Judas” and quotes from the Godfather “It was you Fredo!” with pics from the kiss of death scene were everywhere as the buildup for those games began that summer.

To go with All Pro RB Adrian Peterson, the Vikings had developed WR Sidney Rice and drafted wild card and super rookie Percy Harvin off the NCAA champion Florida Gators. Farve had never had this type of firepower in Green Bay and Packer fans were nervous as hell. More important there was a pep in his step as though Favre had stepped back in time 5 years. He returned to being the emotional gunslinger and was on full display in week 3. The Vikings had begun the season 2-0 and were losing at home to San Francisco. They were being accused of looking ahead to the 1st matchup with Green Bay….and then the Vikes got the ball with 1:29 to go needing a touchdown.

The old man swaggered onto the field and brought life to the Viking huddle they hadn’t seen in a decade. A frantic drive saw Favre complete 6 of 8 passes that weren’t spikes and his last pass was a scramble & 32 yard touchdown to Greg Lewis with :02 seconds to go to win 27-24. The Metrodome hadn’t been that loud since the days of Moss and Cris Carter a decade before. Bring on the Packers!!

A raucous crowd awaited a Monday Night audience as the old knight outdueled the young lion in a 30-23 victory. Farve had gone 24 of 31 for 271 yards and 3 TDs where Aaron Rodgers had been sacked 8 times and harassed all night. He threw for 384 yards 2 TDs and an interception and had to play uphill all night. Favre left the field with his arms outstretched amid a sea of reporters. However in week 8 the Vikings would have to take the trek to Lambeau Field. Surely the Packer faithful would be just as loud and unforgiving as the Metrodome crowd had been for Rodgers.

In what might have been the biggest sporting event of the decade the nation tuned in for Favre’s return to Lambeau Field. Had there been pay per view for football games this would have smashed any record any boxing match had ever achieved. All the shows aired specials on the game and all week Fox dotted their television landscape with promos for the Game of the Week. The NFL’s all time winningest QB with the most touchdowns and yardage in NFL history, and the greatest Packer legend was going to be playing in purple and gold?? The mind struggled to take it all in…and when the whistle blew:

When the smoke cleared the Vikings were going into their bye week 7-1 and Favre had definitely had his revenge. In 2 games he completed 41 of 59 for 525 yards 7 TDs and was in complete control where Rodgers threw for 6 TDs, however had 1 interception and was sacked 14 times by the Viking front line. Yes… 14 times!! The Packers only led once in either contest, 3-0 in the 2nd game, and didn’t intercept or sack #4 once in either contest. This was against a Packer defense that finished ranked #2 in 2009. Suddenly the season was at the halfway point and the question had to be asked: Was this the best team in the NFL??

For the season Minnesota finished 2nd against the run & 6th in total defense and led the NFL with 48 sacks. Future Hall of Famer Jared Allen was a menace all year with 14.5 sacks and 5 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries, a safety and a touchdown in a season where he was All Pro and made the Pro Bowl. He would have been Taylor Blitz Times Defensive Player of the Year over the NFL’s choice in Charles Woodson. Why?? In the 2 biggest games of the year Packers vs Vikings, Woodson never intercepted Favre where Allen sacked Aaron Rodgers 7 times which included the safety. This led to Rodgers being the most sacked QB in the NFL in 2009 taken down 50 times. Yes… 7 times. Checkmate!

Allen was joined at the Pro Bowl by fellow defenders CB Antoine Winfield, immovable DT Kevin Williams (also All Pro) and LB Chad Greenway should have been. DE Ray Edwards had a career best 8.5 sacks in ’09 playing across from Jared. MLB E.J Henderson, OLB Ben Leber, DT Pat Williams, and CB Cedric Griffin turned in solid seasons.

Offensively the Vikings finished 5th in the NFL and scored 470 points which ranked 2nd. All World RB Adrian Peterson rushed for 1,383 yds and a career best 18 TDs while collecting 43 rec. for another 436 yards. Wideout Sidney Rice was another contributor with 83 rec. 1,312 yards and 8 TDs…all career highs. Now add in NFL Rookie of the Year in Percy Harvin who contributed with 925 yards from scrimmage 6 TDs while ranking 3rd on kickoffs with a 27.1 yard avg for 1,100 yards and 2 more scores.   This team had weapons!

Do you realize at 40 years of age Favre completed a career high 68.4% of his passes for 4,202 yards 33 TDs and a career low 7 interceptions?? It was the highest season TD total for #4 in 12 years.

After racing out to a 10-1 start, the Norsemen finished 12-4 as the most complete team in football. Well, some were saying the New Orleans Saints were and after the Vikings stomped Dallas 34-3 in the NFC Divisional Playoff, they would meet in the Superdome for the NFC Championship. It was the only time in the 51 year history of the Super Bowl where a QB had taken 2 different teams to the conference championship game in just 3 years.

