No matter how many times this team has crushed my sports soul over the years, the beginning of each season gives me a sense of hope. Some years are a lot more hopeful than others, and this year was shaping up to be one of raised expectations and very high hopes.
Then, ISIS detonated a pipe bomb in Teddy Bridgewater's knee, and the 'why us' feeling hit me all over again. I've been a fan of this team for over 40 years, and every time it feels like things are finally looking up for this team, something disastrous happens, either on or off the field. But the Vikings shook that off, or tried to, by making a bold trade with the Eagles for Sam Bradford. And things seemed to be moving in the right direction.
Until Adrian Peterson AND Matt Kalil went down. It was a 'SERIOUSLY COME ON MAN' moment for me, because no team can absorb the loss of their dynamic young quarterback, their Hall of Fame running back, and their starting left tackle within the course of one month and keep moving forward.
I'm trying to remember the last time a team lost three key starters like that and still managed to rise into the rarefied air of an elite team. Teams have lost their quarterbacks and won it all, teams have lost their top running back, and teams have lost a starting left tackle and survived and even thrived...but all three? I can't come up with an example, and it goes to show that what Mike Zimmer is in the process of doing is here in Minnesota is special. This team is gonna make you notice them, and they aren't pretenders. Are they, Ms. Hynde?
Got brass in pocket
Got bottle I'm gonna use it
Intention I feel inventive
Gonna make you, make you, make you notice
Got motion restrained emotion
Been driving Detroit leaning
No reason just seems so pleasing
Gonna make you, make you, make you notice
Gonna use my arms
Gonna use my legs
Gonna use my style
Gonna use my sidestep
Gonna use my fingers
Gonna use my, my, my imagination
'Cause I gonna make you see
There's nobody else here
No one like me
I'm special, so special
I gotta have some of your attention give it to me
Your undefeated quarterly report follows.
Blue Chip Stocks:
Rick Spielman, GM: There's no GM in the history of the NFL that's nailed every pick, trade, or free agent signing, and there have been bold trades that have blown up weeks or months down the road. Hell, we lived that with the Herschel Walker trade. But Vikings GM Rick Spielman deserves all the credit in the world here, at least through four games, for going all in with his poker chips and making the Bradford trade. But that was just the nightcap on several seasons worth of moves that got the Vikings to the point where they felt they could go make a move like that. From the Percy Harvin trade, trades and moves that netted nine first round picks in his five full years as GM, to under the radar free agent signings, Spielman has gone about the business of assembling a roster that is talented, deep, and ready to win, even without Teddy Bridgewater, Adrian Peterson, Matt Kalil, and Shariff Floyd.
Mike Zimmer, HC: When I go down the list of NFL head coaches, I can't think of any other coach that could absorb the losses the Vikings have absorbed while still playing at such a high level, with the exception of Bill Belichick. Zimmer's no-nonsense brutal honesty has engendered a loyalty from his players and fans that is making him beloved in this part of the country, to a level not seen since one Harry P. 'Bud' Grant roamed the Met Stadium sidelines. Zimmer and his staff are coaching the hell out of this team, and the results are undeniable right now. For the first time in a long, long time, on game day I feel the Vikings have a distinct strategic advantage with Zimmer and his staff over the opponent's head coach and staff.
Everson Griffen, DE: We all knew that Griffen was a good defensive end, but he has exceeded most people's expectations and has vaulted into an area where he is legitimately one of the best 2-3 defensive ends in the NFL. His edge pressure is as constant as Jared Allen's was in his heyday, yet Griffen is a lot more disciplined and is able to play the run, or defend a screen just as effectively as he can rush the quarterback. Griffen is as complete a player at the defensive end position as there is in the NFL, and the derision the Vikings received when they signed him to a big contract extension a couple seasons back seems like sour milk right about now. Suck it, Forbes. You're probably Packers fans, anyway.
Danielle Hunter, DE: Another draft gem that the Vikings are developing into a heck of a football player, the Hunter pick in the third round of the 2015 draft was initially received with a sense of puzzlement. Hunter is a physical specimen, but had a very run of the mill career at LSU. Under the tutelage of Zimmer and company, he has become an integral part of what is probably the deepest defensive line in the NFL. He is tied for second on the team with three sacks, and is technically the backup to Brian Robison. But make no mistake, Hunter is good enough that he could start on at least a dozen teams, if not more, and is becoming as complete a player as Griffen is. All he needs is some more playing time and experience.
