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What A Year: Looking Back, Looking Forward

My, oh, my, what a difference a year makes. Especially with the Minnesota Vikings.

It seems as though every year has new and peculiar stories that headline the season, and, frequently, it isn't the stuff you think it will be that becomes the most talked about story of the year. With this team, you never know what is going to happen. The Vikings may have 99 problems, but boring ain't one of 'em.

Before the start of the 2012 Minnesota Vikings Training Camp, let's take a quick look back at the last year.

Some highs and lows from the last year after the jump--don't worry, it might take awhile to get to them, but there are more highs than you might think.

In the beginning...

Just a year ago we didn't know if there would even be a Vikings Training Camp in Mankato because the NFL was staring down the Players' Association as both sides tried to hammer out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. There were times in the process where I dreaded what DeMaurice Smith and Roger Goodell would say next because it only seemed to deepen the divide between the sides. But then, like a last second reprieve, an agreement was reached and, not only was Training Camp going to happen, but the Daily Norseman was going to be there.

We were thrilled that the Vikings organization was willing to take a chance on allowing non-traditional media to have media access. Granted, they weren't taking too big a chance (they let us cover only two days of camp), but we were still happy. In dating terms, it was like a coffee date--very low chances of getting screwed.

Despite the excitement that led up to Training Camp with the new CBA and a new head coach, there was a kind of constant--the Vikings were turning to a veteran quarterback to lead the team. Donovan McNabb signed with the Vikings just as DN packed our bags for Mankato. He'd been signed at the urging of Leslie Frazier, who wanted to let rookie quarterback Christian Ponder have a year to learn behind a veteran. Since the NFL lockout deprived Ponder the benefit of any rookie mini-camps during the off-season to prep him to be a starter, this didn't seem like a dumb decision.

The shine begins to wear off

But, it was a dumb decision. A really dumb decision.

A few weeks into the season it was plain that Donovan McNabb was not going to have the kind of late-career renaissance with the Vikings that his predecessor, Brett Favre, had with them in 2009. In fact, it was so bad that McNabb was benched in favor of the untried rookie, Ponder.

Ponder had his first start at home against the then reigning Super Bowl champions from Wisconsin. The Vikings lost, but it wasn't the massacre that many predicted it would be. It shows just how much fan expectations had changed in just a few weeks that we saw a close loss as a positive sign.

Portents of doom

But underlying the positive things that fans saw from Ponder were two major points of concern: 1) the Vikings offensive line needed help, 2) the defensive secondary needed help. Both were areas the team addressed a few months later in the 2012 NFL Draft.

Bryant McKinnie had showed up at the Vikings Training Camp a much larger version of himself than the Vikings had expected. The NFL Lockout meant players were responsible for being physically ready for Training Camp without the benefit of any team conditioning programs. For some players, this was not an issue, but McKinnie seemed to have practiced the gentle art of mastering the all-you-can-eat buffet. While other players in Mankato were practicing drills, McKinnie was jogging through slow-motion wind sprints under the watchful eye of a trainer because, apparently, they were afraid his dangerously high cholesterol would send him into atrial fibrillation or stroke. In that condition, McKinnie wasn't an asset to the team so they released him.

This led to a shift in the line and Charlie Johnson suddenly filling McKinnie's spot. It wasn't ideal, but the team didn't seem to have a lot of options at the time. While this was problematic for protecting veterans, when the Vikings moved Ponder to starter, the line's weaknesses put the franchise's quarterback of the future in jeopardy.

Conspicuously missing the Vikings' defense on Ponder's first start was second-year corner back Chris Cook. He had been arrested for an alleged domestic assault and found himself unable to attend the Vikings' game against a major divisional rival. Cook has since been found not guilty of that crime, but his absence on the field helped highlight the Vikings' woes in the defensive secondary. As (I think it was) Eric said, if the secondary had been a band they would have been called Antoine Winfield and the Mediocrity. All Aaron Rogers had to do was not throw the ball near Winfield and he had a lovely day. It was a scene fans witnessed week after week as quarterbacks picked the Vikings' spotty coverage apart game after game in 2011. The secondary wasn't very good and everybody, everybody knew it.

A new hope

However, there's nothing quite like seeing the team's deficiencies glow each week like cancer on a PET scan for bringing about change. The Vikings finally had to truly and publicly acknowledge that they were not a couple players away from being a playoff caliber team. They might have been one in 2010, but that didn't pan out. At the start of the 2011 season when the team told fans the same thing, that they could win lots of games, even the most optimistic of us had to wonder what they were smoking. But after 2011's 3-13 record tied for a franchise worst, no one could claim that the team needed anything short of a full-scale roster and organizational rebuild.

