Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Perfect Storm

A friend of mine emailed me the day before the first Vikings preseason game last Friday to tell me the company he works for, which does security for the Metrodome, was short staffed. He asked if I wanted to scan tickets at the door before the game. Sure, why not?

I took the light rail up from the Fort Snelling station, arriving about 5 hours before gametime. Before pointlessly waiting around inside the Dome with everyone else for about an hour (even more depressing when its completely empty), I was handed a supposedly $1,500 "ticket scanning thing" (described as such) at Gate F, which is arguably the busiest gate for the entire stadium, as it's by one of the bigger ticket offices and across from Hubert's on 8th and Chicago. Fantastic, I thought, even though it's a preseason game, I can still gauge the level of interest, smalltalk with people, and get a general feel for the fanbase this season.

As you could guess, it was a very easy job, especially if you love saying "Thanks, enjoy the game" until it sounds positively Russian. ("thansenjoythugame"). Of course, everyone had to be thoroughly searched before getting into the Dome, lest someone in Vikings garb carry in a metal sword or wooden hammer (both of which are prominently listed on the vast "Restricted Items" list we were given). The males searched the males, the females searched the females. Thanks to a completely unexpected and unplanned decision on which turnstile I would man, I ended up getting the female ticket line, where very soon afterwards I met Racky McBouncealot, Juggs Von Smallshirt and Melonie Vandercleavage. So that worked out well. Also, being near such a busy gate allows for some A+ people watching, or even better, jersey watching. Some of the best jerseys I saw, in order:

5. Leroy Hoard
4. Chris Walsh
3. Onterrio Smith (worn by a teenage girl, no less)
2. David Dixon (sadly, no Todd Steussie jerseys)
1. Jeff George

The most popular jersey? Randy Moss. Yes, still. In fact, I'd say it was about 35-40% Moss jerseys, no lie. He's been gone for FOUR YEARS now, folks. In fact, lets just get all our Moss and Culpepper jerseys together and burn them in a gigantic inferno on 34 Kirby Puckett Way. I think that works for everyone. Everyone that agrees to throw in their jersey gets 80% off a Purple Jesus or a Tarvaris jersey.

Yeah, you heard me. A Tarvaris jersey.

Much to many folks' chagrin (including mine), Brett Favre was still the talk of the town around gametime, about how the Packers treated him, about how he would fare in New York, and mostly, about how he could have been the starting quarterback for the Vikings this year. Regardless of how everything turned out, that much more focus was put on our current starter Tarvaris Jackson, the sentiment being that the Vikings playoff (and even Super Bowl [?!]) hopes rest on his shoulders. As a result, Maalox stock has risen 200% in the past few weeks thanks to Vikes fans alone. People are sealing their remote controls in bubblewrap, lest they destroy another TV by throwing a 96mph Joe Nathan fastball towards it after Tarvaris makes a mistake. "The Vikings will only be as good as their quarterback," many people said at the gate that day. I disagree. If you ask me, the pressure falls on the man who has championed Jackson.

* * *

1975 was Bud Grant's perfect storm. The team was made in his image, his coaching ideals realized: an efficient ball-control offense led by Fran Tarkenton and Chuck Foreman, a reliable kicker, and a stone-cold defense that inspired a badass nickname, the Purple People Eaters, all of which were made that much better by playing in a frigid Met Stadium. Everyone was in their prime. They had lost two Super Bowls and many felt this was finally their year. They started 10-0 and cruised to a division title. Season ticket holders like my dad at the time insist that this was the best Vikings team ever, and their best chance to win a Super Bowl in the Bud-era, until they were screwed via the Worst Non-Call in Team Sports History. After the loss to the Cowboys, Vikings fans had realized - if this team couldn't do it, then Bud Grant will never win a Super Bowl with the Vikings.

1984 was Les Steckel's perfect storm.

(Just kidding.)

1987 was Jerry Burns' perfect storm. The team was made in his image, his coaching ideals realized: continued emphasis of the strengths of the Bud-era philosophy, with a veteran leader quarterback, an above average receiving core led by Anthony Carter, and a stone-cold defense led by Chris Doleman, Keith Millard and Joey Browner. As good as the Vikings were under Burns, they were often overlooked in the loaded NFC, waiting for their chance to finally bust through. It finally happened in the '87 Divisional Round of the playoffs, when they upset the heavily favored 49ers in San Francisco. In the NFC title game against Washington, it was now or never - in a conference where the Niners, Skins, Bears and Giants were all favored to win the Super Bowl every year, this was as good of a chance the Vikes would ever have. Unfortunately, as you know, Darrin Nelson let those hopes slip through his fingers. After the loss to the Redskins, Vikings fans had realized - if this team couldn't do it, then Jerry Burns will never win a Super Bowl with the Vikings.

1998 was Denny Green's perfect storm. The team was made in his image, his coaching ideals realized: a prolific vertical passing game, immense talent at every skill position, an opportunistic, bend-but-don't-break defense. Then the '98 NFC title game happened, where Denny proved to everyone watching that he was too easily overmatched, overwhelmed and under-prepared to ever be taken seriously. After the loss to the Falcons, Vikings fans had realized - if this team couldn't do it, then Denny Green will never win a Super Bowl with the Vikings.

