Week 1: Vikings at Browns – The Vindication Tour Begins


After the craziest off-season in memory, and a preseason rife with controversy and speculation, it is finally time for the Vikings to strap it on and play a real, honest-to-goodness regular season football game.

It would not be an exaggeration to call this one of the most eagerly-anticipated season openers in Vikings history.  That’s the level of excitement Brett Favre has brought to the franchise.

We spent the entire off-season wondering, guessing, sifting through reports both accurate and erroneous, sometimes grumbling, sometimes outright getting angry – but none of that matters now.  The day has come for Favre to take the field in purple, for keeps, and begin the process of vindicating himself and Brad Childress.

Or vindicating those who have doubted the wisdom of the move.

Whatever Favre does – or doesn’t do – on the field, the Vikings have certainly taken a giant step up in national relevance, as evidenced by FOX’s decision to show today’s game in 40% of markets, up from the originally-planned 18%.  But with that added exposure comes added scrutiny, and possibly added pressure.

Thanks to Favre, Minnesota is no longer an NFL backwater.  And, thanks to Favre, the Vikings now bear the burden of high expectations.

Favre is used to playing with such expectations…and has not always succeeded.  Today he will seek to begin erasing the bad feelings left from his failure in New York, where lofty hopes finally degenerated into bitterness and recrimination.

The same can be said of the Vikings as a whole.  Their last meaningful game, on January 4, was a frustrating playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, at home, in a game where the defense rose to the task but the offense didn’t.  Favre has been brought in to assure the offense lives up to its side of the bargain.  Of course he is not in it alone.  Adrian Peterson bears as much of the burden as Favre, possibly more.  2009 could be the year that AD blossoms into an NFL MVP, and leads his team on a championship run.

One thing is certain about this team:  it has talent.  And not just talent but exciting talent.  I defy anyone to name a team with more players who are flat-out fun to watch.  AD.  Brett.  Chester Taylor with his sick open-field moves.  Percy HarvinBernard BerrianJared AllenKevin and Fat PatE.J. “The Human Missile” HendersonAntoine Winfield.  It’s all set up for an epic season.  The only question is, will it be an epic triumph or an epic fail?

We will begin to know the answer today in Cleveland.  As first tests go, this would seem a relatively easy one.  Of course, if the NFL has taught us anything in recent years, it’s that our assumptions about which teams will rule and which will suck are about as valuable as a Wasswa Serwanga throwback.

The Browns aren’t going out there to lay down and act as a red carpet for Favre.  In fact, they will probably be more jacked-up for this game than usual, because of the attention Favre will bring.  They know the spotlight will be on them too.  They will bring it hard.  Hopefully, the Vikings’ re-tooled offensive line will be up to the challenge.

The fact is that, during the limited time Favre was in there in the preseason, the pass blocking was somewhat less than solid.  The protection wasn’t exactly solid last year either, as Gus Frerotte can attest (all he did was break his spine).  And that was with a Pro Bowl-level center in the game.  Now we have John Sullivan, who has yet to snap the ball once in a meaningful situation.  And we have a rookie right tackle in Phil Loadholt, who certainly seems to have all the physical tools, but has yet to prove that he is actually an upgrade over the unreliable Ryan Cook.

If the Vikings have a glaring Achilles heel, it is the pass blocking.  This is worrisome, given how much faith we are currently investing in a 39-year-old quarterback with a damaged right arm and less mobility than he possessed in his prime.

Brett may still have the magic, but it won’t matter if he can’t stay on his feet.

Worrisome issue #2 – and it’s right behind worrisome issue #1 on the list – is the receiving corps.  The Vikings were confident enough in their top 3 to jettison their leading receiver the last few years, Bobby Wade.  Unfortunately, their number 1 guy, Bernard Berrian, is still nursing a preseason injury, and may not be available for today’s game.  This will put a large dent in the gameplan, given that Berrian is the team’s only legit deep threat, and that half the point of getting Favre was to open up the passing game and give Adrian Peterson some relief from 8-in-the-box.

The Vikings added speedy Greg Lewis to the roster to hopefully lessen the blow of losing Berrian.  But the responsibility for taking up that slack will fall mainly on the backs of Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin, who have a combined total of 46 receptions to their names.

If the preseason was any indication, Favre’s favorite target may not be a receiver but a tight end, Visanthe Shiancoe.  If there’s one player on this roster who’s on the verge of taking a major step up – maybe even to Pro Bowl territory – it is Shiancoe, who last year pulled off one of the most dramatic in-season turnarounds in memory, going from a ball-dropping joke to a sure-handed emerging star.

This array of offensive weapons will today face a Browns team that ranked 26th overall in defense last year, and was one of the absolute most miserable squads in the league against the run.  On paper, the Vikes would seem to have a huge advantage, with their prolific run game matched up against this fairly porous run defense.  But, we know all about the funny things that can happen when the Vikings get outdoors on grass.

The Browns and Eric Mangini would probably like to turn this one into a grinder, featuring a heavy dose of Jamal Lewis.  Unfortunately for them, the Vikings’ run defense doesn’t appear to have tailed off from last season, which means that, like most teams do against the Vikes, the Browns will probably end up passing it more than they want.

The Browns, if they do go to the air, will call upon Brady Quinn to do the throwing.  At least according to reports from the Cleveland media and Terrell Owens‘ Twitter account.  Technically, Eric Mangini hasn’t announced his starter, and there is still no #1 listed on the depth chart on the Browns’ official website.  So, it’s possible Mangini could have a surprise up his sleeve.

Not that Derek Anderson makes anyone shake in their boots anymore than Quinn.

A messed-up quarterback situation.  A lack of skill position firepower.  A defense no one has much faith in.  A first-year head coach a lot of people are praying will fail.  That’s the Cleveland Browns.  All the Vikings have to do is play a crisp, professional game and they should win this game handily, even though it is on the road (weather will not be a factor; the forecast says 76 degrees and sunny with negligible wind).

Of course, playing a crisp, professional game has not always been the easiest thing for the Vikings to pull off.  They tend to kill themselves with penalties and bonehead mistakes.  If they do lose this game, it will likely be because they shot themselves in the foot.

And, even if they do lose this game, it won’t be the end of the world.  They will still have 15 to play.  But, because of those raised expectations, and because their quarterback is named Favre, failure will be magnified out of all proportion with reality.  A loss will mean a Monday full of “Are the Vikings Overrated?” segments on ESPN.  If Favre plays poorly, all we will hear for the next week is that he is done, that Chilly made a huge mistake bringing him in.

Let’s hope we don’t have to hear any of those negative things.  Were I a betting man, my money would be on the Vikings taking care of business without too much difficulty.