On New Year’s Day 2012, the Vikings stumbled across the finish line of the most miserable season in franchise history. That day’s home loss to Chicago completed a 3–13 collapse. And with the defeat coming only two days after Adrian Peterson underwent surgery on torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee, nothing but misery surrounded the franchise.
The disorienting freefall left many wondering just how steep the climb back to relevance would be. Yet by this past New Year’s Eve, the Vikings were headed back to the playoffs and Peterson was completing an astounding comeback season — of the MVP variety — rushing for 2,097 yards and carrying his team through a four-game winning streak to close the year. In abbreviated form, that summarizes the underdog conquest of the 2012 Vikings.
So now what? After all that, how will Peterson and the Vikings handle the heightened expectations brought on by their own brilliance?
Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 9th
So long as Peterson is around, the game plan will be run first, run second, throw when necessary. But even with that predictability, opposing defenses have found little to slow the MVP. Look back at the second half of last season, with Percy Harvin lost to a season-ending ankle injury in the ninth game and Christian Ponder lapsing into a funk that saw him throw for just 443 yards with four turnovers in three November games. All Peterson did in his final eight games was average 165 rushing yards per contest and 6.7 yards per carry while scoring nine touchdowns.
He was physical. He was elusive. He was a one-man show in a one-dimensional offense.
But now comes a quest to find balance. And after trading Harvin to Seattle, the team quickly signed Greg Jennings before drafting Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson in the first round to help revive the passing attack. The anticipation is that Jennings’ enthusiasm and professionalism will become a catalyst for both Ponder and Patterson. Ponder needs Jennings to be his new go-to receiver, a crisp route-runner with obvious intelligence whose presence alone should keep defenses from constantly stacking up against Peterson.
Patterson, meanwhile, will rely on Jennings to learn more about being a pro. After only one season of major college football, Patterson is widely considered raw. And even the Vikings aren’t setting grand expectations for Year 1: They don’t need Patterson to emulate his childhood hero, Randy Moss, whose jersey number (84) he’ll wear. Patterson may do his most damage out of the gates as a returner but has the combination of size, speed and athleticism to be a game-breaker once he absorbs some of the nuances of the NFL game. And coordinator Bill Musgrave also understands the need to be imaginative in creating touches for the rookie.
All the playmakers should benefit from the offensive line stability, with the same quintet that started all 16 games in 2012 back together for another year. Left tackle Matt Kalil, who went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie, may be one of the league’s best in pass protection and proved last season he’s underrated as a run-blocker. Center John Sullivan, a 2008 sixth-round pick, continues to improve and is the leader of a unit that may be as smart as it is nasty.
As for Ponder? The Vikings have delivered the same directive he had in 2012, asking him to avoid drive-killing sacks and game-changing interceptions without growing overly conservative. Ponder’s late-season rebound provided positive reinforcement. With a playoff berth on the line in Week 17, Ponder beat Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay, 37–34, throwing three TDs with a career-best 120.2 rating.
In his first year as a coordinator, Alan Williams mixed up the defensive calls and improved the 4-3 attack. But the unit still finished in the middle of the pack in total defense (16th, 350.0 ypg) and points allowed (tied for 14th, 21.8 ppg). And there are big holes to plug with the exits of cornerback Antoine Winfield and middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley.
Heading for training camp, the Vikings were still searching to identify a top candidate at middle linebacker, dabbling with the idea of moving Erin Henderson inside after he started the past two seasons at weak-side linebacker. But despite Henderson’s athleticism and tenacity, there are worries about his habit of wandering out of place with a thirst for making the big play. Strong-side linebacker Chad Greenway might be the most consistent player on defense, a tackling machine who always does what’s asked. The team also signed former Packer in Desmond Bishop, who missed all of last season with a torn hamstring, in June. If he can show he's healthy and effective, Bishop will only deepen the Vikings' linebacking corps.
But the Vikings’ edge still starts up front where their line is both accomplished and aging. Three standout veterans — Jared Allen, 31; Kevin Williams, 33; and Brian Robison, 30 — all are heading into contract years. And it would not be a surprise if this were the last hurrah for both Allen and Williams as Vikings. Allen battled a torn labrum in his shoulder last fall and saw his sack production fall dramatically, from 22 in 2011 to 12 last season. But the internal belief is that he is still a pass-rushing force who commands plenty of attention.
Everson Griffen is an emerging force whose athleticism and versatility were evident in his eight sacks plus a 29-yard interception return touchdown. And there is excitement about the athleticism and burst that rookie tackle Sharrif Floyd will bring.
The secondary remains young but eager with second-year safety Harrison Smith emerging as an always-in-the-right-place playmaker who uses his instincts to excel in pass coverage while also bringing a hard-hitting edge. Pairing rookie Xavier Rhodes opposite Chris Cook at cornerback should give the Vikings a chance to play man-to-man more regularly. Both players are big, physical and quick, prerequisites in a division with Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, Chicago’s Brandon Marshall and all those playmakers in Green Bay.
The new punter will be Jeff Locke, a left-footer out of UCLA who was drafted in the fifth round. The decision to use a Day 3 draft pick on a punter might have been more head-scratching had the Vikings not hit the jackpot a year earlier by selecting kicker Blair Walsh in Round 6. As a rookie, Walsh responded with one of the best seasons by a placekicker in NFL history — 35-of-38 on field goals, 10-of-10 from 50 yards and beyond, 53 touchbacks on 86 kickoffs. Walsh’s leg strength and poise were evident throughout, and his inclusion in the Pro Bowl and on the All-Pro team were well-deserved.
Final Analysis: 2nd in NFC North
The team seems to be on an upward arc. But in an ultra-tough division, a return to the playoffs will require the Vikings to navigate a much tougher schedule while finding contributors to plug holes left by Harvin and Winfield. Peterson’s bid to repeat as MVP will be key. More significant will be Ponder’s ability to take the next step in his growth.
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