When one takes a CSI look at the 2012 schedule, things really couldn't have come out much better than if Val Pinchbeck – the longtime maven of NFL schedule-making – had been a fan of the team. Lately, if the Vikings weren't opening on the road, there was a Bataan death march in September or October or a lousy bye week or a horrible run of road games or a combination of all of them.
However, to look at the 2012 schedule with a little more scrutiny, there isn't much not to like about the layout. For the first time in five years, the Vikings not only open up at home, but they open against the Jacksonville Jaguars – a team nearly as hapless as the Vikings last year. Savants will note that it is the third straight home opener against a team from Florida, which is neither here nor there (another reason why savants are so frustrating).
While nobody is going to confuse the 2012 Vikings with the 2009 team, the layout of the schedule is based so much on timing that, in a league where there isn't much of a difference between a 10-6 team, an 8-8 team and a 6-10 team (literally a handful of plays can make that difference), the Vikings' luck with their schedule is pronounced.
In a quarterback-driven league, the layout of the schedule could have been much worse. The Vikings could have faced the Packers, Lions, Bears and Texans coming out of the gate and been potentially brutalized. Instead, in their first six games, they face the anticipated prospect of going against 2011 rookie bust Blaine Gabbert, 2012 rookie Andrew Luck, pedestrian Alex Smith, untested second-year man Jake Locker and rookie Robert Griffin III over the course of their first six games. Even Matthew Stafford has a limited resume, but he is viewed as the best of the crop in the first six games of the season. None of the other five has a winning record as a starter and, as of this moment, three of the other five have no NFL starting experience.
Even beyond those first six games, the Vikings don't face a killer QB threat. Kevin Kolb (Arizona), Josh Freeman (Tampa Bay) and Tarvaris Jackson or Matt Flynn (Seattle) will only get to a Pro Bowl if they buy a ticket. In the first 10 weeks prior to the Vikings' bye week, the run-down of QBs the Vikings will face is both inexperienced and, in some cases, pretty ugly.
In the first 10 games, they will face Stafford twice. He has made 29 NFL starts with a record of 13-16. The others? Gabbert has started 14 games, posting a 4-10 record. Luck will have one start when the Vikings meet Indianapolis. Alex Smith, even with a 13-3 record last year, is 32-35 in 67 career starts. Locker has yet to start a game. Same with RG3. Kolb has put together 16 career starts (the equivalent of one full season), posting a 6-10 record. Freeman has made 40 starts, posting a record of 17-23 as a starter. The only quarterback with a .500 record as a starting QB, of all people, is T-Jack, who is 17-17 in 34 career starts.
NFL teams of recent vintage have risen and fallen due to the play of their quarterbacks. A healthy Brett Favre (as healthy as his battle-scarred body could be in 2009) led the Vikings to a 12-4 record. An injured Favre in 2010 started the current franchise descent into the outhouse of the league. When the Vikings hit the bye week, they will have played 10 games against quarterbacks that, as of today, have a combined 229 career starts – winning 102 and losing 127. By the end of the season, QBs like Luck, Griffin, Gabbert and Locker may be much better than they will be when they face the Vikings in the first half of the season.
Even better for the Vikings is the willingness for the schedule-makers to get the Soldier Field monkey off the Vikings' back. The Vikings have lost the last four games at Chicago and 10 of the last 11. But, thanks to luck or karma or a scheduling snafu, the Vikings are going to get as big an advantage as they possibly can when they make their annual pilgrimage to the house that Halas built this year. When the Vikings meet Chicago in Week 12, Minnesota will be coming off of a bye week – two full weeks of healing and prep time. The Bears will have two days to prepare for the Vikings. In Week 11, they play on Monday night at San Francisco. Tuesday and Wednesday will be effectively out of the question as far as practices go, leaving them just two full practice sessions for on-field preparations for the Vikings. If the Vikings are on a roll when the bye week hits, this advantage could be enormous.
The final six games are a minefield of bad for the Vikings – two games each with the Packers and Bears and road games against St. Louis and Houston. But, once again, the schedule-makers allowed the Vikings to control their own divisional destiny late in the season. Given the uncertainty as to when Adrian Peterson will be available – or at full strength – saving their games with the Packers and Bears until after Thanksgiving is an added bonus for a team that needs as much help as the league would allow.
Somewhere, our pal Val is looking down and smiling on the Vikings. What the Vikings do with their opportunity is up to them and will unfold when the heat of summer gives way to autumn and winter, but the schedule has been laid out to give the Vikings a chance to be a surprise team in the NFC – even in what can be argued is the toughest division in the NFL.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.