Xavier Rhodes, CB: How good is Xavier Rhodes? This good:
When Xavier Rhodes has been targeted this season, he's allowed an NFL passer rating of 0.0. 3 for 10 for 23 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT and 1 PD.— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) October 4, 2016
Pro Football Focus can have some interpretive or subjective issues, shall we say, when evaluating individual performances, but these are hard numbers. And they show a couple things. For one, you're not going to have a lot of success against him, and he can match up against any premier wideout in the NFL and shut him down. And in the case of Odell Beckham, Jr., can get inside his head and completely off his game. Rhodes is now, in my opinion, the definition of a true shutdown corner, and teams are going to quit throwing at him.
Sam Bradford, QB: What Bradford has done has been close to remarkable in his short time in Minnesota. Having to learn a new system and find a rhythm with new wide receivers in such a short period of time is a lot to ask of anyone, especially a guy that came in with the reputation Bradford had when he was traded to Minnesota. he started shutting up a lot of people against Green Bay, and each game you can see his comfort in this offense and with his receivers growing. Bradford has played incredibly efficient and smart football, and against the Giants the offense was as much of a contributor in the win as the defense was. And that, my friends, should be something that scares everyone in the NFL.
Harrison Smith, S: Hey, remember back in 2012 when the Vikings traded back into the first round to get Smith, and a lot of people were all RAWR RAWR WHAT A DUMB TRADE RAWR RAWR? Without calling out anyone, I have, and it's funny, considering that Smith has developed into the best safety in the NFL. Smith does so many things well from the safety position, that he is, arguably, the most indispensable player on defense. As good as guys like Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter are, the line could absorb their loss for a short period of time and still play at a high level. And to a lesser extent, the same could be said for the linebacker position group. But Smith is about as close to irreplaceable as there is for a guy on the Vikings defense, and he shows it week in and week out.
Stefon Diggs, WR: Diggs started out on fire the first two weeks of the season and has cooled off a bit, but he still remains the Vikings leading receiver, and Bradford's favorite target. Diggs does a lot of things very well, and even when teams roll their coverage to him, as they're now doing, he still makes plays and keeps the chains moving. He has soft hands, nimble feet, and a burst that makes him tough to bring down if he gets into the open field. I'm going to love watching this kid play for a lot of years.
Kyle Rudolph, TE: Rudolph, after a few years of injury and general disappointment, is finally blossoming in Norv Turner's offense, and is becoming Minnesota's biggest red zone threat. He's now had impressive, contested TD catches in three consecutive games, and seems to now be Bradford's go to guy when he looks to the end zone. Rudolph still has one puzzling drop a game, it seems, but he's becoming a very, very good tight end.
Trae Waynes, CB: Waynes has made great strides since last season, when he was, as some of you love to point out all the damn time, a first round pick that rarely saw the field. He had a rough outing against Tennessee, a brutal second half against Green Bay...but Waynes hasn't been bad. That brutal 3rd and 4th quarter against the Packers was balanced out by a solid first half and a game clinching interception, and since that game his level of play has improved noticeably against Carolina and the Giants.
Jeff Locke, P: Locke has morphed into a full blown special teams weapon for the Vikings so far this year, which is a far cry from the liability he had been up until now. He's really only had one bad punt all season, and that was the block by the Packers in week 2. And it's hard to fault him for that. His consistent ability to flip field position makes it really difficult for opposing offenses to score against the ferocious Vikings defense, and that's been a key reason the Vikings find themselves at 4-0.
Adam Thielen, WR: The emergence of Thielen has been fun to watch. Thielen is a guy that will get you tough yards in the air when you need tough yards, and is solidly entrenched as the Vikings third wide receiver. He reminds me of a more polished Chris Walsh, and gives off the vibe of the next People's Champion. He's a guy you just want to cheer for, and he gives plenty of reasons to do just that.
Cordarrelle Patterson, WR: How about a nice round of applause for Patterson, folks? Whatever the phrase is that you want to use--light coming on, the switch flipping, whatever--Patterson has become a significant contributor to the 2016 Vikings, and that's good to see. He's had two big special teams plays in a row, and against the Giants he caught five passes, which seems like a fairly pedestrian number. But as Eric pointed out in the SMR, that's as many passes as Patterson had caught in his previous 20 games, and his re-dedication is starting to pay off. He's being integrated back in to the offense, and with his talents, he's going to make a difference before it's all said and done.
Charles Johnson, WR: For the last two years we've heard how Johnson is ready to take the next step and have a breakout season for the Vikings. And for one year and four games, we have yet to really see anything that tells us it's going to happen. Yes, CJ was hurt for a good part of last season, but this year? He's kind of been the forgotten man in this passing offense behind Diggs, Rudolph, and Thielen. He only has one more reception than Matt Asiata, and although he had a big catch against the Giants, he has yet to show that he is, in fact, taking that next step.
