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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