Many people thought the Minnesota Vikings were in for a tough 2011 season long before it kicked off in September against San Diego. But not quite so many saw the bottom completely falling out from underneath a team that was seconds away from going to the Super Bowl just two years ago.
The challenges get bigger in 2012, as well, with Adrian Peterson recuperating from an ACL tear and gaping holes on the offensive line and in the secondary. Dan Zinski, lead writer at TheVikingAge.com, took some time to share his insights on what went wrong in 2011 and where the team should go from here.
Zoneblitz: I think most people went into the season expecting the Vikings to have their issues in 2011, but I don’t know that many saw 3-13 coming. What made this whole thing fall apart?
Dan Zinski: At best this was a 6-10 team going into the season. What could’ve given them three more wins? Finishing off a couple of those games early when they had leads. Those losses were on the offense which never got on-track under Donovan McNabb. Stories have now come out about McNabb’s poor preparation and I think that circumstance severely limited what the team was able to do. They wanted to throw more but just could never get that part of their game going. The running game and defense were good enough to keep them competitive and they were able to ambush a few slow-starting teams early but the pop-gun aerial game finally sank them.
After Christian Ponder came in, things seemed to get a little better, then teams started blitzing Ponder and he took a few steps back. Basically it was the whole mess at quarterback, compounded by weak pass blocking and lack of receiving weapons that caused a poor team to become a wretched team. The slow disintegration of the secondary just added to the disaster.
Zoneblitz: The Vikings are going to be in a position to address one of their main issues early on. Do you expect to see a cornerback, a wide receiver, an offensive lineman or a trade with the number three pick and why?
Zinski: There’s a pretty loud drum beat for Justin Blackmon right now but I think with the free agent options out there – Vincent Jackson and Dwayne Bowe primarily – it makes more sense for them to address the receiver problem that way. I think they’ll aggressively pursue one of those two guys.
If Matt Kalil is there I think they’ll look hard at taking him. Adding a blue chip left tackle and switching Charlie Johnson to one of the guard spots fills two holes with one move. But if Kalil is not there I think it’s between drafting Morris Claiborne and trading the pick. I think they’ll try to trade it, maybe to a team like Washington that wants to move ahead of Cleveland and draft Griffin. And if they can’t make the trade they’ll take Claiborne. If they trade down with the Redskins they might still have a chance at Riley Reiff. Getting a good tackle plus extra picks would be a fine way for Rick Spielman to work the top of the draft.
Zoneblitz: What other areas do you see the team addressing at the draft, in free agency and throughout the offseason?
Zinski: They’ll go after a receiver in free agency, I believe. I also think they’ll work hard on picking up a safety. Cornerback is another area of severe need with Cedric Griffin likely being cut. Things are made complicated by Chris Cook’s legal situation. They used up a roster spot on Cook for much of the season just to avoid cutting him. You don’t throw away a valuable roster spot on a guy unless you’re trying to keep him, so obviously they’re hoping his issues get resolved.
I also think defensive tackle is a spot they need to look hard at. Kevin Williams is aging and the guys they tried plugging into the nose tackle spot didn’t really produce much this year. Also middle linebacker with E.J. Henderson probably departing. When all is said and done they need to come out of this off-season with at least two new starting offensive linemen, a #1-type receiver, one new safety, one new cornerback, one new linebacker and a defensive tackle. Other than that, they’re fine.
Zoneblitz: How does Adrian Peterson’s injury affect how the team has to approach the offseason?
Zinski: I don’t think it affects them much. Toby Gerhart showed that he can carry the load at running back. Of course he’s hurt too but I don’t think his injury is as severe. Gerhart should be ready to go once the season starts and he can get the job done until Peterson comes back. They’ll probably draft a running back at some point just to cover themselves depth-wise. If they had any smarts they’d see Peterson’s injury as an excuse to remake the team around a pass-first philosophy but that won’t happen. As long as Bill Musgrave is offensive coordinator, it will be a run-first team, even with a diminished Peterson at running back.
Zoneblitz: What are your thoughts on Christian Ponder’s rookie season? Is he the quarterback of the future?
Zinski: I’m still undecided about Ponder. If there’s one thing I like about him it’s his ability to throw on the run. That could be a big asset. The problem with him is going to be durability. He got banged up pretty bad this year and people are starting to wonder if he can take the pounding. As far as his ability to command the offense, we’re still in wait-and-see mode about that. He has a lot of confidence and his arm is good enough but he still struggles with his reads and sometimes he gets in gunslinger mode and makes terrible decisions.
