The Vikings officially begin the process of burying the 2011 season tonight when they meet the San Francisco 49ers. The rebuilding of the franchise will be put on display and there will be a set of goals the team will likely have in place. The goal for tonight won't be defined by whether they win or not. It will be defined by reaching some simple objectives. These are the top five among them:
Keep Everybody Healthy – Thursday night's games proved how serious preseason games can be when the hitting is for real – even if the results don't count. Ask the San Diego Chargers, who lost star running back Ryan Mathews with a broken collarbone. Ask the Philadelphia Eagles, which a got a scare when Michael Vick came out of the game with a hand injury after banging his throwing hand on a helmet. Injuries happen and it's understandable why some teams get their starters in and out of the game in a hurry.
Get the Offense Off the Field After One Drive – Head coach Leslie Frazier made it clear this week that he intends to have the first team offense on the field for a drive or two tonight – with the difference being how the team operates in its first drive. In ideal circumstances, the first-team offense has a good drive and gets off the field with points. If that happens, their confidence will be high and their exposure will be low. If the Vikings get a TD on their first drive, don't expect to see the starters come back.
Get a Long Look At the Backup Linebackers – The Vikings have seen their depth at linebacker all but eliminated and have plenty of question marks at the position – both among the starters and the reserves. Tonight will be the first opportunity to see where the Vikings stand against a quality team and whether they have the firepower at linebacker to get the job done over the course of a 16-game season.
Prove They Can Run the Ball – When you have Adrian Peterson as the centerpiece of your offense, you qualify as a run-first team. So many of the plays in the Vikings offensive scheme are predicated on having A.P. available and running the ball. With Peterson out, the running back rotation has changed, but the offensive mindset remains the same. Toby Gerhart is the starter until Peterson returns, but the Vikings need to see what they have among their backup backs and who can get the job done.
Answer Questions At Safety – There may be no position that has more uncertainty than safety. The Vikings haven't gotten much production from the position since Darren Sharper headed south to New Orleans. The team traded back into the first round to get Harrison Smith, who they envision as a long-term playmaker. Can he supplant either Mistral Raymond or Jamarca Sanford? That question will start being answered tonight. More than likely, he overtake one of them in the next week or two, but which one?
The Vikings of 2012 are looking to get the sour taste out of their mouths from a disappointing 2011 season that ended with the team doing as complete a house-cleaning as they've ever done. The new era of Vikings football begins tonight. If they can meet these five objectives, winning or losing the game won't be as important as finding answers to these questions.
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.
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