Rick Spielman was named at the Vikings' General Manager. Spielman wasn't a new face but, finally, for better or worse, the organization had a single person in charge of all football decisions. The change was long overdue. The infamous "Triangle of Authority" the team had used when the Wilfs bought the team had not worked and it was time to put a single person in charge.

It didn't take long for the Vikings' roster to feel the effects of Spielman's new authority as he began to implement a youth-focused rebuilding effort. Veteran players like Steve Hutchinson, Anthony Herrera, and Ryan Longwell departed and the Vikings were uncharacteristically quiet during free-agency, avoiding splashy acquisitions, opting instead for several one-year deals. People might not have been excited by those moves, but everyone knew the real show was going to be the 2012 NFL Draft.

I guess only time will really tell how much of a coup Spielman's first draft as GM was, but the fact that Spielman was able to trade down from third overall to fourth while still picking up elite USC left tackle, Matt Kalil and getting some extra picks, wasn't too shabby. Then Spielman traded up to nab safety Harrison Smith with the 29th overall pick, showing immediate attention to two of the Vikings most glaring needs.

Bright spots, there were some

With a 3-13 record, there just weren't a lot of thrilling highlights for the Vikings in 2011. However, like a light in a dark place, fans were able to look to a few players for entertainment and hope for next season.

Right up until December 24, 2011 when he torn his ACL against the Washington Redskins, Adrian Peterson ran the ball as if the Vikings were going to the playoffs. He reached the milestone of 6,000 yards at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on September 18. A few weeks later on October 9, Peterson set a new franchise record, scoring three touchdowns in the very first quarter of the Vikings' win over the Arizona Cardinals. Although 2011 was the first season since Peterson entered the league that he didn't rush for at least 1,000 yards, he missed that mark by only 30 yards in a season cut short by a serious injury.

Whether Peterson will be the same player after his ACL injury that he was before the injury has been debated at length. No matter what Peterson or anyone else might say about it, we don't know how he will be or exactly when he'll take the field again. What we do know is that he had surgery about a week after the injury, putting him on a faster recovery track than some athletes who have suffered torn ACLs. We know that he's worked very hard with the Vikings' medical staff to regain strength and mobility. Peterson's drive to regain his health is the kind of thing that makes fans refuse to put away their #28 jerseys.

Although his recent drama and rumored trade request have made him, however briefly, a pariah, Percy Harvin proved, yet again, that he could be an offensive work-horse/threat from just about any part of the field. He piled up 967 yards receiving and 345 yards rushing, and he averaged 32.5 yards per return on kick returns. Harvin got dinged up a lot with the physical way he played, not shying away from contact over the middle of the field, but he played all 16 games despite painful rib injuries. His teammates voted him the 2011 Vikings Offensive MVP.

Jared Allen came breathtakingly close to tying/breaking Michael Strahan's single-season sack record. I was at the New Year's Day home game against the Bears when Allen broke Chris Doleman's Vikings single-season sack record and the Dome was electric as Allen celebrated with his teammates and hugged his wife and baby girl. It was a great moment for a guy who led the NFL in sacks for the second time in his career in 2011, and earned 1st-Team All-Pro honors for the fourth time in his career.

Home sweet home

The only thing that prevented Vikings fans from feeling that things had to be better in 2012 than they were in 2011 was the lingering stadium debacle. For about a decade, the Vikings had been trying to work out a deal for a new stadium in Minnesota. And, for about a decade, that dream of a new stadium deal was about as likely as John Mayer not acting like a jerk.

Things got ugly. I still can't think about the stadium fight without cringing. Minnesota State Legislators argued in St. Paul, supporters and detractors held rallies, bigwigs from the NFL came to town to explain the industry's position on the issue, and Vikings fans across the world held a collective breath, not knowing what the outcome would be when the dust settled.

Somehow, despite all the obstacles and stalling and misinformation (some people still think the stadium is going to be paid for from Minnesota's general fund--not so much) and bad ju-ju, the Vikings and Minnesota finally agreed on a deal for a new stadium. That deal guaranteed that our team would stay in Minnesota for the next 30 years and, no matter what else might happen with this team, at least they will stay our Minnesota Vikings.

Here and now

Now we're just a couple days away from the start of the Vikings 2012 Training Camp in Mankato, a week from the Daily Norseman's arrival at Training camp, less than a month away from preseason football, and roughly seven weeks from the start of 2012 regular season games.

The Vikings in 2012 are still a mystery, but looking back over the last twelve months, there are some good reasons to look forward to the next twelve months with cautious optimism. And the Daily Norseman will have a front-row seat for the first wave of that future, attending Training Camp in Mankato--again.

Are you ready for some football?