A few things became obvious to me as I pored over rosters and stat sheets trying to devise my All-Decade team for the Vikings:
1. I was not going to find a worthy second wide receiver to put behind good old Straight-Cash Randy.
2. We have really sucked at right tackle for a long time.
3. The defensive players we’ve fielded over the past few years are vastly better than most of the crud we ran out there during the Dennis Green/Mike Tice era. Greg Biekert anyone? Sam Cowart? Darrion Scott?
4. I miss Raonall Smith. Just because of his name.
5. The less I thought about my picks, the better off I was going to be.
So, here are the fruits of my somewhat less-than-intensive labors:
The Minnesota Vikings All-Decade Team
Quarterback: Daunte Culpepper
Almost the easiest pick on the list. He led us to our only conference title game appearance of the decade. He put up MVP-level numbers in 2004. He was, for a stretch of time, arguably the best QB in the NFL not named Peyton Manning. Before Michael Vick made his whole QB reputation on one playoff win in Lambeau, Daunte made a lot of his on a playoff win in Lambeau. And had it not been for his catastrophic knee injury, he might still be our quarterback. Few guys have come into the league with more physical gifts than Culpepper, and thankfully, we got to see those gifts displayed, if only for a short time. And in the annals of great all-time QB/receiver combos, there is a spot for Culpepper-to-Moss.
Back-Up QB: Brad Johnson
By “back-up” I don’t mean “second best quarterback” - although he arguably is that anyway – I mean “best back-up quarterback”; the one QB of the decade I would most like to see warming up on the sideline if my starter went down. Remember, he saved a season for us, winning six straight after Daunte blew out his knee and everyone thought we were screwed. Sadly, Brad’s arm clearly went on him during the 2006 season, and things ended on a somewhat sour note. But, he still deserves a salute.
Running Back: Adrian Peterson
His recent struggles notwithstanding, AD is without a doubt the most talented, impactful, hype-worthy ball carrier the Vikings have had, possibly ever. Three seasons of punishing, pounding, torching, blasting and breaking free are enough to render tiny the legacies of Michael Bennett, Onterrio Smith, Mewelde Moore and the rest of those adequate dudes we stuck back there across the decade. And imagine what Adrian could do with good run blocking! The mind boggles.
Fullback/H-Back/Tight End: Jim Kleinsasser
To the true Viking fan, no single player elicits more warm, fuzzy, sentimental feeling than Jim Kleinsasser. He’s the only man presently on our roster who was also on our roster in 2000, and who doesn’t love a guy who sticks around through thick and thin?. He’s played multiple positions over the years, starting as a fullback, moving to h-back, and gradually working his way out to tight end, remaining adorably adequate all the while. No, he’s never been all that reliable a receiver, but that was never his job. He is, was, and always will be a blocker. He was the unsung hero on many a top-flight offense, and he remains the very definition of a lunchpail football dude.
3rd Down Back: Moe Williams
I have included Moe Williams as the 3rd down back, but really, I could’ve just called him “offensive utility man.” He caught balls out of the backfield (65 receptions for 644 yards in 2003). He started some games at running back. He returned kicks. In 2002 he was our drive finisher, scoring 11 rushing touchdowns. Unfortunately, many will remember him as one of the guys who got caught up in the Love Boat scandal, but I prefer to recall him as a vital, if somewhat underappreciated, cog in the Vikings offensive machines of the early 00s.
Wide Receiver: Randy Moss
How profound is Viking Nation’s attachment to Randy Moss? We’ve got a better receiving corps this year than we’ve had in a decade, and people still want to hatch crazy scenarios that get Moss out of New England and back in purple for next season. Of course, the rational among us choose to simply remember Moss as he was, a one-man offensive fireworks show; a guy who, almost single-handedly, made some pretty pitiful Vikings teams worth watching. And, when we finally got back into the playoffs, he provided one of the most memorable moments of the decade: the fake-moon. And how can we ever forget “I play when I want to play?” For pure entertainment value, nobody topped Moss. Including Favre.