Favre had grown up just 60 miles from the Superdome and this was the building he had won his Super Bowl title. The script seemed to have been written…

A team that finished 3rd in fewest turnovers allowed w/ 18  during the ’09 regular season turned it over 5 times in New Orleans. The Vikings were able to bring in the catalyst for the best season in 10 years but he couldn’t breathe championship pedigree into players who didn’t have it on the professional level. Well at least for this game.

A 31-28 defeat in overtime to a team they lost the turnover battle to 5-1 on the road. Most teams get blown out yet the Norsemen hung tough and fought to the bitter end. Brett gambled with a bad throw on the Tracy Porter interception when the Vikings were near field goal position to win it in regulation. This became the final on field image of a legendary performer… like it or not. The Saints were off to Super Bowl XLIV where the Vikings had to ponder the what ifs…

The NFL’s best team had to sit and watch the New Orleans win the Lombardi two weeks later and the sports world was left to ponder “what might have been”?  Had the Vikings gone on to win that 1st Super Bowl, Brett Favre would have become the 1st QB to win the NFL Championship with 2 different teams since Norm Van Brocklin in 1960. He did become the 1st QB in the Super Bowl era to lead two different teams to a conference championship appearance in a 3 year period.

In the grand scheme of things it had been a magic carpet ride for fans everywhere. Not only for the middle aged men who got behind an aging lion in a young man’s game, but those who cheer the Viking legacy and almost watched the greatest Packer in history win their 1st Super Bowl Championship. A unique chapter in NFL history remembered at Favre’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction. Both by speech as Chris Berman addressed the audience and the display pictured above. For Packer fans that grumbled at the locker display I just encouraged them to stand in front of the Viking jersey when taking their pics. Yet when you look back at the ’09 Vikings overall it was one of the strongest teams in the last 20 years that fell short of Super Bowl glory.

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2013 Minnesota Vikings Preview – Quarterback Maturation Expected Now

Diagram of new stadium.

Diagram of the new stadium.

One of the big disappointments of last year’s football season was the Minnesota Vikings having to go into the playoffs without Christian Ponder. It was as though the wild card game against the Green Bay Packers was tantamount to a little league forfeit. Joe Webb couldn’t complete a pass and all the while left many NFL fans, especially Viking fans lamenting: What would have happened had Ponder played??

After all, this was a team that had won 5 of their last 7 including 4 in a row to make the playoffs. They had just outlasted those same Packers 37-34 in the finale, and we’d never know what momentum and tactical advantages they would have taken into the wild card game. Then to turn around and watch with abject horror as Colin Kaepernick destroyed the Packers defense in the divisional playoff. How could Vikings fans not feel empty?? Especially when the Vikings had beat down the 49ers 24-13 during the regular season.

Yet Christian Ponder made it to a golf tournament the next week?? Much like the situation with Jay Cutler in the 2010 NFC Championship, many felt he should have given an effort. To think that had the Vikings been able to make it past the Packers & 49ers, they would have had 2,000 yard rusher Adrian Peterson face the 24th ranked defense of the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship.

Jared Allen stepped up the pressure when he stated Ponder needs to be "the guy" for the Vikings to make the next move. Fans and others within the organization will follow that thinking.

Jared Allen stepped up the pressure when he stated Ponder needs to be “the guy” for the Vikings to make the next move. Fans and others within the organization will follow that thinking.

Quarterback: Coming into the 2013 season, few quarterbacks have more pressure on them to show improvement than Christian Ponder.  Some of it has to do with the antics surrounding his questionable absence in last year’s wild card loss. However the other reason is the Vikings trading away a Percy Harvin and signing a polished receiver in Greg Jennings, formerly of the Packers. With the emergence of Pro Bowl MVP in Tight End Kyle Rudolph, he now has weapons to take pressure off of the running game.

Sounds like a lot to ask from a player starting just his second season, but the bar has been raised with the stellar play of fellow NFC first year starters in Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, and Robert Griffin III. Ponder didn’t have a bad season as he completed 300 of 483 passes (62.1%) for 2,935 yards, 18 touchdowns & 12 interceptions. Yet without the fan fare, he led his team to a 10-6 record but a truer perception was Peterson carried the team.

One aspect of his game is his mobility. He has quick feet which helps him on waggles, play action roll-outs, and when he needs to evade the rush. Last year he escaped the pocket 60 times for 263 yards and 2  touchdowns. In all actuality he grew from the late game mistakes on the road early last season and finished winning the last two to propel the Vikings into the playoffs. If he hadn’t thrown the late game interception against Washington last year, or been efficient in the 4th quarter against the Colts, this team could have been 12-4 and a first round bye. With improved weapons he may graduate to a playoff caliber team. We’ll wait ’til summer to anoint that. Right now the Vikings are average at quarterback.