Matt Kalil, T: A career that started out so promising seems to be coming to a close (at least with the Vikings) with injuries, sub par play, and a lot of frustration. A hip injury has sidelined Kalil for what looks to be the rest of the season, and his play up until then had been, yet again, very disappointing. Kalil's future with the Vikings is really clouded right now, but I can see a scenario where he comes back. It's not going to be for the money he's making this year, but a healthy Kalil could be a fairly decent player. Can he stay healthy? That's a fair question to ask, and if T.J. Clemmings can step up, there's a good chance that Vikings management won't even ask the question.
Brandon Fusco, G: Remember when we thought a move back to the right side was going to really benefit Fusco in particular, and the offensive line as a whole? Yeah, that was dumb. Fusco is still struggling, and the Mike Harris injury is really being felt right about now. I don't think he's playing as bad as he was last year on the left side, but what we thought was going to be an answer at right guard is still a question.
Jarius Wright, WR: If CJ has become the Forgotten Man, Jarius Wright has become the Invisible Man, as he has been deactivated for all but one of Minnesota's four games so far this year. It's been a stunning fall for Wright, a guy that seemed firmly entrenched as the third wide receiver at the beginning of training camp. But an injury and the emergence of Thielen has squeezed out Wright, and if this dynamic doesn't change, I can envision a scenario where the Vikings trade Wright, or flat out release him and absorb the $1.68 million cap hit next year.
Laquon Treadwell, WR: BEFORE WE GO ANY FURTHER NO LAQUON TREADWELL IS NOT A BUST, OKAY GUYS? Let's calm down with that talk, seriously, it's been four whole games. But what happens to Wright at the end of the season kind of depends on how well Treadwell develops. And so far, it's been a rough start for the first round pick. He was deactivated against Carolina, has only seen the field for a handful of plays the other three games, and has yet to make his first catch in the NFL. I'm not worried, because I'm using the Trae Waynes template on him, and I think Waynes is really developing into a good player. The Vikings have the luxury of bringing him along slowly, and I think by the end of the year he'll be contributing, and eventually starting. Still, I would have liked to see the development come along faster than it has.
Adrian Peterson, RB: The knee injury was the cherry on top of an incredibly disappointing start for AP. Before he was hurt, he only had 50 yards on 31 carries, and no scores. No, it wasn't all his fault as the line blocking early on was porous, but Peterson was leaving a lot of yards on the field. Instead of taking the ball and hitting the hole for four or five yards, his inclination was to dance at the line of scrimmage and try to bounce it outside. He is one of the best ever at being able to use his lateral speed to beat a pursuer to the edge, turn the corner and then...magic. I don't know that Peterson has that lateral burst to be able to do that anymore, or at least like he could in the past. But his belief in his ability to do that was hurting the football team, to be quite honest.
Andre Smith, RT: All I know is that when Smith was hurt against the Giants and was replaced by Jeremiah Sirles, Sirles passed the eye test way more than Smith has so far this season. Smith has been overmatched both in run and pass blocking, and I have a feeling Sirles will be taking over for Smith by the end of the season if SMith doesn't figure it out, and fast. At least I hope so.
Buy: The Vikings made a concerted effort to shore up the offensive line. When 60% of your quarterly report were starting on the offensive line in week one, you would think the Vikings had done nothing to upgrade the group. But that's simply not true. Granted, they didn't make any splash free agency signings or use a high round pick on a lineman, but they did bring in two guys via free agency they thought would be decent upgrades in Alex Boone and Smith. With those additions, and the return of Phil Loadholt and John Sullivan from injuries, I thought the Vikings line had a ceiling of at least league average. Not elite, but definitely improved.
Sell: Those moves made the offensive line better. Boone, for the most part, has been decent, and with him locking down the LG spot, we were looking for a pitched battle at RG between Fusco and Harris. And competition all along the line to see who would win starting jobs, actually. But that plan blew up before camp even started, as Phil Loadholt retired. Then Fusco got hurt in camp, and the Battle For Center between Joe Berger and John Sullivan never really materialized either. But Sullivan's subpar play caused him to be released in the first round of cuts, anyway, and Berger won that job almost by default. And now with Kalil out for the year, the Vikings are back to the patchwork line that we thought might have been behind us. But that said...Jeremiah Sirles has played well in relief of Alex Boone in week three and Smith on Monday night, and T.J. Clemmings has done okay in place of Kalil so far. yeah, I know PFF has Clemmings as the lowest rated T in football, but again, I make reference to the subjectivity line from earlier. Clemmings has passed the eye test to me, and I am, so far, strangely comfortable with him at LT.
