By Jake Willers
The Minnesota Vikings are as much a part of my family as the construction business my great-grandfather Ed Willers started in his hometown of Lake City, Minnesota. His son (my grandfather) Ken Willers, became a season ticket holder in 1972, and thus, started the tradition of shuttling the entire family up to the Twin Cities in the frigid winters, clad in snowmobile suits to gather with the rest of the state’s patrons at “The Old Met.” It is there that my father, Scott, would bear witness to the “Purple People Eaters” feasting on quarterbacks, as well as the great Fran Tarkenton improbably rambling and scrambling his way from sideline to sideline, leaving defensive lineman in his wake. All the while, Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant stands stoically watching on from the sideline. It’s a tradition that, through much heartache and tribulation, remains intact even as the Vikings prepare to enter their swanky new digs at the soon-to-be completed U.S. Bank Stadium. So as the Vikings prepare to take on one more season outdoors, I find myself reflecting on all that I have seen.
In being apart of this classic Willers’ tailgating, brandy-sipping, pigskin-tossing, long underwear-bearing tradition, I have witnessed some truly incredible moments myself as a fan of the purple and gold. I was there when Randy Moss lateraled to Moe Williams to score right before the end of the half. I saw Adrian Peterson’s first professional touchdown on a swing pass he bobbled, corralled, and then housed for 60 yards. I have even been blessed to witness the Vikings play the Packers twice in the Metrodome AND beat the Pucking Fackers each time (which is rare as of late). Of all the things I have seen in my 23 years of fandom, I now, more than ever, think the best is yet to come.
The Vikings are coming off a confusing, but surprisingly hopeful season. With the losses of Adrian Peterson to suspension and Matt Cassel’s season ending surgery, rookie Teddy Bridgewater took the lead and learned to win without superstars. He threw touchdown passes to players who never saw the top half of the draft. He handed the ball to running backs that went from under a gargantuan shadow, to filling the shoes of a Hall of Fame running back in the matter of one week. On top of that, the Vikings had a young, stout defense eventually find its identity after a year in which they turned out one historically disappointing season. The team, in general, last year was young, confused, and thrown into one of the toughest schedules in the league and yet, they still learned how to win. Thanks to head coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner, the team slid by on great wins, learned that the smallest mistakes can earn even a good team losses, and made undeniable progress.
Now, with kickoff approaching the 2015 season, fans are seeing continued progress. The depth chart goes deep this year with plenty of young players ready to make an Adam Thielen-type impact. The return of Adrian Peterson has not seen its shining moment yet, but he appears to have not missed a beat. Teddy has shown accuracy and consistency in his throws, giving defenses something to think about when trying to stack the box against “All Day.” On the other side of the ball, Zimmer has the talent to mold a top 10 defense (“Barr”ing no injuries). Harrison Smith’s time to shine is this year, and Everson Griffin is hitting his prime after his first 10-sack season. Although the linebacker roster isn’t set, a rotation between all four of them could keep this defense fresh when attacking the edge and blitzing. While certain areas of this young team are thriving, there are still question marks.
Kicker Blair Walsh is the surprise of the preseason. He can’t blame the wind in TCF Bank when kicking in perfect conditions in Dallas. He has been given the time and money to adjust his game, and it’s only gotten worse. Matt Kalil practically runs the doghouse after a largely disappointing season. Getting run over every play and having no explanation for his struggles puts him in a make or break season. Kalil has taken necessary action this offseason, putting on 20 lbs. of bulk, in hopes that we don’t have to see him get squashed practically every pass play. However, he still has to be quick enough to keep the pocket from collapsing against ferocious pass-rushers Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, and the havoc Detroit’s defensive line creates through their stunts (all things he struggled with in 2014).
The last and most irritating member of Coach Zim’s doghouse is young pup, Cordarelle Patterson. If this were a real doghouse, Patterson would be the ever ecstatic and charismatic puppy, running fast and seemingly without end, but lacking the discipline to figure out how to fetch. Patterson, who dubs himself “Flash,” MUST learn his routes. There is no shortage of speed on this offense (i.e. Jerrick ‘Jet’ McKinnon, rookie Stefan Diggs, Charles Johnson, and newly-acquired Mike Wallace). Hell… even Isaac Fruechte of Caledonia, Minnesota can run a 4.50 40-yard dash. Sure, that’s a tad slower than “Flash,” but if Fruechte can actually run where the ball will be, then why start and re-sign a guy who can’t?
So what do the Vikings need to move forward? All strenuous details aside, I believe it comes down to one simple notion; sweep the Bears and the Lions. Lousy divisional records are not due to the dominance of Green Bay alone. The Vikings have struggled to beat the two teams at their level. Detroit succeeded last year in taking care of business against the Vikings and Bears, putting themselves in prime position to take a home-field spot for the playoffs. I absolutely believe we can sweep the Bears. Chicago is going through a rebuild, and the competition they will face (their strength of schedule is 13th strongest in the league) will not help their cause at all. The Lions, however, are a different story. Detroit’s strengths match up extremely well to Minnesota’s weaknesses. The Vikings’ weak and injured offensive line against the high-powered Lions defensive line is a HUGE mismatch. Minnesota’s outside linebackers will also struggle against fast, versatile running backs (Ameer Abdullah). The Vikings would have to play nearly perfect to take two wins from Detroit.
On top of those four games, they still have another seven games outdoors. These games include three against the two teams in last year’s NFC Championship Game (Packers and Seattle), and two against potential playoff contenders (Chargers and Chiefs). Most of these are home games, where Minnesota has excelled, but I feel many of these games will come down to the final whistle. We won’t have time for missed field goals by Walsh, blown assignments by the blind side protector, and the many ‘Welcome to the NFL” mistakes young players made in the final seconds of last year’s contests.
This team needs 3 and outs and a “2 minute Teddy” offense. It’s not to say these mistakes can’t/will never happen, but I think this team owes it to the greats of Vikings past to lock down a winning season and take a serious shot at the postseason on our own frozen tundra.
Oh…. And can the Vikings PLEASE beat the Packers? Just ONCE!?