2003 was Mike Tice's perfect storm. The team was made in his image, his coaching ideals realized: umm... I'll get back to you on that. Whatever they were, rest assured everything was executed while providing blatant and misguided lipservice towards both his players and the fans. Everything the Mike Tice era stood for manifested itself into the agonizing loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the last game of the 2003 season, which cost the Vikings a division title and allowed the Green Bay Packers the title and a playoff spot. After the loss to the Cardinals, Vikings fans had realized - if this team couldn't do it, then Mike Tice will never win a Super Bowl with the Vikings. Not that anyone thought he had a snowball's chance in hell to begin with.

2008 is Brad Childress's perfect storm. The team is made in his image, his coaching ideals realized: a hand-picked quarterback developed to fit the needs of a "kick-ass offense", a decidedly unspectacular but capable receiving core, a pronounced emphasis on the offensive and defensive lines, and one of the biggest gamebreakers in football at running back. We've seen this before with Childress's tenure as offensive coordinator in Philly, with McNabb as the hand-picked QB, a no-name receiving core (until TO showed up), interchangeable and inexhaustible cogs in the offensive and defensive lines, and a gamebreaker in Brian Westbrook. That team went to four straight NFC title games and one Super Bowl. Similar pieces are all in place for Childress to succeed with the Vikings.

I'm not saying that if the Vikings don't win a Super Bowl this year that the Childress era is doomed to failure entirely. I'm saying this is, as far as we know so far, the team that best exemplifies Childress's ideals as a head coach. This team is now entirely in his vision, both from a personnel and philosophical standpoint, so how this year plays out will indicate what exactly we as fans can expect. Is he The Guy we've been waiting for since Bud Grant? Can the defense keep a team under 250 yards passing? Can the D-line evoke memories of Alan Page, Carl Eller and Jim Marshall? Can Sidney Rice make The Leap? Can Adrian Peterson possibly live up to expectations? Can the Vikings stop playing to the level of their competition and find some consistency? And most importantly: Is Tarvaris going to be an NFL quarterback that's capable of taking over games, instead of just being told "Don't screw it up"?

I say that's most important because I could look back at that last sentence at the end of this season and feel any range of emotion. I could beam and proudly say "Damn right he is!", I could bury my face in my hands and mutter obscenities to myself, I could start biting my nails like I did all of last season, I could jump out of my chair and click my heels, I could down a bottle of Drano... any of those reactions are very possible. But watching Tarvaris operate so far in the preseason, and yes I'm well aware that I just said "preseason", but... he's looked, well, normal. He's looked like an NFL starting quarterback. He's stepping up in the pocket when pressured, he's making quick decisions with a very good success rate, he's making accurate throws, he's not forcing anything but he's not afraid of taking a chance, and he's not giving me a heart attack anytime he drops back to throw.

That's the biggest difference in watching Tarvaris from last year to this year. Last year it sure seemed he inherited Daunte Culpepper's uncanny ability to make every single Vikings fan recoil in horror anytime he dropped back to pass. ANYTHING was possible when Daunte dropped back - he could fumble the snap, he could step on Matt Birk's heel and fall on his ass, he could run for 50 yards, he could inexplicably drop the ball and chase after it as if it were a live chicken, he could throw into triple coverage, he could throw into quadruple coverage, he could throw a 50 yard bomb to Moss, he could heave the ball out of bounds on a third-and-4 and walk off the field with a "Derrrr I made a good decision!" look on his face, he could disarm a nuclear bomb, he could trip over said bomb and inadvertantly re-arm it, he could rescue a baby from a burning building, he could take a huge dump on the 20 yard line. I mean it, anything was capable of happening with Daunte. It sure seemed that way last year with Tarvaris, only with much less of a success rate. But watching him so far in two preseason games, and yes I'm well aware that I just said "two preseason games", but... I'm not terrified. I can't really put my finger on it yet.

Tarvaris has been treated largely unfairly so far by Vikings fans (myself included). I've written about this before - it's not realistic to expect an NFL quarterback in his 2nd year to immediately become a huge difference-maker. Guys that make an impact right out of the gate - like Marino, Roethlisberger, and Romo to name a few - are the exception to the rule. There are three times as many Cade McNowns as there are Big Bens. Quarterbacks need time, there's no way around it. And that's where Childress comes in. He handled the Favre debacle very well - he didn't even discuss the possibility of bringing him in, denied any serious talks about having him come aboard, and stayed true to Tarvaris. That sounds pretty funny on paper, but I think it goes a long way. This is Tarvaris's third year - he's used to the speed of the game, he's used to the players, he's used to the plays, he's used to the environment. He's had time, and now this is his chance. He's got nothing to lose. It's the guy that put him in the position he's in, the guy in whom has instilled his image and coaching ideals, that has everything to lose.

That said, I'm not huddled under a desk reciting 28 straight Hail Marys.

I've cut it to about 23.

Hey, I'm still a Vikings fan.

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