1. McNabb Drama
The dominating storyline so far in 2011 has been the quarterback situation. We began the year with veteran Donovan McNabb, who was brought in at Leslie Frazier’s behest to provide a bridge to draft pick Christian Ponder. As it turned out, McNabb would last only six games before losing his starting job to the rookie. Whatever your explanation for McNabb’s struggles – bad mechanics, lazy attitude, poor command of the offense, just being flat-out washed-up – the bottom line is, McNabb was not good enough. The one-time Pro Bowler contributed mightily to a string of embarrassing second-half collapses on the way to amassing a 1-5 record as the starter. His completion percentage was dismal. He seemed unwilling to take chances downfield. He made simple passes look difficult and difficult passes impossible. Frazier finally had no choice but to switch to Christian Ponder, ready or not.
2. Ponder Arrives
Has Pondermonium gotten a tad insane? Probably. But you’ll have to forgive Viking fans for being more than a little geeked about their personable young quarterback. After years spent riding the retread QB merry-go-round, the Vikings seemingly have found someone they can ride for years to come. Ponder is athletic, he’s smart and most of all he’s completely fearless. His knack for making huge third down plays is already becoming legendary. After only two starts, he already has a near-comeback against the Packers and a commanding performance in a win over fellow rookie sensation Cam Newton on his resume. Can you say Future Face of the Franchise?
Then again, he is only a rookie. Yes he’s played well, but he has a lot of learning ahead of him. Viking fans might do well to temper some of their excitement and take a more realistic view of Ponder. He is going to struggle a lot before he truly arrives. And even after he arrives, there’s a chance he won’t be more than merely good. Right now he’s only the fourth-best quarterback in the division, and five years from now, he likely will still be only the fourth-best quarterback in the division. But at least he’s not old and broken-down. That’s a start.
3. Bernard Berrian Makes a Mess, Gets His Butt Run Out of Town
The QB drama was the most important on-field soap opera of the first half; off-the-field the award for Most Drama Created goes to Bernard Berrian. In 7 weeks Bernard managed to be a healthy scratch twice, once for missing meetings, and also succeeded in becoming embroiled in a huge Twitter brouhaha involving Minnesota state rep (and stadium bill co-author) John Kriesel. The Kriesel flap didn’t affect Berrian’s standing with the team, but it did basically annihilate any last trace he had of a positive image with the fans. What did affect Berrian’s standing with the team was his unwillingness to work at his craft. After multiple controversies, Berrian found himself finally being run out of town. Since being cut, he’s gotten nary a sniff from any other NFL team. That pretty much says it all.
4. Chris Cook Debacle
After holding his own in match-ups against elite receivers Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, Chris Cook seemed to be rounding into form as a cornerback. And then came allegations that Cook tried to strangle his girlfriend in an altercation at his home in Eden Prairie. Cook was arrested and spent a weekend in jail, missing the Packer game. Despite his tweeted protestations of innocence, Cooks remains in legal limbo. The Vikings suspended him soon after his release from jail and say they will make an announcement about his future on Monday. No one knows what the Vikings’ decision will be, but right now it seems very possible Chris Cook will be cut. In a season of disappointments and failures, the Chris Cook saga has to be the saddest development of all.
5. Second Half Meltdowns Make Vikings the Butt of Jokes
The Vikings led their first three games of the season at halftime…and somehow managed to lose every time. The collapses just got worse every week. They blew a 10-point lead against San Diego, then topped that by puking away a 17-point lead vs. Tampa, then outdid themselves by blowing a 20-point lead vs. the Lions. It was actually a relief when they trailed at halftime vs. the Chiefs (of course they lost that game too). Throughout that bizarre three game streak of ever-more-frustrating collapses, the Vikings became the butt of many jokes, most of them bad. If the NFL only counted first halves of games the Vikings would be Super Bowl contenders! Oh my sides.
Numerous explanations were floated as to why the Vikings couldn’t hold onto leads. Not enough running in the second half. Lack of halftime adjustments. McNabb not being able to convert third downs. Bill Musgrave calling bad plays. Defense getting too vanilla late in games. Lack of conditioning. Jupiter being aligned with Pluto. A conspiracy by the NFL to move the Vikings to L.A. and have them draft Andrew Luck. We still don’t know exactly what the reasons for the meltdowns were, we’re just glad they got to play Arizona.
6. Jared Freaking Allen
Jared Allen had a poor 2010, I think even Jared would admit that. Obviously Jared used his down season as motivation to come out in 2011 better than ever, cause he has been better than ever. In fact he’s been better than almost every other defensive player in the league. After 8 games he’s on pace to break Michael Strahan’s sack record (you know, the one Brett Favre handed him by taking a dive), and if he continues playing like he has, he’ll not only break that mark, he’ll be in the running for defensive MVP. And this is without a great secondary creating coverage sacks. This is without Kevin and Pat Williams playing at a Pro Bowl level on the same line with him. This is just Jared imposing his will on other teams (sometimes with only one working eye). And it isn’t just the sacks, it’s the timely plays. It’s the forced fumble against Cam Newton…and the recovered fumble. It’s the interception against San Diego (in a losing cause). It’s the sack-and-forced fumble against Jay Cutler to momentarily give the Vikings hope in the second half against Chicago (another loss). In a season of lowlights, Jared has been one of the few bright spots. And he makes an awesome Rambo.
