It's been about 24 hours since the Minnesota Vikings' 2008 season ended. . .and about eight days since the season ended for Green Bay and Chicago (because, apparently, some people still need to be reminded). . .and in typical Viking fan fashion, we've already started looking forward to the 2009 NFL season. Even with as disappointed as we are after the loss yesterday, it stands to reason that we have every reason to be optimistic about this team next season as well.
For starters, many folks have dismissed the Vikings as the team that simply was the best team in the "awful" NFC North. While the NFC North wasn't the greatest division in the NFL in 2008, it was far from the worst (just look at either division with the word "West" in the name, if you don't believe me). The three lead teams in the NFC North all went 4-2 within the division, so that's pretty much a wash. Take those away, and the Vikings won 6 games outside of the division, the Bears won 5, and the Packers won a whopping 2. Yes, all of those teams got different opponents from the NFC West and the NFC East. Those opponents were. . .
-Minnesota: Arizona (NFC West Champion) and New York (NFC East Champion), both Viking wins
-Chicago: St. Louis (picking #2 overall in this year's draft) and Philadelphia, both Chicago wins
-Green Bay: Seattle (picking #4 overall in this year's draft) and Dallas (who destroyed them)
Take into consideration that the Vikings played five games all season against teams that were below .500 in 2008. . .and four of those games took place within the division. The only non-NFC North team the Vikings played this season with a sub-.500 record was the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Vikings also defeated the champions of the other three NFC divisions, a claim that I don't believe any team in either conference can make (meaning no AFC team beat the other 3 AFC division champions, either). So, to anyone that says that the Vikings "have to play a first place schedule in 2009," guess what? I guess the fact that we beat the other three division champions pretty much means we played a first-place schedule THIS year, doesn't it?
Also take this team's roster into consideration. We've heard from the "experts" that this team had horrible play all season out of the most important position on the field (which was, by and large, true) and that the team was led by an awful head coach (which may or may not be true). Despite both of those things, which are both very important, this team managed to go 10-6 anyway. Man, I don't know about you, but that tells me that this team has got to have some talent on it someplace. Teams don't go 10-6 while overcoming "horrible quarterback play" and "awful coaching" to go 10-6 unless they've got some serious talent.
So where is the talent located?
For starters, I'll put Minnesota's front seven on defense against any other front seven in the National Football League. And remember, this team played its last three games (including the playoff game) without the best run-stuffing defensive tackle in the league, and the last 13 games of the year without one of the best middle linebackers in football. They still led the NFL in rush defense for the third consecutive year. . .the first team in the NFL to do that since the merger. . .were in the top 5 in the league in quarterback sacks, and were markedly better in pass defense than they've been at any point in the last decade.
Many of the guys that this defense is built around are still fairly young. Shoot, the only greybeard on the defense next season will be Pat Williams, and he certainly hasn't shown any signs of slowing down yet. Jared Allen is one of the best pass rushers in the league, and he's just hitting his prime. Kevin Williams is still in his prime, as are E.J. Henderson, Chad Greenway, and Madieu Williams. Ray Edwards and Brian Robison were solid at DE, and we could potentially have big (?) Kenechi Udeze back in the fold next season, too. (I wouldn't necessarily count on that last one, but there's nobody out there that isn't rooting for the guy.)
I'll also take our RB combo over any other pair in the league. Sure, there are some combos out there that might be "sexier" picks. . .but when you get to start off with the best pure running back in the National Football League and pair him up with the guy that could, possibly, be the most underrated back in the league, and I'll take those two guys into battle ahead of any other pairing that anyone would care to offer up.
We saw Visanthe Shiancoe develop this season into a weapon at the tight end spot. We saw Bernard Berrian be worth the money he was given to stretch the field, averaging 20+ yards/catch. We saw Cedric Griffin go from a guy that was a guaranteed first down allowed whenever QBs went his way to a guy that got up in people's faces and stuck to them. Next year, E.J. Henderson will be back roaming the middle. . .Pat Williams will be back destroying running backs. . .and the coverage units will welcome back Heath Farwell. Farwell, if the way the punt coverage has looked this season is any indication, might be the single greatest special teams player in the history of the National Football League. . .the coverage units with him were pretty good. Without him, they were a disaster.
(Yes, Bills fans, no Steve Tasker e-mails. . .I know that Tasker is the greatest special teams player ever. Hyperbole for the sake of emphasis is your friend.)
Is this team perfect? No. Does this team have holes? Certainly.
Does every other team in the NFC North have more holes to patch this off-season than the Beloved Purple? You're damn right they do. That's why they're behind us right now.
Do any of those teams have the best cap guy in the business working their books? Nope.
Do those teams have owners that have shown the willingness to go out and get what their teams need to patch the holes? Not as far as I can tell.
So, as things sit right now, there's no reason to think that 2009 won't be an even better season than 2008. Remember, despite the coaching and the QB play, this team has improved two games a season for the last couple of years, and they're going to continue to get better.