Even though he hadn't practiced with the team since mid-August, it was generally assumed that Minnesota Vikings' center John Sullivan was going to be ready to go for Monday night's season opener against the San Francisco 49ers.
Not so much, no.
Eric posted the news earlier about Sullivan undergoing back surgery. . .a "lumbar microdiscectomy," if you're a medical buff. . .and has been placed on injured reserve with the ability to return. (I refuse to call it "IR Boomerang" because. . .well, because that's stupid.) He will miss the first eight games of the season, at a minimum, and his loss makes what may have already been the Vikings' weakest unit even weaker.
If you were to cobble together the short list of the players that the Minnesota Vikings absolutely can't do without, John Sullivan's name is on it. Frankly, Sullivan and Teddy Bridgewater are probably 1-2 on that list, in whatever order you want to put them in. Of the Vikings' 96 regular season games since he took over the starting job for Matt Birk in 2009, Sullivan has been the team's starting center in 93 of them, and hasn't missed a start since a loss to the Packers at the Metrodome in 2011. Counting the post-season, that's 58 consecutive starts for Sullivan, the guy that was supposed to be the one constant about the Vikings' offensive line.
Looking at the rest of the line, left tackle Matt Kalil is coming off of two straight train wreck seasons, though he's apparently feeling much better now. Left guard Brandon Fusco is new to the left side and still new to working with Kalil. Right guard Mike Harris has still only played one regular season NFL game at right guard, and that as an injury substitute last year in Buffalo. The right tackle, T.J. Clemmings, is a rookie that was originally expected to serve in a backup capacity at tackle prior to Phil Loadholt going down for the season.
Joe Berger will likely step in at center for Sullivan, as he has so far in the preseason, and he's been a solid performer wherever the Vikings have asked him to step in. As it stands right now, the three players that comprise the backups along the offensive line have appeared in a combined two NFL games. . .both by Jeremiah Sirles, who the Vikings acquired in a trade with the San Diego Chargers less than a week ago.
Without Sullivan this preseason, the Vikings' run blocking. . .at least from the first unit. . .was nothing short of utterly atrocious. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that the return of Adrian Peterson is going to magically give the offensive line the ability to run block again, but seriously, the man hasn't played a single snap of competitive football in over a calendar year. We can talk about what great shape he's in and everything else until the cows come home, but until we actually see it, nobody really knows how that's going to go for Minnesota. In any case, running backs need holes to run through, regardless of whether or not people want to pretend that they don't.
Perhaps. . .nay, definitely. . .more importantly, somebody still has to protect Teddy Bridgewater. Berger is a good enough player from a physical standpoint, but with as many games as Sullivan has started at center over the years, there's very little he hasn't seen. He's the guy that makes the line calls and helps young Bridgewater in blitz identification before the snap. Not to say that Bridgewater can't handle such things, but having someone with Sullivan's experience certainly helps in that regard. This team is already waiting to see if Kalil can handle things on Bridgewater's blind side and if Clemmings can handle things at the other tackle spot. . .having to potentially worry about pressure up the middle now just makes those things that much more important.
The Vikings have built depth at enough positions where there are very few injuries that could potentially derail what has all the other trappings of a very promising season for our favorite football team. The injury to John Sullivan is one of them. At this point, the team needs to hope that Sullivan can get well quickly, and that the paper-thin offensive line that remains can hold up until he returns.