7. Adrian Peterson Continues to Shine
I think we all take Adrian Peterson for granted. He’s having what on a good team would be an MVP-caliber season, leading the NFL in rushing yards and rushing TDs. He’s seeing the field better than he ever has, and has become legitimately one of the greatest runners ever when it comes to picking his way through traffic. He’s improved as a pass blocker and against Carolina had a huge impact as a receiver. He’s still not fumbling. And, even after signing a huge contract that will set him up for life, he’s shown no less determination and fire than he did before. If anything he’s become more determined. Unlike Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson doesn’t dial it back after getting paid. Other backs may have been able to lay claim to being the best in the league at any given moment over the past five years, but who else but Adrian has been consistently great over that span of time? He’s the best in the league, and we don’t appreciate him anywhere near enough.
8. Bill Musgrave…is He Darrell Bevell?
Musgrave does maddening things like whip out the Blazer package at inopportune times and run Toby Gerhart instead of Adrian in critical short yardage situations, but there’s no way he deserves comparison to Darrell Bevell. Bevell was maddeningly conservative; I don’t think Musgrave is conservative, he’s just lacking the personnel to really make his offense hum. I truly believe if the Vikes had a deep receiving threat and better blockers this would be a very good and even exciting offense. Musgrave wants to throw deep, but Donovan McNabb didn’t want to oblige him. Christian Ponder has shown more willingness to take the deep shots, even without a true downfield receiver to work with, and as Ponder gets better I think we’ll see even more of that. Musgrave proved his cleverness last week by starting out with Percy Harvin in the backfield as a runner, a change-up move that resulted in a quick touchdown. Yes Harvin is still excluded from the game plan too much (sometimes because he physically isn’t able to contribute) and yes Adrian Peterson is still not coming close to being maximized. But I trust that Musgrave will get that stuff figured out…once he has some better receivers and a better line.
9. Speaking of the Offensive Line
Offensive line struggles have been a dominant topic since the preseason when Bryant McKinnie had to be let go for being hideously out-of-shape. McKinnie’s replacement Charlie Johnson has been basically dismal…and that’s only the beginning. Injuries have taken down John Sullivan and Anthony Herrera at various times. Phil Loadholt has struggled with false starts and getting owned by speed rushers (until lately when he’s actually improved some), and has had his own injury problems. The only consistently good performer has been Steve Hutchinson, but he is no longer a Pro Bowler. Protection problems made life miserable for Donovan McNabb, and that hasn’t improved under Christian Ponder though Ponder’s mobility makes the problem less glaring. As for the run blocking…sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not. Priority #1 in the offseason will be getting a new left tackle. The Vikes could also use an upgrade at right guard and maybe center. And Hutch isn’t getting any younger.
10. The Underachievers
Several Vikings have contributed to the struggles of 2011 by not performing as expected, either because of injury or because they’re just not as good as we hoped. We’ve already talked about the problems on the offensive line. Across the rest of the offense, possibly the most disappointing performer has been Percy Harvin, who despite all his talent has still not developed into a big league weapon the way we expected. Some of this has been Bill Musgrave’s inability to work him into the game plan, some of it Harvin’s own health issues, and some of it was McNabb not being able to get him the ball. Hopefully Harvin will be able to stay healthy and develop a true rapport with Christian Ponder, because Ponder will need weapons if he wants to continue to grow.
Who else has disappointed? For me, Chad Greenway hasn’t performed nearly as well as expected, especially given that huge contract he signed. Right now Greenway looks vastly overpaid. Greenway’s linebacker mate E.J. Henderson has also been underwhelming though E.J. has the excuse that his knees are shot. Speaking of people whose knees are shot…Cedric Griffin has gone from being adequate to a liability. Teams now pick on Cedric to the point where he could be demoted to nickel duty. Staying on the subject of cornerbacks: Antoine Winfield, thanks to a neck strain, has not even gotten on the field the last few weeks, and even when he was in there his formerly brilliant tackling skills seemed to be eroding. And then there are the safeties. Husain Abdullah has developed an alarming propensity to give up big plays; Tyrell Johnson remains terrible and made matters worse by getting arrested for DUI; and Jamarca Sanford has been hurt (he did have a couple of picks in a game and has made some nice sticks against the run). On the defensive line, Kevin Williams seems to be just about at the end of the line, and Remi Ayodele seems pretty much useless.
I suppose to balance things off I should mention a couple guys who’ve surpassed expectations. Michael Jenkins has been more valuable than most people expected after he signed as a free agent. Brian Robison has been much better than advertised in taking over for Ray Edwards. Erin Henderson has developed nicely at WLB. But of course the most pleasant surprise has been Christian Ponder, who looks like the real deal.