Sunday, October 24, 2004

Shutting Down and Moving On

When last we met, the Vikings were basking in the glow of their second consecutive road victory and their fourth victory in five games. The atmosphere surrounding the team was optimistic, but guarded.

Optimism sprouts from a league leading offense that amasses TDs the way some teams accumulate holding penalties. Optimism springs from amassing offensive totals that rival the Vikings' 1998 record-setting offensive performance, despite the absence of one of their key offensive weapons for the better part of a road game. And optimism leaps from the success that the Vikings have had on the road this season, after miserable failures against woeful road opponents in past seasons.

But optimism is tempered in Minnesota. This guarded optimism is the result of distant past and recent darkness. The distant past includes failures against the Chiefs in a Super Bowl in which the Vikings were heavy favorites, misery in three other Super Bowl games that the Vikings had a right to be in but played as if their appearance was merely an afterthought. And the distant past includes that game against Dallas, when the refs screwed the home team.

The recent darkness includes losing to an overmatched, underskilled, overachieving Atlanta team, at home, in the NFC Championship game, despite being one of the heaviest favorites in NFL history, a darkness tempered only by the realization of most true Vikings' fans that, but for the loss to the Falcons, the Vikings would have lost their fifth Super Bowl, despite the near certainty that the Vikings would have entered the game as favorites.

The most recent darkness includes all that is last season, from the 6-0 set-up to the abysmal finish. Last season saw the Vikings become the first team to begin the season 6-0 and miss the playoffs, an ignominious feat made possible by late season losses to the NFL's 2003 bottom feeders. The most painful of these losses, of course, was the loss to the Cardinals, in an Arizona stadium filled with Vikings' fans, on the last play of the season, on 4th and forever.

And what the dark days have meant for Vikings' fans is that it is never too soon to lament the inevitable. It is never too soon to wonder what will go wrong or to point to the team's achille's heal--the weakness that inevitably will undo the league's otherwise best team.

And, through last week's victory--in spite of the victory itself--we were bracing ourselves for the inevitable once again. This time, it was posited, we would be done in not by lack of passion, poor officiating, bad luck, or revelation that we were merely masquerading as contenders (circa 2000), but by lack of a defense, any defense. For in 2004, the Vikings were once again attempting to pull a 1998, but without a marquee defensive lineman. And we knew better.

We knew that the Vikings could not stop anyone. Not the Cowboys. Not the Eagles. Not the Texans. Not the Saints. Not even the Bears! The defense wasn't a fraud, we said, for that would be an insult to true frauds!

But then last week became this week. The Vikings played a team that has had a rough season but has still managed to score some points. But the Vikings stoned them--cold. And what was a porous defense shut down a quality running game, a running game that Tennessee Titans' Coach Jeff Fisher earlier in the week had opined would be able to run wild against the Vikings' defense. But it did not. And the passing game was worse for the Titans.

Some of the Titans' woes could be attributable to Steve McNair's first-half injury, but not all or even most. Before McNair hobbled off the Metrodome floor, he was 2 of 6 for 7 yards. He may have doubled those totals had he stayed.

No, the Titans did not flail about on offense primarily as a consequence of McNair's injury, they flailed primarily because the Vikings' recent commitment to being agressive--pressuring the QB, stepping up on plays, actually using the safeties on running and passing plays, and simply playing with more tenacity--is beginning to pay dividends. For part of last week and most of this week, the Vikings appear to have an NFL-caliber defense. Raonall Smith played a great game, Chris Hovan made several noticeable contributions, and the Vikings' secondary was up on the ball the entire game. And, for the first time in decade, it was actually more enjoyable to watch the Vikings' defense than it was to watch their offense. And the offense was not too shabby.

All of which confirms what some long-suffering Vikings' fans have long-suspected--it's the system. Teams that sit back, as the Vikings have done since approximately 1996, give ground. Teams that attack, as the Vikings did this Sunday, usually succeed enough to keep the other team honest. And sometimes more.

Of course, it could just be a one-game blip, but a one-game blip is more promising than anything else we have seen from the Vikings' defense in recent years. And, if the offense stays true to form, if it is not a blip, the Vikings truly could be moving on to much bigger things such as......

Well, no need to jinx us.

Up Next: Where we stand.

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