The prevailing wisdom around the Twin Cities these days is that the Vikings are in for a mediocre to rough season. The rationale for this position is multi-fold. At the top of the list is the fact that the Vikings are entering the season with a rookie head coach and a cast of coordinators with little to no experience at their position. Just below that concern are the concerns that the Vikings are without a solid running game, a number one wide receiver, a right side to their offensive line, depth at quarterback, a clear-cut middle linebacker, have a potential crisis at safety, have a cornerback trying to recover from a miserable season with no fall-back option, and have no punt or kick returner of record.
Add all that up and one would wonder why there is any reason for hope.
But those who have already tolled the bell of despair have made a classic sports blunder, that of judging a team by its weaknesses rather than by the combination of its strengths, its opponents' weaknesses, and the ability of the coaching staff to pair these components in favor of the team looked upon with despair.
Those jaded by the Tice/McCombs Era and the blunders of the Wilf Era can be forgiven their jaundiced view of the team. But many, if not most of those who believe that the Vikings are in for a mediocre to poor season are the very same people who believed that the Vikings should have made noise in the playoffs the past two seasons. And that's what makes the current sentiment regarding the Vikings' 2006 prospects that much more puzzling.
In 2005, the Vikings were far from a dominant team. They were, instead, like nearly every other team in the NFL, a decent team. The qualification for the Vikings was always that they had to overcome poor decision-making to get the most out of their collective ability. They did not accomplish that feat.
Whether one likes Childress' approach or finds it off-putting, there is little doubt that he already has his team more prepared to respond before the game starts than did his predecessor. The players appear to know where to line up, when to be on the field, when to be off the field, what play is being called from the sideline, and what time it is. That seems like small stuff, but it was the kind of stuff that ruined the Vikings the past two seasons. If Childress can take a team that seemed to pay far too little attention to things that mattered and reverse that trend this season, it should pay dividends in a league that commonly sees spreads less than seven points. The early verdict is that Childress is accomplishing this feat.
Much of the angst over the Vikings' playoff potential this season focuses not only on Childress and the Vikings' shortcomings but on their purportedly tough schedule. While I concede the shortcomings, whether the Vikings have a tough schedule is certainly cause for debate--but only if there is not concensus that they have a very light schedule for most of the season, even in what is already a mediocrity-plagued NFL.
What Childress is able to do is only part of the formula for success, however. Opposing forces are the other.
The prevailing wisdom is that the Vikings would be fortunate to go 2-2 in their first four games and that 0-4 is not an improbable scenario. Both prognoses appear far too grim, however, given the Vikings' schedule.
In week one, the Vikings will face a Washington team that will feature an aging, crippled quarterback in Mark Brunnell. Brunnell might throw out one of his rare great performances, but that's highly unlikely given his recent history and current maladies. There is also the possibility that Washington will be without Clinton Portis in week one and will be forced to start the two-yards -and-a-cloud-of-dust TJ Duckett, a great fantasy quarterback in scoring leagues but an awful every down back. Even with Portis, however, Washington should find the going tough against what should be one of the top five run defenses in the league.
Washington's lone advantage in week one is that they get to host the game in Washington. Even though even mediocre teams usually win their home games, Washington's offense currently is too dreadful to merit consideration as mediocre. That should more than open the door for a Vikings team that might only need to score 12 points to win in Washington.
After Washington, the Vikings return home to play a Carolina Panther team that looked very good last year, but awful on offense so far this pre-season. The Panthers, like Washington, like to win with the run. And barring another Steve Smith field day against Fred Smoot, that should mean a tight game--one that the Vikings can win if they can avoid turnovers. Carolina has a number one back that it refuses to use in favor of two backs that can't stay on the field. Unless Carolina figures this mess out, they will continue to play close games leaving less skilled teams like Minnesota an opening.
Carolina has better skill-position players than do the Vikings on offense and one of the better all-around defenses in the league. But if Minnesota's defense can shut down the pass, this game becomes one of home-field advantage. And that's where attention to the small stuff--the stuff that's been ignored (along with the big stuff) the past few seasons in Minnesota--will determine the victor. We undoubtedly will have a better feel for this game after week one, but at this point, this game looks like a slight edge to Carolina, an edge that could be negated by the home-field advantage.
After Carolina, the Vikings host Chicago. Chicago currently is without a clear-cut starting quarterback and without a clear-cut starting running back. And their options at QB look modest at best. Like Washington and Carolina, Chicago will rely on its defense against Minnesota. That's precisely the type of commitment that Minnesota will most appreciate from its opponents this year. These teams tend to split each year and, in a close game, Minnesota should have the edge at home. A Grossman start at quarterback might make this even less close in favor of Minnesota.
The fourth game of the season is at Buffalo--a team without an identity that nearly lost its coach because he was simply tired of losing and had run out of ideas. Unfortunately for Buffalo, the formula that did not work last season will be in operation again this season. Even on the road, the Vikings will be favored to and should win this game.
What is most noticeable about the Vikings' first four games is that each of their opponents are defensive-minded teams to the extent that they are minded. For a team that will rely on methodical play, that suits the Vikings to a T. Throw in a home game against Detroit and the Vikings very well could be 5-0 or 4-1 heading into the bye week. That will be a deceiving record in the world that plays the likes of the Dallas Cowboys, the NY Giants, and the Cincinnati Bengals, but that's not the Vikings world this year. And that's why the Vikings not only should get off to a good start, but also should enjoy a season more successful than last.
Whether that's enough to satisfy Vikesgeek is another matter.