MANKATO, Minn. – After compiling only three victories last season, fans of the Minnesota Vikings enter the 2012 season with lowered expectations. The team, players and coaches appear to be comfortable in the underdog role, however, as training camp is running smoothly. With very little excitement, commotion or fuss, the team warmly welcomes the change in the atmosphere of this year’s camp.
The notable distinction between seasons past and this season is the absence of drama in Mankato, Minnesota. No Brett Favre. No Donovan McNabb. No expectations for the team (Well, almost none). The players are relaxed, the coaches are busy teaching the abundance of new players and there is almost a tranquil, peaceful nature to this year’s camp.
Whether or not they call it rebuilding, the Vikings are clearly in the midst of revamping their roster. Gone are grizzled veterans Steve Hutchinson, E.J. Henderson and Ryan Longwell, and the youth movement is in full force with a duo of first-round draft choices––left tackle Matt Kalil and safety Harrison Smith––expected to perform immediately along with a handful of other draft picks and free agents expected to restock a talent-depleted roster. In fact, there are so many new players on this team that as I watched practice I had to continually scan the team roster to make sure I knew all of the players.
Regardless of how the rookies perform, the future of the Minnesota Vikings rests on the right arm of Christian Ponder. The second-year quarterback out of Florida State is in the midst of his first full offseason and by all accounts is progressing nicely. If Ponder can stay healthy––which is a significant “if”––the Vikings offense will be able to compete in almost every game. If Ponder goes down, the team turns to the talented, but raw, Joe Webb. Webb, a versatile player, is a ridiculously talented athlete, but still has a long way to go towards becoming an NFL signal caller. In order to predict the success of the 2012 season, look no further than Ponder. His success is the Vikings’ success; his failure is the Vikings’ failure.
A Clear Plan
Prior to this year, the Vikings power structure was complicated and convoluted. With no general manager, final decisions over personnel and roster moves were divided among three people. This offseason, however, Vikings ownership passed control over to Rick Spielman by promoting him from Vice President of Player Personnel to General Manager. For better or worse, this is now Rick Spielman’s team. His work ethic, attention to detail and, most importantly, his good favor with ownership should keep the team in his hands for the foreseeable future.
Another area that appears to have come into focus is the defense. Gone are the days of players receiving mixed messages from head coach Leslie Frazier and defensive coordinator Fred Pagac. Pagac has been demoted and the players will have a more focused plan under new defensive coordinator Alan Williams, who is working more directly with Frazier as the team implements its defensive schemes. For a unit that could not get on the same page all of last season, the singular message and philosophy on defense should lead to improvement. An infusion of young talent should also help.
The enigma that is Percy Harvin will be as fascinating as ever this season. After an unexpected trade request during the offseason, Harvin appears to be happy again. How long he remains at ease is unknown. Harvin’s 2012 base salary is $915,000 and in 2013, $1.55 million. That’s a bargain for the Vikings who will be watching Harvin’s health, production and attitude closely this season. If the talented wideout is able to perform on and off the field, expect the Vikings to extend him next summer. If any problems arise, the Vikings will face a dilemma, but I highly doubt Harvin reports to training camp next year without signing an extension.
Another compelling storyline will be the progression of Everson Griffen. The second year defensive end brims with talent, but the coaching staff is finding it difficult to find playing time for the former USC star. Stuck behind Pro Bowler Jared Allen and the reliable Brian Robison on the depth chart doesn’t leave much room for Griffen at defensive end, but his talent is undeniable. He continually shines during practices and the coaches have suggested a “hockey philosophy” towards rotating defensive linemen in order to get players like Griffen and D’Aundre Reed a chance to see the field. The coaches have even toyed with Griffen at linebacker, but his skills are best utilized on the line. One way or another, Griffen is simply too gifted to sit on the bench.
How do you measure success for the 2012 Minnesota Vikings? Will wins and losses tell the story or will the progress of the quarterback and rookies act as the measure? Following a dismal 3-13 record last season, any improvement would be welcome, but incremental improvement may not save the jobs of the coaching staff at season’s end. General manager Rick Spielman did not hire head coach Leslie Frazier, and anything less than seven or eight wins could result in pink slips for the entire coaching staff. From Frazier’s point of view, a win total doubling last year’s would be a step in the right direction. To turn around a young, rebuilding team that is not expected to compile many victories would be remarkable, but Frazier’s timing in the rebuilding process may set him up for failure. This is Rick Spielman’s team after all, and he may want to bring in his own guy to coach the team. Perhaps success will be difficult to measure for this year’s team, but the fans, coaches and players will welcome anything better than last year.