Rebuilding Vikings pursue different goals now

The Minnesota Vikings once had a prominent place in the NFL’s

publicity machine, furiously but fruitlessly chasing a championship

with a famous, flashy and combustible cast.

Vikings camp is so much quieter now. Such is the simplicity of

youth.

”We’re not going to have too many people barking up our tree

for playoff berths or division titles,” linebacker Chad Greenway

said. ”We’re just going to have to grind for every win.”

The rebuilding project the Vikings weren’t totally prepared to

launch last year – when Donovan McNabb began the season at

quarterback – is now being fully embraced. Though veteran standouts

Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Antoine Winfield are still around

to lead the defense, they’re among eight players 30 years or older

left on the roster. This will be one of the league’s most

inexperienced teams; six of the 22 expected starters were draft

picks from either 2011 or 2012. Even the kicker, Blair Walsh, is a

rookie.

”There’s no stress. There’s no pressure,” Allen said. ”The

young guys aren’t coming on to a team where they’re expected to win

the Super Bowl. No, you’re expected to perform at a high level

right away, because we want to win games. That’s good pressure to

have, versus the negative.”

So how many games can this group win? The Vikings haven’t had

three straight losing seasons since 1961-63, their first three

years of existence. But they’re stuck in such a tough division that

envisioning more than marginal improvement in the NFC North

standings is difficult. Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago all boast

plenty of young stars, particularly in the passing game that has

been so challenging for the Vikings to stop.

Winfield’s healthy return should help shore up a secondary that

was picked apart last year. Chris Cook is back at the other

cornerback spot after his acquittal of felony assault charges, and

third-round draft pick Josh Robinson is pushing for time in the

nickel package with his combine-best 40-yard dash time of 4.33

seconds. Another rookie, Harrison Smith, will start at safety,

bringing a nose for the ball and the big hit with him from Notre

Dame.

Adrian Peterson’s recovery from reconstructive surgery on his

left knee will be the most scrutinized development this season, but

with another capable running back in Toby Gerhart the most critical

area toward this team’s success is really up in the air.

Literally.

Christian Ponder must make progress from his 13-touchdown,

13-interception rookie year, and first-round draft pick Matt Kalil

will have to protect him at left tackle. Free agent addition Jerome

Simpson will be counted on heavily once he returns from a

three-game suspension, and the other wide receivers are going to

have to take some attention away from Percy Harvin while Simpson is

out. Tight ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson need to stay healthy

and consistently get open.

”Things don’t happen overnight. There will be the ups and

downs, as we certainly have had them in the last seven years of

ownership, but you have to be patient,” owner Zygi Wilf said. ”As

we were patient with the stadium, we are going to be patient and we

are going to work hard to getting a championship ballclub.”

Yes, the deal reached in May between the team and state and city

leaders to fund a new stadium might well wind up as the best

Vikings news of 2012. But general manager Rick Spielman and coach

Leslie Frazier have been busy over the last year crafting a

blueprint for the type of team where the young players are still

around when the Vikings move into their new stadium in 2016.

Frazier dissected each position with Spielman and the personnel

department to ensure the entire organization is in sync as it

restocks and develops a talent pool that was left thin and old at

the end of the 2010 – when Brett Favre retired for good and Frazier

replaced Brad Childress.

”We spent a ton of time on every position. I wanted those

scouts to know how I think,” Frazier said. ”Not only just the

talent but the type of guy that I want to coach on our team and I

want in our locker room: the smart guy, the tough guy, the

disciplined football player.”

In seeking advice from colleagues and friends, one piece of

wisdom stood out to Frazier.

”The general manager and the head coach better be walking in

sync. Otherwise, man, you’ve got different agendas about personnel.

The head coach, you’re going to have some problems,” Frazier

said.

So the lack of flow chart that caused much friction when

Childress was here has been smoothed out. Now it’s up to the

players the Spielman-Frazier team have picked to show signs of

promise and improvement.

”It’s going to be the best scenario for us, to kind of lie in

the weeds and be the underdogs so to speak,” Greenway said. ”In

most people’s eyes, we’re just not talented enough, not as good,

not as experienced. … It’s going to be exciting, because I think

we’re going to be a lot better than what people think we are, and I

think that we have a chance.”

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