It seemed as though every week, the Vikings were going up against one of the league's elite quarterbacks and the toll that took over the course of a 16-game season was obvious – the only one of those QBs that the Vikings beat was the rookie (Newton).
Flash forward one year. Sure, the Vikings still have six games against Rodgers, Stafford and Cutler, which may explain why just about every preseason prediction has the Vikings finishing last in the NFC North. However, the quarterbacks the Vikings will face in 2012 are a far cry from what they had to endure in 2011 and could be a big contributing factor as to whether the Vikings make a jump in the standings.
The Vikings start with Blaine Gabbert. In 14 starts as a rookie, he posted a 4-10 record and had the lowest passer rating (65.4) of any quarterback with enough passes to qualify among the league leaders. Of the games he started, he averaged less than 150 yards a game and less than one touchdown.
Next comes Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. Luck will be making just his second career start and his learning curve will just be beginning. If the Vikings caught him later in the season, it might be much different, but, at this baby-step portion of his NFL career, it will be easier for Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams, who spent the last decade with the Colts, to confuse Luck and potentially force him into throwing dangerous passes that he likely wouldn't attempt with more experience.
Next comes Alex Smith. He had a career year last year. But in a season when longstanding passing records not only got broken but got shattered to the point they couldn't be Gorilla Glued back together, he was nowhere to be seen. He threw for just 3,144 yards and 17 touchdowns. For QBs who threw more than 400 passes, only three of them had fewer yards – Colt McCoy and Tarvaris Jackson, both of whom are no longer starters, and Gabbert. He has been given weapons now (Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and first-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins), but until he proves he can be a bona fide leader at quarterback, he will boast a career year when his team won 13 games in spite of him, not because of him.
After getting Stafford in Week 4, the Vikings return home to face Jake Locker, whose first career NFL start will come Sunday when the Titans host New England (good luck with that one, Jake). By the time Locker faces the Vikings, he will have gone up against legitimate playoff contenders in New England, San Diego, Detroit and Houston and may have the look of someone coming out of battle with traumatic stress disorder. With Pittsburgh coming four days later, he may be looking ahead to that beating and may want to let the Bald Bomber, Matt Hasselbeck, get his job back.
Next comes Robert Griffin III, the second pick in this year's draft. At best, he will have five starts under his belt and will still be raw in crucial respects. Seeing as FedEx Field is almost like a home game for the Vikings, they won't be intimidated.
Then it's Arizona. Something called John Skelton beat out Kevin Kolb for the starting job, but, by the time they play the Vikings, they might have flip-flopped position a couple of times. Either way, Kurt Warner's legend grows deeper as the quarterbacking gets worse in the Valley of the Sun.
Next up? Josh Freeman, whose team lost 10 straight games to end the season after a 4-2 start – due in no small part to Freeman throwing just 16 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. He has talent, but his star that began shining in 2010 went dark in 2011 and there are no guarantees a coaching change will impact that.
On to Seattle, where rookie Russell Wilson has won the favor of head coach Pete Carroll, who seems to be treating the Seahawks like they're a college team – not guaranteeing $10 million this year to Wilson's backup.
By the time the Vikings reach the Lions for the second time Nov. 11, they will have played nine games. Of those, three will be against rookies, two will be against second-year quarterbacks and the only legitimate star QB they will face is Stafford – who has found a way to stay healthy just once in his first three seasons.
If anything is going to reverse the Vikings' fortunes in 2012, it will be the quarterbacks that they will face. At a time when franchise QBs are at a premium, in 2011 the Vikings faced a gauntlet of quarterbacks that were simply too good. Consider the playing field leveled in 2012.
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.