Relieved Vikings express confidence for 2012

The Minnesota Vikings figured to be as vulnerable to the effects

of the NFL lockout as any other team, with a first-year head coach,

a rookie quarterback and a new offense to install.

They had a lot to lose during the four-month-plus work stoppage,

and lose is exactly what they did once the season started — 13

times, matching the most in the franchise’s 51-year history.

The roster needs significant upgrades. Coach Leslie Frazier’s

staff could turn over. Big changes on offense and defense will be

considered. For the players, who exchanged hugs, handshakes and

cellphone numbers on Monday morning in parting for a while, the

focus is on working harder and getting better together.

”It’s an exciting day. It really is,” defensive end Jared

Allen said as he packed up his belongings.

Several key players spoke of an urgency to use the next several

months as the head start on 2012 they didn’t have in 2011.

”We’re going to grind this offseason,” said wide receiver

Percy Harvin, who finished with a career-high 967 yards receiving,

345 yards rushing and nine total touchdowns, one of the true bright

spots on another dark year for the Vikings along with Allen’s 22

sacks.

”I think we’ll be a different ballclub next year,” Harvin

said.

Harvin is one of several important players who in the past have

done much of their winter, spring and summer training away from

Minnesota. Then came the lockout last year, and none of the Vikings

were allowed to even enter the facilities at Winter Park.

But Harvin said he’s encouraged as many players as possible to

show up for the offseason practices, known around the league as

organized team activities. Only the annual weekend minicamp is

contractually required, and it’s not unusual for veterans and

higher-profile players to work out on their own the rest of the

time until training camp begins, but there’s an obvious drive here

to improve on the embarrassment and the frustration of the

third-worst record in the NFL.

”There should be no excuse why nobody should be there, except

for emergencies and stuff like that,” Harvin said.

Quarterback Christian Ponder expressed the same attitude.

The first-round draft pick took over as the starter for an

ineffective Donovan McNabb late in the sixth game of the season and

showed plenty of poise, confidence and potential over his first few

weeks on the job. But the turnovers piled up down the stretch, he

didn’t stay healthy and backup Joe Webb played better than Ponder

in each of the three games he relieved him for injury or

performance reasons.

”We have to spend a lot of time this offseason, especially on

the offensive side of the ball learning this offense and growing

comfortable with it,” Ponder said. He added: ”Getting that rookie

experience under the belt is huge. It will be good to get a full

offseason with the team and understand that part of it.”

Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s play calls and game plans

drew plenty of criticism, but the absence of offseason workouts and

the midseason switch to a rookie quarterback prevented him from

rolling out the whole scheme and maximizing the opportunities for

creativity.

Frazier tried after Sunday’s season-ending loss to Chicago to

quell any uncertainty about Ponder’s status as the starter, but his

hip pointer, his concussion and his interceptions at least

complicated the situation because of how well Webb played in

relief. Granted, defenses didn’t prepare their game plans to stop

him, but the Vikings have an exceptional athlete who they’ve

otherwise struggled to use effectively.

Time after time when Musgrave tried to put Webb in for special

running plays — they called it the ”Blazer” package — he was

stopped for no gain or lost yardage. More action at wide receiver

is a possibility, but he hasn’t proven yet he can be a reliable

route runner and pass catcher despite his speed.

”Once we get the full offseason and get things together and see

what we need to do to be successful in 2012, it’s going to be

dangerous,” Webb said.

The healing ability and recuperative power of running back

Adrian Peterson, who had reconstructive surgery on his left knee

last week, will be another critical factor toward improvement.

So will the draft, when the Vikings will pick third in each

round. But the defense might be the most vital area.

Defensive coordinator Fred Pagac’s status is tenuous. The

Vikings must decide whether to bring back middle linebacker E.J.

Henderson, who is a free agent who will be 33 years old before next

season. Then there is the secondary, in dire need of an upgrade.

The Vikings had only eight interceptions and gave up 34 touchdowns

passing.

Allen said he’d ”fight” to keep Pagac.

”What decisions are going to be made are going to be made. I

just know I appreciate our coaching staff and I appreciate

everything they’ve put into this season, especially with the

injuries and the way things panned out. It’s easy to disconnect,

and no one did,” Allen said.

Indeed, there was a palpable sense from the players down the

stretch despite all the losing that they genuinely enjoyed each

other and were willing to keep working hard even when the playoffs

became impossible.

”It was our tied for our worst season in our organization’s

history, but you look around the locker room and you’ve got a lot

of friends and teammates you played with and played hard with. You

can’t look at somebody and say, `You quit on us,”’ linebacker Chad

Greenway said, adding: ”You’ve got to save that at least.”

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