Iím usually a stadiumís half full kind of guy when I look forward to a brand new Vikings season. This year? Not so much. Minnesota is coming off an unlikely 10-6 season that culminated in a wild card playoff berth. Adrian Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards, and his entire offensive line is intact. He is predicting 2,500 yards for the 2013 campaign, and after watching him prowling the sidelines like a starved lion during the pre-season, I wouldnít bet against him. Minnesota General Manager Rick Spielman orchestrated one of the most successful drafts in recent memory, transforming three first-round picks into a game-breaking wide receiver and two blue chip defenders. I should be firing up the purple bus and leaping on the bandwagon. Why do I feel that the wheels are about to come off?
Admittedly, itís very difficult to sift through the tea leaves and predict how the 2013 Vikings will perform in the regular season. Thatís because Leslie Frazier played his cards so close to the vest during the pre-season that they must be tattooed to his chest. Christian Ponder was limited to 73 snaps over the four games. He looked terrible, although to be fair he was victimized by poor offensive line protection and interceptions that werenít completely his fault. He never was able to develop any chemistry with former Packers star receiver Greg Jennings, and looked extremely nervous in the pocket. Adrian Peterson was only in for two plays during the pre-season and never touched the ball. The defense was firmly locked in vanilla mode, with no blitzes or exotic coverage packages.
After a 1-3 pre-season, the company line is that the team looked great in practice, and that they didnít want to show the league all of their secrets.
In reality, the real secret is that the league already knows the Vikings are a team that canít react to a stacked defensive line, doesnít protect the quarterback, and has difficulty rushing the passer at crunch time. The league also knows that Minnesota has a painfully conservative head coach who is desperately trying to play not to lose.
Leslie Frazier would be a great guy to babysit your kids or date your sister. He is even tempered, bright, and polite. He treats everyone with respect. He is the constant calm in the eye of the storm. He looks both ways before crossing the street, and encourages you to do the same. These are great qualities for a minister or high school guidance counselor, but donít necessarily describe a successful NFL coach.
Frazier was miffed after the pre-season game against Buffalo because the Bills started blitzing when they ran out of the tunnel and kept it up for the entire game. The Vikings werenít prepared. They couldnít adjust. It wasnít fair! The Vikings have been woefully inept at picking up blitzes for Frazierís entire tenure as coach. Donít you think it might be a good idea to work on it during training camp?
Then, in the pre-season finale against the Titans, Frazier made a deal with the Tennessee coach where they promised to keep the game moving and not try anything crazy, like safety blitzes or read options. Guess what? We won. Maybe Leslie should try getting all the coaches during the season to take it easy and keep things safe and predictable. If heís really persuasive maybe he will convince everyone to take a page from little kidís soccer games and not keep score. That way everyone will feel good about themselves and nobody will lose their jobs.
Hereís the good news. Minnesota didnít pick up Frazierís option and this is the last year of his contract. This is Rick Spielmanís team, and the Vikingsí General Manager not only hates to lose, he has a quality that the Vikings have always been short off...luck. He took a lot of heat for trading Percy Harvin and cutting Antoine Winfield and Chris Kluwe. Harvin is out for the season with an injury, Winfield just retired from football, and Kluwe was released by the Raiders. If Spielman had yielded to pressure and signed Harvin to a contract extension, Percy wouldnít have been able to play for Minnesota this season, and the team would have had only one first round draft pick, which they would have used on highly touted tackle Sharrif Floyd. Instead Spielman traded for Greg Jennings, still nabbed Floyd, and used the other two first round picks for promising cornerback Xavier Rhodes and the freakishly talented wide receiver/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson. They say itís better to be lucky than good. I disagree. Itís better to be lucky...and good.
If Spielman loses at games of checkers or tiddlywinks with his kids, it keeps him up at night. He has provided Leslie Frazier with a deep, young, extremely talented team that features the best running back on the planet. Itís safe to assume that Frazier is going to be kept on a very short leash.
If the Vikings underachieve in their first few games, expect drastic action.
The Vikings take on the Motor City Kitties in Detroit for the season opener. The Lions have a ferocious defense, and an offense that features the leagueís best receiver in Calvin Johnson, and Reggie Bush at running back. Look for Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford to pass the ball early and often, and use Bush for quick openers and screen passes. The Vikings fortunes will depend on how the teamís young secondary performs, if Ponder can stay cool under pressure, and whether the Lions can slow down Adrian Peterson. My prediction? Since Minnesota always beats the Lions at Detroit, a Blair Walsh field goal will be the difference in a 24-21 Vikings victory. If Christian Ponder improves and Adrian Peterson stays healthy, the team should finish the season with a 9-7 record.