If only the Fountain of Youth were as real as the Minnesota Vikings are making their youth movement. By the time the Vikings’ final preseason roster cuts are made in September, they should be on pace to lower their average age by two years over the last two seasons.
During those previous two seasons, the Vikings put their own unfortunate twist on the age-old proverb, “Pride comes before the fall.” In the their case, aging came before the fall.
Remember all that excitement just prior to the 2010 season? The Vikings were coming off their best season in 10 years, having gone to the NFC Championship Game and been just one play away from their first Super Bowl entry in three decades (your choice on which play to blame in New Orleans: any one of the five turnovers, a worked-over ankle, 12 men in the huddle, a Bountygate-induced hit or some other mistake).
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They were tantalized by the temptation to repeat with the same personnel as they had in 2009 and went “all in” on the 2010 season. Despite having the sixth-oldest roster in 2009, averaging 27.48 years old per player, the Vikings returned all 22 of their starters from their 2009 playoff run.
In 2010, despite getting marginally younger with an average of 27.38 years old on their 53-man roster, the Vikings moved up in the NFL’s age rankings. As the third-oldest team in the league, they were younger than only the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Browns.
Rick Spielman hadn’t been named the general manager yet and he didn’t have full control of the roster, but changes were already afoot before the 2011 season.
For the first time in two years, there was no effort to convince Brett Favre to return, although new head coach Leslie Frazier wasn’t ready to ride a rookie coming off the NFL lockout and made a play for what turned out to be a washed-up Donovan McNabb. But even at 34 years old, McNabb was seven years younger than Favre. Among those also given their walking papers were Pat Williams and Ben Leber, both in their 30s.
The youth movement was under way and the Vikings moved to 15th in the league in average age (26.43) on their 53-man roster at the start of last season.
But Spielman wasn’t done yet. With full authority on the roster, the slashing of aging veterans has continued, and he didn’t wait for the start of free agency to begin the 2012 youth movement.
On March 10, three days before free agency, he cut guards Steve Hutchinson, 34, and Anthony Herrera, 31. Cornerback Cedric Griffin, who is 29 and has reconstructed knees that sapped him of his former speed and confidence, was also released.
Free agency brought more opportunities to let aging players wash down the river. Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe and linebacker E.J. Henderson, both 31, weren’t re-signed and remain on the open market. Tight end Jim Kleinsasser, 34, voluntary shut down his career by announcing his retirement after the season.
So where does that leave the Vikings of 2012? The NFL’s statistics on the 53-man rosters aren’t released until Kickoff Weekend in September after all the preseason cuts are made, but we predicted the Vikings’ opening-weekend team and if their 53-man roster looks even close to our projections, they could be the youngest team in the league.
They would not only reduce their average age by more than one full year, to 25.2, they would reduce it by an average of more than two full years since 2010, when it was 27.38.
Compared to last year’s NFL statistics, the Vikings would have the second-youngest team in the league. Of course, just as the Vikings found out in 2010 that age doesn’t automatically translate into success, neither does youth. In 2011, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the youngest team in the league with an average age of 25.17 and finished with a 4-12 record. The Pittsburgh Steelers were the oldest and finished 12-4, but the San Diego Chargers were second-oldest and finished at 8-8.
Spielman said the process of weighing his desire to get a younger roster but still wanting players with talent, no matter the age, is made on an player-by-player basis. But, make no mistake: Spielman’s goal was to get the roster younger and build for the long term.
“I feel very excited that we have improved our football team over the offseason and with this draft,” Spielman said after making 10 picks for the second straight year. “I know the biggest part was trying to upgrade our roster from a personnel standpoint and I believe we accomplished that mission.”
For the many contributing Vikings of the recent past, age proved to be more than just a number. It was a reason for the team to let their ship sail as the organization searches for more vibrant waters in the Fountain of Youth.