Wide Receiver: (tie) Bobby Wade/Travis Taylor/Marcus Robinson/Nate Burleson
Until Sidney Rice, Burleson was the only Viking not named Randy Moss or Cris Carter to eke out a 1,000-yard receiving season this decade. Travis Taylor actually led the team in receiving yards two straight years, which says all you need to know about how awful the offense was during that whole Mike Tice-into-Brad Childress era. Marcus Robinson was the closest thing we had to a redzone threat for awhile…until his skills and abilities diminished. Bobby Wade was serviceable until Percy Harvin rendered him expendable. There’s no one guy who deserves this spot, so we’ll just rotate those four.
Tight End: Jermaine Wiggins
Well, pass-catching tight end…Kleinsasser wins for blocking tight end. Over a three-year span, Wiggins averaged 62 catches and 553 yards. Then he got too fat and slow to play anymore. Visanthe Shiancoe is more physically gifted and useful in the redzone, but, he’s kinda got the dropsies again.
Left Tackle: Bryant McKinnie
Our relationship with Mount McKinnie continues to be a love/hate deal. He has, at times, been a near-dominating run blocker. He has never been more than an adequate pass blocker, and sometimes – like, this Sunday against Carolina – he has been an atrocious one. He got caught up in Love Boat, and has had some other legal issues, like when he beat that bouncer up in Miami. Frankly, I’ll be kind of relieved when he’s gone. But, he’s been our starting left tackle most of the decade, so, he’s the guy. No extra points for dating Venus Williams or tweeting.
Left Guard: Steve Hutchinson
Before Jared Allen, Brett Favre, Bernard Berrian and the rest of the big acquisitions, Zygi Wilf‘s regime poison-pilled Steve Hutchinson out of Seattle, gave him a whole big freaking pile of money and resoundingly announced that the cheapskate ways of Red McCombs were history. Hutchinson has lived up to the contract, becoming the bedrock foundation of the offensive line. True, that line seems to have fallen apart this year, but most of us don’t blame Hutch, who remains the epitome of consistency and professionalism. And he has a great beard.
Center: Matt Birk
The easiest pick of all. He was named All-Pro twice in the decade (2000 and 2003), and made the Pro Bowl 6 times. He was a locker room leader. Reportedly, he was the only guy on the team with the nerve to get in Randy Moss’ face after that infamous incident where Moss walked off the field before the end of a game. He was one of the best pulling centers of all-time. And – memo to Zygi Wilf and Co. – he never should’ve been let go. It’s not a coincidence that, the year after he left, the offensive line went from pretty good to pretty inconsistent. And have I mentioned that he’s the only NFL player I’ve ever interviewed? Oh, I have?
Right Guard: David Dixon
Big Dave Dixon was the very picture of a workmanlike football player: never great, but always good. Every offensive line needs a guy like this, a guy so reliable you forget he’s even there. Anthony Herrera is probably his equal, but, Dixon did it for longer. Plus he’s from New Zealand, which makes him cool.
Right Tackle: Korey Stringer
How, you might ask, can a guy who only played one year out of the decade be the best at his position for the whole 10 years? Uh…have you looked at the guys who’ve played right tackle for the Vikings since 2000? Ryan Cook – no. Mike Rosenthal – nuh-uh. Phil Loadholt – maybe he’ll be the on the All-Decade team for the ’10s, but, nope. Chris Liewinski? Adam Goldberg? Marcus Freaking Johnson? Yeah, now you see why I picked Stringer. Had it not been for his tragic death from heat stroke during training camp in 2001, there would’ve been no doubt about this pick. He made his first Pro Bowl in 2000, and would’ve made many more. In this case, pure ability – and, yes, sentiment – trumps actual on-field contribution.
