Baseball's no fun from now until September, and we can only watch old NFL highlights on YouTube for so long before we need to start prognosticating on the '06-'07 NFL season. Fall can't come soon enough. In the meantime, here's the 19th of our 32 team previews for the upcoming season, the Minnesota Vikings.
TOM'S TAKE: We now have the advantage of being able to see teams on the field and get some semblance for what their prospects are before previewing them. Watching the Vikings/Raiders game only reinforced what I already thought about the Vikings -- they could surprise some people.
Despite losing last night, the Vikings have to be encouraged with their performance. Their offense appeared to have no problems moving down the field -- the Vikings offensive line especially looks solid. Vikes fans should expect nothing less after signing guard Steve Hutchinson from Seattle. Together with Bryant McKinnie and Matt Birk, Hutchinson solidifies the left side of the line. Obviously, this will benefit Brad Johnson, who at this point in his career might need some time and stability in the backfield in order to stay healthy and find his targets. But there seems to be a lack of buzz about Chester Taylor, the former Baltimore backup who will be getting the bulk of the carries for Minnesota. Taylor is the perfect type of back for Brad Childress' new offense. He's small and shifty, catches the ball out of the backfield well, and makes defenders miss with a sense of elusiveness. He should thrive as an all-purpose back -- just remember, the last person to get a starting gig after backing up Jamal Lewis was Priest Holmes. He even has Holmes' former bodyguard, standout fullback Tony Richardson, creating lanes for him. It'd be hyperbolic to predict a Holmes type of season for Taylor, but he'll do fine regardless.
The Vikings' defense is surprisingly deep. Pat Williams has recently been activated off the PUP list, and Childress seems content with the weight he's lost. E.J. Henderson is having an outstanding camp so far and Ben Leber was a linebacker gaining buzz in the free agent market. There was originally some question as to who would start at the MIKE, but Napoleon Harris has far outplayed Dontarrious Thomas. That's a good thing, because Harris was a key cog in the trade that sent Randy Moss to Oakland, and it looks good that he's making a contribution to the team. The Vikes also have one of the best secondaries in the league -- they lost safety Corey Chavous to St. Louis but did well in adding Dwight Smith, a ballhawk who should be relieved to play free safety after being forced to help anchor the run in New Orleans.
The Vikings' season depends primarily on Brad Johnson's health -- they've got the type of team to make a surprisingly strong run at the helm of a careful, consistent quarterback. But he'll need to stay on the field regularly for that to happen. At almost 38, that isn't a given. They've got Mike McMahon backing Johnson up, but he can't be depended on for more than a game or two. Tavaris Jackson displayed serious potential last night, but it's foolish to think he could step in and not miss a beat if Johnson goes down. If Brad plays 16 games, the Vikings could win the division, but their record won't look much better than last year's 9-7 mark.
KYLE'S TAKE: Mike Tice, the former Vikings coach, had a nice little downward spiral in Minnesota last year. He lost Randy Moss, Daunte Culpepper had a terrible beginning of the season before he blew out his knee, and it all began with him caught up trying to scalp Superbowl tickets. I was surprised he didn't get a head coaching job in the huge shuffle that was the NFL offseason last year. Out of all the released coaches, I thought he'd be the one to find a spot.
Nonetheless, Tice is gone and Brad Childress is in as head coach. Since 1999, Childress has been the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator in Philadelphia. I've been debating Childress' tenure in Philadelphia. Even when they went to the Super Bowl, their running game wasn't top notch. Brian Westbrook is a good running back, but he's an overall player more than a runner -- he can catch well to make up for a low running total. In fact, look at the numbers from ESPN.com on their high rushing totals for the last 4 years. It doesn't look too impressive.
However, I'm not going to blame that all on Childress. He was quarterbacks coach for awhile in Philly and except for last year, when he was working with backup Mike McMahon and lost Westbrook and Terrell Owens. You can say he was a victim of circumstance last year. And asides from that, he has never had a problem under center with Donovan McNabb, despite what Rush Limbaugh might say.
Now, Childress doesn't have McNabb. He has Brad Johnson. Brad Johnson has a ring from his time in Tampa, but in Tampa the defense, not the offense, won that Super Bowl. Johnson was good, but he was good in the way that he didn't make mistakes. He's a quarterback who doesn't try to do more than he can. He did that last year too. When he took over, the Vikings won 6 in a row and 7 of their final 9. He has decent weapons to throw to -- Korean Robinson, Travis Taylor, and Marcus Robinson. All three guys have good potential, but they've never put up great numbers. They lost Nate Burleson, their top receiver, to Seattle.
For awhile, the Vikings had a running game that was so strong it didn't matter who was in the backfield. And when they were winning last year, their running game was on point. The new man in Minny is Chester Taylor, who was formerly backup for Jamal Lewis in Baltimore. Taylor got better after awhile in Baltimore and he was a better blocker in pass formats. Taylor will get his chance in Minnesota and he'll have a little new help on the line with Steve Hutchinson, who was a guard in Seattle blocking for MVP Shaun Alexander. Taylor will have a good year running in Minnesota.
The Vikings have a nice defense. They have a good secondary. Fred Smoot has been a good cornerback from his days in Washington -- he throws killer parties too. Antoine Winfield was acquired from Tampa Bay to be the other corner. Darren Sharper is a beast at safety as well. Their running game was in the middle of the pack last year. E.J. Henderson is a good linebacker, but he never seemed to live up to the potential he had coming out of college. Former linebacker Chad Greenway, their first round pick, has been put on the defensive line in hopes he'll further improve their defense.
I think the Vikings will have a decent season, maybe 8-8, but I believe they'll be finishing third in the division. They have a good defense, but I don't think the offense will click enough for them to make the playoffs. But if they miss the playoffs, they can always throw a consolation boat party. I heard those are pretty fun.