As I was watching the Vikings take on the Steelers in London two weeks ago, something occurred to me, that may be fairly obvious, but I think it’s worth taking the time to think about. For the first time since the 2009 season, when Brett Favre came in and led the Vikes to the NFC Championship Game, the Vikings actually have an offense. I mean a really solid offense, from top to bottom. The O-line and receivers have been a glaring weak point for the Vikings in recent years, but those issues have finally been addressed. The running back situation remains great, and overall the tight end production has improved from where it was two or three years ago. This offense has looked great on paper, but as the cliché goes, games aren’t played on paper. Even with Ponder’s less than spectacular play, the Vikings have been doing enough offensively to get themselves into the top five in the league, with such company as the Broncoes and Packers. And then, with a new quarterback under center, we all caught a glimpse of how great this offense can be.
Before the 2009 season the Vikings offense was struggling, poor quarterback play by Tarvaris Jackson was holding back an otherwise talented team. Our defense was great, from Jared Allen and the Williams Wall, to a secondary led by Antoine Winfield, the Vikings D was among the leagues strongest. Then, Brett Favre came in, and our receivers and tight ends all seemed to come alive. The new addition of rookie of the year Percy Harvin, and the consistently great play of Adrian Peterson didn’t hurt either.
After that, things changed for the Vikings. In the past few years, between 2010 and 2012, the Vikings as a whole, have deteriorated. If we take a look back at the abysmal 2011 season where the Vikings went 3-13, it’s hard to find a single bright spot. The defensive secondary was depleted, the receiving core was depleted, the offensive line was horrendous. With the exception of Adrian Peterson and Jared Allen, who had a nearly record setting season, every other group of players was mediocre at best.
Things turned around last year, with the addition of several key players through the draft, and the Vikings made it to the playoffs, on the backs of Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson. Kyle Rudolph had a great year as well, but you certainly couldn’t look at the Vikings offense and say that they were dominant. In fact, if you exclude Adrian Peterson, the Vikings offense last year was well below average.
It’s worth noting, that after four games, the Vikings had the fifth ranked offense in the league, averaging nearly 29 points per game. Defensive and special teams struggles have been the Achilles heel of this team so far in 2013. Plainly put, if you score almost thirty points every week, you should win most of your games, and the Vikings have done just that, without the winning part. It was only a single game, but two weeks ago we got a glimpse of what some solid quarterback play can do. Matt Cassel was far from perfect, but in his one start as a Viking, he played better than Ponder ever has in the NFL. We’re not going to talk about the quarterback situation, because I think that we all know how we feel about that. Instead, I want to examine everything else about the offense, and I think there’s plenty of good to find.
Everything starts with the O-line. When your offensive line struggles, so does the entire offense. Last year the Vikings O-line was one of the best in the league, helping AP to his landmark rushing performance, and providing Christian Ponder with plenty of time to throw the ball. The very same O-line got off to a rough start this season, with a downright poor performance at times in the first few games. In London they seemed to finally get it together. They provided Cassel with a ton of time, and AP had his best game so far this season. On paper the Vikings offensive line is excellent, and this was the first time so far this year that they’ve shown what they can do.
The Ground Game
Let’s keep this part short and sweet. Adrian Peterson is the best running back in the league, so we know what to expect from him. He’s struggled a bit these past few weeks – “struggled” is an interesting word to use, considering that by any other running back’s standards, he’s off to an incredible start – but he picked it up this week. The return of pro bowl fullback Jerome Felton from a three game suspension certainly helps as well. As for Toby Gerhart, there’s no question he’s good enough to be a starting running back on many teams in the league, but he’s hardly been used so far this season. The Vikings have the best running game in the league, end of story.
For a few years now, the Vikings receiving core has been a source of anguish. With the exception of Percy Harvin, they’ve been bad – real bad. If you asked someone who doesn’t closely follow the Vikings to name a single Vikings receiver outside of Percy Harvin in the last couple years, you wouldn’t get much of an answer. Do you remember Manny Arceneaux or Devin Aromashadu? We all remember Bernard Berrian, but for all the wrong reasons. Greg Camarillo and Michael Jenkins seemed like great guys, the kind you’d love to root for, but they just never quite got it done on the field. Just for a little more recap: Randy Moss, Hank Baskett, and Jaymar Johnson. This is what we’ve been dealing with.
For the first time in a long time, the Vikings seem to have some legitimate weapons. We all know that Greg Jennings is great, and in London, he showed that he can make big plays, given the chance. Jerome Simpson seems to finally be making some big steps forward after a pretty disappointing performance last year. He’s been the go-to guy for both Ponder and Cassel this season, and the consistency issues that have plagued him for his entire career seem to be diminishing. That being said, he still can’t seem to haul in some of the difficult catches that you would expect a big time receiver to come down with, and his effort on certain plays can be questioned, but overall he’s showing improvement and certainly has the potential to become a much better player.
Then there’s the rookie Cordarrelle Patterson who’s looked pretty good in his limited playing time. He’s shown his ability on kick returns, and he appears to have all of the skill and ability to become a big time receiver in the NFL. Whether he does or not is something we’ll all just have to wait and see. After the big three, there’s Jarius Wright and Joe Webb. Wright is a solid receiver, and he’s shown that he’s capable of making big plays. He’ll probably never be a superstar, but he’s a step above the vast majority of guys the Vikings have had at that position for the past few years. Finally, Webb remains a question mark. He made some good catches in the preseason, and has been pretty quiet during the regular season, but that should start to change. With the improved quarterback play that the Vikings seem to be in store for, we’ll begin to get a better idea of what all of our receivers are capable of, and Webb is the one with the most to prove.
Overall, the Vikings have a strong group of receivers. No huge star like Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald, but enough guys who are capable of consistency and pumping out enough big plays to win games. With the way the Vikings are designed, to heavily feature the run game, a solid group of receivers is more than enough to get you to the playoffs and beyond.
I’m not sure how I feel about the Vikings tight end situation. I can’t be certain of whether they’re a strength or a weakness. Kyle Rudolph is one of the best in the league, despite quiet start, and John Carlson may be one of the worst, based on productivity. Like the receivers, Rudolph’s production should increase dramatically as the passing game picks up, and it’s reasonable to expect much more from him in the coming weeks. John Carlson has been a complete and utter disappointment. I was as excited as everyone else when the Vikings signed him. It’s great to be able to root for a guy who grew up here in Minnesota, and his stats in Seattle were pretty good. Everything about the signing of Carlson was exciting, maybe with the exception of the price tag. But in just over a year here, he’s done nothing. He’s played at about the level of a bunch of those no name receivers I mentioned earlier.
Again, let me reiterate that the Vikings have been performing exceptionally well on offense this year. If you can pair a top five offense with a better than average defense, you have a great chance of making the playoffs. Unfortunately, our defense has not been able to hold up its end of the bargain. Still, as we wait for the defense to get its act together, we can expect even more from the offense. Matt Cassel played well in his first game, but as time goes on he should continue to improve, thus elevating everyone around him. Then, as is inevitable, Josh Freeman will take the reigns, and hopefully by the time he does, he should be outperforming Cassel. Now as fans, we all just have to cross our fingers and hope that the Vikes can just keep putting up big enough numbers on offense to drag the rest of the team to the playoffs.