It's time to compare Adrian Peterson with the all time greats and not just his contemporaries.

It’s time to compare Adrian Peterson with the all time greats and not just his contemporaries.

Offensive Backfield: Adrian Peterson…enough said. This is a Hall of Fame running back in his prime. Has there ever been a better season than his 2,097 yard 12 touchdown performance in 2012?? He averaged 6 yards per carry when defenses knew he was coming. That is obscene!! He broke breathtakingly long runs week after week as he showed a miraculous recovery from his devastating knee injury suffered in 2011.

Out of the backfield he caught 40 passes for 217 yards and another touchdown. Amazingly he isn’t even 28 yet and could possibly become the first runner in history to have a second 2,000 yard season. Already the record holder of the single season rushing record with a 296 yard performance, Eric Dickerson’s 2,105 is definitely in his sights. Toby Gerhart (50 car./169 yds /1 TD) spells Peterson for short yardage and is used as a blocker. No question are the Vikings Super Bowl caliber at the position.

Jennings move to the Vikings should spice the already heated rivalry with the Packers.

Jennings move to the Vikings should spice the already heated rivalry with the Packers.

Receivers: Let’s be honest Viking fans, when Percy Harvin was traded to Seattle: How many of you saw the Vikings pulling a coup and signing Greg Jennings from Green Bay?? Now to keep teams from doubling TE Kyle Rudolph, here comes arguably the most complete receiver in the NFC North over the last five years…well sort of.  Before his injury plagued 2012, Jennings averaged 68.8 receptions for 1,107 yards and 9.2 touchdowns per season between 2007-2011. He is versatile enough to play either the X or Z  receiver. Jennings is a crafty, quick receiver that excels in getting up the seems. Turning 30, he has at least 4 more years at his present production level.

To further the point of surrounding Ponder with the best available weapons, the Vikings spent a 1st round pick on Cordarrelle Patterson out of Tennessee. Where he’ll pay immediate special teams dividends, Minnesota signed 5 other receivers to make sure Jennings has the right bookend when the season commences.

However the number one beneficiary from the departure of Harvin will be pro bowl tight end Kyle Rudolph. His production will rise above the 53 catches (493 yds/  9TDs) now the Vikings aren’t forcing underneath passes to Harvin. Look for a 90 catch season as they’re just scratching the surface with the 24 year old tight end out of Notre Dame. Along with Jennings and the stability of the running game with Adrian Peterson, this is a playoff caliber receiving corps. If Patterson develops, he can take the top off of the defense and this rating will go up. They did give him Randy Moss’ old jersey number too.

Offensive Line: After re-signing RT Phil Loadholt, the Vikings are bringing back an offensive line that had all five members play all 16 games in 2012. Although Peterson ran for more than 2,000 yards, how much was due to the line?? Did you know that last year in obvious power running situations (3rd/4th and 2 or less), the Vikings were 18th converting to the strong side (60%) and dead last or 32nd (36%) converting up the middle?? Did you know the Vikings were dead last in the NFL with negative rushing plays up the middle with 27?? Did you know they were also 7th in negative rushing plays to the strong side with 18?? Some improvement is needed here.

Keep in mind the Vikings drafted two Guards in later rounds, yet the incumbent Center and Guards, John Sullivan, Charlie Johnson,and Brandon Fusco may have some competition. All three were 6th round selections themselves. So there will be competition on the offensive line. Last year they ranked 11th in sacks allowed with 30 and 5th in hits on the quarterback with 64. However their inability to get push in obvious situations drops their rank to average. Many of Peterson’s best runs were bounce outs and second effort plays.

Jared Allen has been a force in the NFC North for several years.

Jared Allen has been a force in the NFC North for several years.

Defensive Line: Where have you gone Jared Allen?? Actually he hasn’t gone anywhere yet, but he is about to enter the last year of his contract.  One year removed from a 22 sack season, he followed that up with a 46  tackle, 12 sack performance. He was the focal point of every opponents blocking scheme, so a dip in production is understandable. Allen shows up in games at home as well as on the road. Case and point, when he beat Houston Texans’ All Pro and Pro Bowl Tackle Duane Brown for 2 sacks and incurred 2 penalties in a week 16 upset over the Texans on the road. Now he’s going to play for a new contract?? Watch out!!

