The general consensus after the first preseason game is that the Vikings‘ offensive line looks about as stout as a group of fourth graders attempting to protect their school from a 50-ft tsunami by standing in front of it with their arms interlocked. Yes it was that brutal at times. I don’t want to suggest Steve Hutchinson looked washed-up on that one 3rd-and-short play, but the only other time I remember a grown man going backward that fast it was because he got too close to a jet engine.
I don’t mean to pick on Steve though; he certainly wasn’t alone. Pretty much everyone the Vikings pay to block stunk it up on Saturday night. Some of this may be attributable to the fact that the Vikings are putting in a new blocking scheme, having apparently done away with the zone approach that irritated so many fans during the Childress years, but not all of it is. A big chunk of the problem lies in the fact that, quite simply, the Vikings’ offensive linemen aren’t very good.
This will not come as a news flash to those who have been watching the Purple the last couple of years. We’ve known for awhile that the starting linemen were going downhill, and that the new guys being brought in were not taking up the slack. The decline started when Childress elected to let Matt Birk walk and tried to replace him with John Sullivan. Since being installed as the starter, Sullivan has not only not progressed much, he seems to have regressed. Last season Sullivan even seemed to forget how to perform the most basic task assigned to all centers, that of snapping the ball. Brett Favre had to pick so many bad Sullivan shotgun snaps off the turf that I was afraid the old man would throw his back out.
And how have the Vikings responded to Sullivan’s glaring lack of aptitude? They’ve left him in as the starter, and installed Jon Cooper as his only serious competition. Last season both Sullivan and Cooper ended up on the shelf for a period, and Ryan Cook had to play at center. And the barely-competent Cook was probably the best person the Vikings lined up at that position in 2010. It’s no wonder Brett Favre finally ended up having to be peeled off the TCF turf like a cartoon character flattened by a steam roller.
So Sullivan hasn’t exactly impressed, but he’s hardly been alone in that regard. The other guy the Vikings drafted during the last few years specifically to take over an offensive line position is Phil Loadholt, who replaced the aforementioned Ryan Cook at right tackle in 2009. Loadholt hasn’t been quite as bad as Sullivan, but he’s been close. In 2009 you could excuse his struggles, citing his rookie status, but in 2010 the excuse wore thin…almost as thin as Favre’s patience. Like Sullivan, Loadholt failed to show improvement his second year, and actually seemed to take a step backward. Unlike Sullivan, Loadholt possesses enough obvious talent to give us hope that with seasoning he will develop into something, maybe even a good lineman.
Loadholt stoked these fires of hope this off-season by showing up for camp in such rock-solid shape that for a moment I feared Tom Pelissero might ask him out on a date. Could it be? A young highly-touted Viking tackle actually showing up motivated and in-shape and ready to improve?
I think you know where I’m going next. McKinnie. Things seemed to be looking up for the line, then McKinnie happened. A big steaming pile of McKinnie got dropped on everyone, including Leslie Frazier who had to get out his shovel and clean it up. Unlike Brad Childress, Frazier actually knows how and when to wield the shovel. He picked up that stinking load of McKinnie and tossed it right into the street. No more McKinnie for this team.
Unfortunately, tossing that pile of McKinnie not only got rid of the stink of McKinnie, it also left us with a hole at left tackle. The sad truth is that for all his McKinnieness, McKinnie was still most of the time a halfway decent player. As good as it felt to finally be rid of McKinnie, panic quickly settled in at the realization that Charlie Johnson would now be protecting Donovan McNabb‘s blind side. I don’t want to suggest that Charlie Johnson is a tad nondescript, but I still have no idea who the hell Charlie Johnson is. I guess he came from the Colts?
Charlie Johnson seemed to validate all our fears about Charlie Johnson by putting on such a display of getting burned in training camp that for a minute the Vikings had to station someone nearby with a fire extinguisher just in case Charlie’s jock combusted. The optimists kept informing us we shouldn’t make such a big deal out of what happens in camp, but the sight of smoke rising from the vicinity of Charlie’s crotch told us different.
In the end, all our training camp worrying about Charlie Johnson served only one purpose: blinding us to the fact that the guy playing next to him isn’t a whole lot better. Here’s where things get a little sad and poignant. Steve Hutchinson? I think it might be time to hang up the cleats. You used to be a true beast, but now you’re closer to one of those poor zoo animals that just sits there because it’s all old and worn-out and doesn’t want to live anymore. You don’t even have the energy to maul the drunks who sneak into your pen on dares from their buddies.
Just remember what we had a couple of years ago with McKinnie and Hutch on the left side. Those guys were so dominating, you swore they would have no problem blowing full-grown African elephants off the line. But in 2010 it became obvious that Hutch was no longer Hutch. He couldn’t block The Elephant Man, much less an elephant. We hoped Hutch would come back in 2011 with renewed health and vigor, but within days he was already complaining of an injury, and in the preseason opener we witnessed the mortifying truth: Hutch is not any better than he was last year, and in fact might be worse.
If the left guard position is an issue, the right guard position is a gol darn clusterbleep. Anthony Herrera is the incumbent but up until Monday he was on the PUP list. Chris DeGeare is most often mentioned as the successor to Mr. Herrera, but that’s only because we haven’t seen him enough to totally turn against him. Rookie DeMarcus Love was also supposed to be a possibility at right guard but Love is actually now listed as the third string left tackle. To make matters even more confusing, on Monday the Vikings went into full-on shuffle mode, playing DeGeare at tackle and Scott Kooistra at guard.
Who knows what will happen next. Maybe Frazier will grab a helmet and put himself in at tackle. All I know is, when a team starts shuffling players around like this at practice, it means they are getting desperate. Right now Frazier wants to look at every lineman he has at every possible position, just in case one of them accidentally plays well. I wouldn’t rule out anything at this point, including Bryant McKinnie being brought back. You think I’m joking about that, but just wait until Donovan McNabb takes his first big shot because Charlie Johnson whiffed. All of a sudden, the Vikings might decide McKinnie playing at 400 pounds isn’t so outrageous after all.
McKinnie could still end up getting the last laugh in all this. The idea makes me sick, but not as sick as the thought of McNabb ending his career as a purple smear on some turf some place. It was bad enough when Favre went out like that. If that kind of thing keeps happening, old, over-the-hill QBs won’t even want to come to Minnesota anymore.
I notice I’ve barely even mentioned what all this O-line turmoil means for Adrian Peterson. Well I’ll tell you what it means: A steadily diminishing per-carry average and, unless the team pulls off a miracle and gets him signed to an extension, a really good running back hitting the free agent market at the end of the season. And frankly, under such bleak circumstances, I wouldn’t blame AD if he did leave. Why waste the prime of your career on a team that can’t open holes for you? If AD ever wants to break the 2000-yard mark, something you know he thinks about, he might have to do it in a different uniform.
Then again maybe I’m overreacting. A few bad practices and one bad preseason game are hardly the end of the world. They are putting in a new scheme after all. Maybe Steve Hutchinson is primed for a rebound. Maybe John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt are ready to take the next step. Maybe Charlie Johnson is better than I think. Sure. Let’s go with that.