Buy: US Bank Stadium is a legitimate home field advantage. I was able to go to the game Monday Night, and holy crap kids...go if you get the chance.I was up in Minneapolis for work, and stayed over to see the game, and am so glad I did, you guys. I was literally left speechless when I saw the stadium, and yeah, I'll admit, that's kind of hard to do. The entire experience, from the stadium, to the Skol Chant, to Randy Moss blowing the gjallahorn...I can't really put it into words other than to say it was akin to a religious experience. And my goodness, was it loud. I was fortunate enough to attend game 7 of the 2011 World Series here in St. Louis, and I thought that stadium was loud. But US Bank Stadium dwarfed the noise level from that night, and I'm not engaging in hyperbole or exaggerating when I say that. It was, hands down, the loudest stadium I've ever been in, and I can't even imagine the Bananas Level it will reach during the playoffs.
Sell:The Vikings will lose two or more home games. I just don't see it. Their remaining home games are Houston, Detroit, Arizona, Dallas, Indy, and Chicago. Dallas is playing well, but even if Tony Romo is back I can't imagine an offense coming into that environment, against this defense, and coming out with a win, unless it's a game full of really fluky plays. Honestly, I see the Vikings being favored in all of their remaining home games. That facility is incredible, and if it's not already the best home field advantage in the NFL, it's top two or three.
Buy: The Sam Bradford trade. Rick Spielman got pilloried for giving up a first round pick and a conditional fourth round pick for Bradford, but so far he's looking like a damn mad scientist genius. It will take a few years to give a full accounting of this move, much like draft classes, but it feels like this is a perfect match of player, team, and system. And if nothing else, it keeps the Vikings at a level where they can compete for the division title and more, and at the quarter pole, that makes the deal worth it. Plus, when Teddy Bridgewater comes back, the Vikings will potentially have an embarrassment of riches at QB, and the last time we could say that was when Fran Tarkenton and Tommy Kramer were on the roster. Seriously.
Sell: The value of a late first round pick, when taken in context. I'm really not trying to over-correct on the Bradford trade, or minimize the trading of a first round draft pick here, I'm really not. If the Vikings were coming off a 4-12 or 5-11 season and were rebuilding, then no, you don't make that trade because it would be stupid to do so. But when you look at the situation the Vikings found themselves in when Teddy went down, this was a gamble worth taking. You have a championship-caliber defense and (at the time) a Hall of Fame running back on a young team that has a Super Bowl window open. These opportunities don't come along all that often, and not trying to do everything in your power to make a Super Bowl run would have been cheating the players that were still on the roster, healthy, and ready to roll. Because if it works out like you think, that first round pick is in the late 20's, and when you factor in the rest of the Vikings eight draft picks in 2017, you're not sacrificing your future by dealing a single first round pick.
Buy: The Zim Reaper Defense. My podcast partner Di Murphy has tried to tell me that this defense can be as good as the Purple People Eaters, and I just kind of ignored her. And by ignore, I mean made a lot of jokes and said STAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHP. Yeah....she, and many of you who also want to make that comparison could very well be right in that assessment. There's not a deeper or more talented defensive line in the NFL than the one the Vikings have. You will be hard pressed to find two linebackers that have the combination of youth and talent that Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks possess. The Vikings secondary has a true shutdown corner in Xavier Rhodes, a great vet/youth tandem split in Terence Newman and Trae Waynes, the best nickel back in the NFL in Captain Munnerlyn, and the best safety in the NFL in Harrison Smith. And Andrew Sendejo. From front to back, it's young, athletic, and really, really good. And if this 'Zim Reaper' nickname sticks, it will rival the Purple People Eaters nickname.
Sell: This team is just about the defense. Immediately after Teddy went down, the Vikings had to really lean on their defense and get them through the opening game in Tennessee. But in the subsequent games, as Sam Bradford has gained a level of comfort in the offense, this team is becoming more balanced. The defense is ferocious, don't get me wrong, but the running game is more effective, Bradford is throwing the ball as well as he ever has, and the offense really stepped up against the Giants. When the defense gave up that long screen pass and subsequent TD to get the score narrowed to 17-10, the Vikings offense took the ensuing kickoff and methodically shoved the ball down New York's throat with a TD drive that sealed the game. When you add in the mostly stellar play of the special teams (OH HAI BLAIR WALSH NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT YOU HERE), each unit is making significant contributions every week, and that can't be overstated.
It's been a good month for the Vikings...and they've lost their starting QB, starting RB, and starting LT for the season. If you would've told me a month ago all those injuries would happen and the Vikings would be undefeated, I'd have had you drug tested. Yet here we are, 4-0 in the NFC North, and one of only three undefeated teams remaining in the NFL.
Football is a crazy sport, kids.