With Allen as the focal point of the line, the Vikings can implement their first #1 draft pick in DT Shariff Floyd, without the pressure to “be the man” right away. This guy is a freakish athlete that can either learn at defensive tackle from 11 year vet Kevin Willams (31 tackles /2 sacks), or rotate with DT  Letroy Guion (31 tackles / 2 sacks). Imagine this 6’3 315 lbs. rookie known for his strength and quickness joining pass rushing DT Everson Griffen (8 sacks), DE Brian Robison (37 tackles / 8.5 sacks) along with Allen’s totals.

Although Robison and Allen are 30 and 31 respectively, Robison and Griffen are only 25 so they have a perfect blend of youth and experience. Keep in mind this group had 44 sacks last year. This number will go up this year. This is the re-birth of the Purple People Eaters and a Super Bowl caliber group.

Chad Greenway is the best linebacker in the NFC North and one of the best in the NFL.

Chad Greenway is the best linebacker in the NFC North and one of the best in the NFL.

Linebackers: Although Brian Urlacher retired from football, the best linebacker in the NFC North has been Chad Greenway for quite some time.  He is the equal to both Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis in San Francisco. He’s actually a better linebacker than Willis and tracks down ball carriers and receivers from sideline to sideline. How can we say that?? Did you know over the last 3 years Greenway has averaged 147 tackles per year?? His 442 tackles dwarf Willis 353 in that exact same time frame.

The only knock on Greenway is he doesn’t force as many turnovers as the celebrated San Francisco duo. He recovered 2 fumbles during his 146 tackle, 3 sack, 1 interception 2012 campaign.  He is beginning to get the recognition he deserves nationally. However here at Taylor Blitz Times he’s been lauded as one of the premiere linebackers in football.

The other two linebackers are Jasper Brinkley ( 87 tackles / 3 forced fumbles) and Erin Henderson (79 tackles / 3 sacks / 1 forced fumble) are solid but may see some competition this summer. When management steps out and drafts two players at your position. They’re looking to push you and add to special teams quality. Fourth round selection Gerald Hodges and seventh rounder Michael Mauti are both from Penn St. This is an average group that may be playoff worthy behind a dominant rush.

White men can't jump huh?? Think again. Harrison Smith is a true talent at Free Safety. He should make the Pro Bowl in his second season easily.

White men can’t jump huh?? Think again. Harrison Smith is a true talent at Free Safety. He should make the Pro Bowl in his second season easily.

Secondary: The Vikings are hoping to strike gold, like they did with the success of FS Harrison Smith in the drafting of 1st round CB Xavier Rhodes.  Last year Smith showed range and had a good rookie season with 97 tackles, 11 passes defensed, along with 3 interceptions and two of those returned for touchdowns. In another year, those are Pro Bowl numbers. He should grab about 8 interceptions in 2013. At 6’2, 213 lbs, he has the range of the safeties from the golden era of the 1980s. Very angular with long arms, he is hard to throw over. For comparisons sake, future Hall of Famer Ed Reed had 85 tackles, 5 interceptions, and 12 passes defensed in his rookie years. Look out this might be the best Viking FS since Paul Krause.

Drafting Rhodes in the first round means they will plug him into the lineup right away. Don’t forget Head Coach Leslie Frazier is a defensive back coach at heart. Rhodes acquisition spelled the end for long time Viking Antoine Winfield.  In comes a 6’1 210 lbs corner that runs a 4.43 40. He’s physical in press coverage and he better decide to tackle against the run. Winfield was the second leading tackler on the team. If CB Josh Robinson ( 52 tackles / 2 interceptions) can improve, this is a playoff caliber group. Behind this pass rush they may be better than that by season’s end.

Head Coach Leslie Frazier may not be too far from an NFC Championship appearance. If Ponder can show some improvement..... hmmm??

Head Coach Leslie Frazier may not be too far from an NFC Championship appearance. If Ponder can show some improvement….. hmmm??

Overall: This team is the NFC version of the Kansas City Chiefs. No other team has put a team together where the quarterback just has to play adequately, and the playoffs are a reality. If Ponder can show the same improvement he did over the last two seasons, this team could crash the NFC Championship Game if Atlanta or Seattle stumbles.

They fit the formula of the modern day league champion. Young quarterback without a team crippling contract, a young improving defense with two players who are front runners as Taylor Blitz Times Defensive Player of the Year candidates. Now they have a receiving corps to take pressure off of future Hall of fame running back Adrian Peterson.

This team is equipped to win the NFC North and should do so with Ponder developing his quarterbacking skills. This year he has to read the defense instead of leaning on crossing routes to Percy Harvin. Throwing to Harvin was stunting his growth from a reading the defense and progression standpoint. They have given him a quality receiver while drafting another who can get deep. He should have some options. As Ponder goes….so goes the Viking season. This team is loaded with few holes.

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NEXT: 2013 Chicago Bears Preview.

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!