Punter: Chris Kluwe
He’s a guitar hero…what more do you need to know? Oh, and he stabilized a position that had been a revolving door for the Vikings for several years (Eddie Johnson anyone?). No, he’s never been an elite punter, but no one can deny he’s been pretty solid. Outside of those few times he failed to kick away from Devin Hester despite Childress’s express orders.
Kicker: Ryan Longwell
Longwell is as automatic as they come (the Carolina game notwithstanding). And, again, look at some of the other guys who’ve filled that position for the Vikes this decade. Paul Edinger…okay, he had a couple of dramatic kicks, but, no. Aaron Elling? Even remember him? Gary Anderson…who, despite Cris Carter‘s guarantee, could in fact kick it that far. Yeah, it’s Longwell. Hopefully, he’ll get a chance to prove his clutchness in the playoffs.
Returns: Mewelde Moore
A guy everyone always thought should’ve been more than he was. There was no doubt he had great moves, but, he had physical issues, and there were times when his effort seemed lacking (Mike Tice could tell by his body language when he didn’t want to be in the game…according to Mike Tice). His contribution as a return man wasn’t great, but, it was significant enough to nudge him ahead of guys like Bobby Wade and Onterrio Smith. Who can forget the punt return TD he had in that nutty Giants game when Darren Sharper picked off Eli Manning about 15 times and Koren Robinson also ran back a kick-off?
Defensive End: Jared Allen
The Vikings went a long time without a legit every-down player at right defensive end (Lance Johnstone was a good pass rusher but he was basically only a pass rusher). And then they made the huge, risky trade for Jared Allen, and plugged that hole tight. In 30 games as a Viking, Allen has 28 sacks, but the sacks don’t even tell the whole story. Allen creates havoc like no Viking D-lineman since John Randle in his prime, and he makes plays against the run. And, perhaps most importantly, he gave the defense an infusion of attitude. It’s too bad he gets double-teamed on every play now. It’s no fun watching him get erased.
Defensive End: Kenechi Udeze
Well, I needed two defensive ends, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to go with Ray Edwards or Darrion Scott or someone like that. So, the pick is Kenechi Udeze, who is unfortunately probably best-remembered as the guy who laid a sack goose-egg for a whole season. But he was pretty good against the run, and it was sad the way his career ended. Did I mention that the Vikes haven’t had a lot of good defensive ends this decade?
Defensive Tackle: Kevin Williams
Earlier I said Matt Birk was the easiest pick; what I meant was, he was tied for the easiest pick with Kevin Williams. For the better part of 10 years, Williams has been elite at his position. For several years, the Vikings had the most impenetrable run defense in the NFL, and K-Will was a huge reason why. And he rushes the passer. And he tips more balls at the line than any tackle I’ve ever seen. Before Jared Allen, he was the identity of the defense.
Defensive Tackle: Pat Williams
There are few sights more impressive on a football field than that of Pat Williams engulfing a ball carrier. When the Vikings added him as a free agent, he immediately teamed with Kevin Williams to create the most fearsome middle-clogging duo in all the NFL. And he’s funny to listen to talk, cause, you know, no one can understand what the hell he’s saying.
Linebacker: E.J. Henderson
He began as a project, then developed into a top-flight middle linebacker…and then, sadly, his career was derailed by injury. It looks like E.J. will wind up as one of those “what could’ve been” stories, but, there’s enough there on the resume, including a borderline Pro Bowl season in 2007, to raise him above the mediocrities who held down the mike spot before he came along (Greg Biekert, Napoleon Harris…I don’t need to go on).
Linebacker: Chad Greenway
He missed his entire rookie year after getting hurt in a preseason game, but since his return to the line up in his second year, he has been nothing but solid. In fact, for the past two years, what with E.J. Henderson’s injury troubles and spotty performance, he has been the Vikings’ best linebacker. And, again, there ain’t a whole lot of competition. Sorry Henri Crockett fans.