A full normal off-season, which he didn’t have last year with the lock-out, will help him get better command of the playbook and hopefully he’ll calm down and make better choices. I think he still can be a good quarterback but it’s going to take more time and better weapons around him.
Zoneblitz: What do you think of Rick Spielman’s promotion to the general manager position?
Zinski: I’m indifferent to it. I think they needed to create a GM post but the real move was to bring someone in from the outside who would provide a fresh perspective. Giving Spielman that spot is just shuffling titles around. Almost the first words out of Spielman’s mouth were, “Leslie Frazier has control over his own staff.” So he’s a GM who can’t hire and fire coaches. He’s basically just a personnel guy with a different title. It feels like a move to placate the fans and media members who were screaming for the team to hire a GM. I can’t see that anything’s really changed.
Zoneblitz: Does Leslie Frazier deserve to return for another season?
Zinski: I’ve felt all along that Frazier deserved another season to prove himself. He really didn’t get a fair shake his first year with the lock-out and the salary cap issues and everything else. The last regime left a lot of personnel holes and expecting those to get filled in one year was unrealistic.
That’s not to say Frazier doesn’t deserve some blame for the bad season. The Donovan McNabb decision was on him. So was the handling of the Bernard Berrian debacle. But whatever plan Frazier and Bill Musgrave had going into the season, they never really got a chance to fully implement it. Giving them one more year with a whole regular off-season and some upgraded personnel is the right move. Otherwise you’re back to square one yet again.
Zoneblitz: A couple players indicated in radio interviews that they think had a few breaks gone their way that the Vikings could have been 9-7 or even 11-5 this season. That seems like a stretch to me, but how far do you think the Vikings are from returning to competitiveness?
Zinski: Those guys are delusional if they really believe that. They’re focusing on the close losses but are ignoring the way the losses came about. Those were total collapses. If you take the three real blow-out losses and the second half meltdowns together…well, you get a portrait of the kind of team the Vikings were. Severely under-manned. I think they’re at least two years away from being serious contenders.
Maybe they can make a little noise next year if Christian Ponder dramatically improves and a couple of their draft picks work out unexpectedly well. But those are big ifs. Realistically, it will be 2013 before the Vikings return to relevance. And that’s being slightly optimistic. If things don’t work out with Ponder it could be longer because then you’re starting out with a new QB again. Not to be too pessimistic but I think a Lions-like run of ineptitude could be in the offing for this organization. They just feel Mickey Mouse to me right now. I hope I’m wrong.
Zoneblitz: With the team’s Metrodome lease expired, do you have any kind of insight for where negotiations are on a deal for a new stadium?
Zinski: Everything we keep hearing is that a deal is coming soon. I think Zygi Wilf has finally seen the light and realized that there’s not enough legislative support for the big suburban mega-stadium he wanted to build. That was the hold-up. Zygi wanted the Arden Hills site with the parking and the whole development around it and the state just didn’t want to cough up enough money. Now it’s looking like the new place will be in downtown Minneapolis. With that stumbling block out of the way, I think things will come together quickly.
One thing I do know: the team was never leaving Minnesota. Nobody wanted that, including the NFL. All the worry over the L.A. move was just media crap and the team trying to get leverage.
Zoneblitz: What is your background and what is the history of Viking Age?
Zinski: I come from Wisconsin and I’m a Viking fan. That’s all you need to know. I’m weird. The Viking Age was one of the original four (or five, I forget) blogs started by the Fansided network back in 2007. I was the first editor and outside of a little hiatus earlier this year I’ve been the editor/main writer all along. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing. Either way, it’s been a lot of fun nurturing the blog from a tiny little operation with no readers to the somewhat-well-read site it is today. Blogging about the Vikings is a trip because there’s always some kind of crazy drama. How many teams can say their stadium caved in?
Zoneblitz: Is there anything else you would like to add about the Vikings and the upcoming offseason?
Zinski: Only this: I really hope Rick Spielman and Leslie Frazier know what they’re doing because this team needs a ton of work. I have a bad feeling 2012 is going to be another tough year and we could be looking at a total rebuild after that. But I hope I’m wrong. I hope they can cobble together enough pieces to at least be somewhat competitive in 2012 and have enough of a foundation in place to be able to make a run at the playoffs in 2013. Cause this losing stuff…not fun.