If you bleed purple, then you know the feeling. Just about the time you think your favorite football team is finally ready to win the BIG ONE, something happens that only a Minnesota Viking follower would understand.
65 Toss Power Trap. 41 Donut. Wide Left. 12 Men in the Huddle. If you not only make sense of these phrases, but cringe every time you hear them, chances are you’ve spent a good share of your life in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
It probably would be easier if our beloved franchise seldom tasted success. Take the Minnesota Timberwolves, for example. When you lose so frequently, like the Wolves, you’re conditioned to accept mediocrity.
But growing up a fan of the Vikings takes a special kind of courage. Remember the old saying, “Close only counts in horseshoes or dancing…” ? Feel free to add “Viking Football” to that list.
Those of us now pulling out reading glasses to decipher the Senior Menu, still remember those four unfulfilled visits to the Super Bowl. Another generation recalls the “can’t miss” 1998 squad that went 15-1 only to lose in overtime to Atlanta in the NFC title game. Or even more recently, ageless Brett Favre was a play away from beating New Orleans.
These painful memories only begin to scratch the surface of our near misses. So it’s no surprise that this fall’s 4-0 start for the Purple is deserving of that all-too-familiar phrase: Cautious Optimism.
But here’s the good news. Getting excited is perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, this time around. Considering the adversity this year’s team has already endured, it’s remarkable we’re even considering great things.
Three of the most important positions for an offense are quarterback, running back and left tackle. The Vikings have already lost Teddy Bridgewater, Adrian Peterson and Matt Kalil, with only AP owning a slight chance of returning before the season is over. All three were expected to be major contributors.
Toss in a placekicker in Blair Walsh, who can’t seem to complete any game without at least one missed field goal or point after touchdown, and it’s easy to see why scoring would seem to be a big concern.
When Bridgewater went down with a gruesome knee injury just days before the season opener, there was legitimate cause for panic. Backup Shaun Hill, while certainly an experienced veteran, lacked the mobility and durability needed to survive 16 games behind an already shaky offensive line. So when General Manager Rick Spielman worked a deal to acquire Sam Bradford from Philadelphia for a couple of significant draft picks, most thought he’d jeopardized the club’s future.
Instead, it’s become a blessing in disguise. For starters, it sent a message to the team that management believed in them and felt their window for success was now. But the new guy is also proving to be a very good fit.
Bradford saw the handwriting on the wall in Philadelphia, when the Eagles drafted rookie Carson Wentz from North Dakota State. With the Vikings, though, his accuracy and strong arm give Minnesota something they were lacking in Bridgewater. His precision throws were crucial in the win over Green Bay. And he’s also reunited with his old coach, Pat Shurmur, to make for a smoother transition. Most importantly, Bradford hasn’t tried to do too much, avoiding turnovers with the knowledge that he has a stellar defense to back him up.
The loss of Peterson takes away the threat of the big run. But it’s also changed the way opponents defend the Vikings and that might be a good thing. No longer stacking the line of scrimmage and daring the Purple to throw, they now face a more balanced attack that can feature the straight-ahead runs of Matt Asiata, the zig zags of flashy Jerick McKinnon or the quick throws to tight end Kyle Rudolph. Stefon Diggs is becoming an elite down-the-field threat, but Bradford has other targets too, in Adam Thielen and Charles Johnson.
Make no mistake, though. The biggest reason to get excited about this Viking team is a defense capable of shutting down the NFL’s best. On consecutive weekends, they have made top notch QBs Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton and Eli Manning all look pedestrian. Rodgers showed mobility but coughed up a key turnover to cornerback Trey Waynes late in the game. Newton was sacked eight times and threw three interceptions. Manning avoided sacks but accomplished little, often hurrying throws that landed at the feet of his receivers.
Remember that porous, confused bunch of Viking defenders from a few years ago? In just three seasons, Head Coach Mike Zimmer has produced a remarkable turnaround with his knowledge, coaching and ability to make players believe in his system. Pass rushers like Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter are a handful to stop. Big Linval Joseph clogs up the middle. Versatile hybrid linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr offer elite speed and strength. Harrison Smith is an all-pro, hard hitting safety. Xavier Rhodes has become a “shutdown corner” and along with savvy veteran Terence Newman, frustrated Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin and New York’s Odell Beckham Jr. into relative obscurity.
And don’t forget special teams, either. Punter Jeff Locke’s high, booming kicks have been crucial in giving the defense great field position. Marcus Sherels is smart and steady as both a return man and in kick coverage. Even Cordarrelle Patterson appears to be buying in these days, with contributions all over the field after looking lost and immature for his first few seasons.
What makes me most encouraged about the future though, is the WAY this team goes about its business. Disciplined play with few mistakes. Strong, hard-nosed tackling. A sharing of the success, with seemingly different heroes every week, and a checking of egos at the door. Those are the ingredients of winners. Loud, sellout crowds in a brand new stadium don’t hurt, either.
Each time the Vikings have lost a key player to injury, Zimmer has repeatedly said his team would keep fighting and not feel sorry for itself. Sometimes, that’s easier said than done. But so far, they are proving it on the field.
Oh, don’t think those usual doubts haven’t creeped in from time to time, for those of us passionate purple people plagued by past poor performances. “Bradford won’t stay healthy.” “This offensive line still stinks.” “Walsh is gonna cost us a game one of these days.”
Worrying when the other shoe will drop is what we Viking fans do. It’s just that this group is becoming so likable, another near miss might be too much to take.