Linebacker: Ben Leber
You may have noticed that my three picks for linebacker are all from the last couple of years. There’s a reason for that. It’s because the Vikings defense sucked balls from 2000 until about 2006. The three guys who started the 2009 season at linebacker all represent the cream of the crop at their positions for the decade, and as a unit, they have been clearly the most accomplished (E.J. Henderson’s injury problems notwithstanding). Ben Leber is probably not the most talented guy the Vikes have had at linebacker during the decade, but he’s a smart player, a sure tackler (usually) and he even makes a play in coverage about once a month.
Cornerback: Antoine Winfield
Here’s a good question: What was the best free agent signing of the decade for the Vikings? Pat Williams is up there, and so is Steve Hutchinson, but my answer is Antoine Winfield. Since joining the team in 2004 – has it really been that long? – Antoine has done nothing but make plays. He is widely regarded as one of the best pound-for-pound tacklers in the game, and his coverage skills are above-average. He came to the Vikings as a really good, probably underrated player, and now he is simply one of the most respected defensive stars in the entire league.
Cornerback: Brian Williams
A case can be made for Cedric Griffin here, which is kind of sad, when you think about it. I’ll go with Brian Williams though because, well, he had 12 interceptions in 4 years. And, frankly, there isn’t anyone else. Unless you’re a big Ken Irvin or Eric Kelly fan. I’m not even going to talk about Fred Smoot.
Safety: Darren Sharper
He never really fit the Brad Childress philosophy, and frankly, by the end of his Vikings tenure, he had become a whining little jerk-off. But he had some huge games for us, and now and then he even came up and put a decent stick on someone. Much as he seemed to have regressed by the end of last season, I wouldn’t mind still having him. But that’s only because I’m sick of Tyrell Johnson.
Safety: Corey Chavous
In 2003, safeties Chavous and Brian Russell combined for 17 picks. Granted, it was a fluke (the same two players picked off only 2 passes the next year), but it was a lot of fun. I miss that ball-hawking style of defense. The cover-2 might be effective, sometimes, but it’s boring as crap. And another cool thing about Chavous, besides his ability to sometimes successfully complete an interception: he is a draft wonk. He has appeared on ESPN’s NFL Draft coverage, breaking down players like nobody’s business. And he has his own draft site, DraftNasty.com. None of that qualifies him for the All-Decade team, I realize, but I just thought I’d throw it in there. I always liked him as a player.
Head Coach: Brad Childress
A default selection, based on the fact that Childress has led the team to two straight playoff appearances, a distinction Mike Tice can’t match (Dennis Green is an afterthought in his category, though he did coach the team to its only NFC title game appearance of the decade). Obviously, the story of Chilly’s Vikings tenure is yet to be fully written. If, somehow, we are able to work out our troubles and win the Super Bowl, Childress is immediately elevated to the #2 position in team history, behind Bud Grant and ahead of Green. If, however, the meltdown continues, the Vikes get dumped early from the playoffs, Favre leaves and 2010 begins with Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback…I don’t even want to think about that. Let’s just focus on what Chilly has accomplished: He got the team back to respectability after that hideous disaster in 2006. He oversaw some pretty solid drafts and took part in some massively successful personnel moves. He hired good coordinators like Mike Tomlin and Leslie Frasier. He introduced “triangle of authority” and “kick-ass offense” to the lexicon, and brought about a revolution in NFL coaching fashion, first by wearing a spiky wig in camp, then by dressing in drag on a team flight. His press conferences, though not exactly entertaining or particularly informative, are always interesting, in the same way the ramblings of a street-corner lunatic can be. He doesn’t seem self-conscious about that dorky ear-piece he wears. On the negative side: He hitched his wagon to Tarvaris Jackson even though Tarvaris Jackson sucks. He can’t manage the clock for crap. He obsesses over little goofy stuff like obscure kick-off rules. Everyone wishes he’d gotten fired and Tomlin promoted to head coach. His damn stubbornness about audibles is liable to ruin what was turning into a historic season. I could go on and on, but, this isn’t the time or place. Suffice it to say that, at the tail end of a rather tumultuous, frustrating decade, Childress at least righted the ship.