Many Vikings fans were pleasantly surprised that the team stepped up with the corporate checkbook to sign free agent wide receiver Greg Jennings. They really shouldn't have been. The signing was more than a decade in the making.
Over the last 15 years, the Vikings have had good success in drafting wide receivers. Randy Moss, Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin all became stars in Minnesota. Those three helped erase the memory of Troy Williamson, a Ryan Leaf-level draft bust. But three players drafted over a 12-year span don't entirely get the job done. You need to have others to play roles in the offense and the easiest way to augment the talent a franchise is nurturing is to make a splash in free agency.
It happens all the time. Jerry Rice's career didn't end after he left San Francisco. Terrell Owens made more headlines after he left the 49ers. Wes Welker became a star after leaving Miami. Some of the game's biggest receiving stars were free agent signees or disgruntled trade bait on their second (or third) go-round in the league – Moss, Vincent Jackson, Steve Smith, Brandon Marshall, Anquan Boldin, etc. It happens all the time. It just hasn't seemed to happen with the Vikings being the beneficiaries.
When the Vikings drafted Moss, they already had two established receiving stars – Cris Carter and Jake Reed. In the four years prior to Moss arriving in Minnesota, both Carter and Reed had each topped 1,000 yards every season. The Vikings already had an established receiver corps. Moss just made it deadly. Since then, it's been like the franchise has been blindfolded swinging a stick at an out-of-reach piñata. It's become a franchise embarrassment.
The downward cycle began in 2002. After an infamous 2001 sideline blowup between Cris Carter, Daunte Culpepper and Denny Green, the team imploded during the season. Less than a year after taking the Vikings to their second NFC Championship Game in three years, Green was out and both Carter and Reed followed him out the door. They needed replacing. The Vikings first choice was trivia answer D'Wayne Bates, who turned out to be a pale comparison. The other was Derrick Alexander. Two wrongs did not make a right, but it started a trend that has lasted for more than a decade.
In 2004, the Vikings sought to rectify the Bates/Alexander free agent debacle by signing a big receiver that could play opposite Moss during the height of the Randy Ratio days. Who was that savior? Former Bear and Raven Marcus Robinson. Who? Robinson fared little better than Bates in trying to be the next big thing via free agency and provided little in the way of production. The event he most remembered for isn't a big catch, but his big Christmas Eve release after he was critical of the team in a published story.
In 2005, the Vikings traded Moss and the problems kicked into overdrive. Not only did the Vikings make an epic swing and miss on the hand-eye challenged Williamson, they used free agency to cure their ills at wide receiver yet again. Who was brought in this time? Koren Robinson and Travis Taylor. For a team that had been offensively defined by dominating wide receivers for more a decade, the receiver corps had hit bottom – thanks in no small part to signing Tier-2 wide receivers and asking them to be Tier-1 players.
In 2006, Brad Childress was named captain of the Vikings ship and it was hoped that his experience as an assistant coach in Philly would change the Vikings lack of free agent success at wide receiver. His answer to the malaise at wide receiver was to turn to free agency, bringing in Billy McMullen and Bethel Johnson, who combined to catch 32 passes and two touchdowns and both were quickly shown how to get on Hwy. 494 and get as far away from Winter Park as possible.
In 2007, the "hit parade" just kept on coming. Former Bear Bobby Wade and former Packer Robert Ferguson were signed to be their primary starters. Despite playing at a time when the passing game in the NFL was reaching dizzying heights and the same year Moss shattered scoring records for wide receivers in his first year with the Patriots, Wade and Ferguson finished 1-2 on the team in receptions, combining to catch just 86 passes for 1,038 yards and four touchdowns.
Apparently fed up by the lack of production from receivers (many of whom the team was more than familiar with having come from division rivals), the Vikings made their biggest splash to date in trying replicate the prolific passing game of the mid to late '90s. The organization finally ponied up the money – handing out a whopping six-year, $42 million contract to a free agent wide receiver. Who was worthy of that kind of cash? Former Bear Bernard Berrian, who never had a 1,000-yard season before or after he signed with the Vikings. It turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes the franchise ever made (aside from drafting Williamson) at receiver. He was paid like a No. 1 receiver, but never led the team in receptions – finishing second in his first season and fourth in his other two. Good money thrown to bad.
In 2011, with a new coach and a new outlook, the Vikings dipped their toe in the free agent waters once again, this time coming up with Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu. Neither of them established themselves as anything more than a No. 3 or 4 receiver.
It should come as no surprise that the Vikings backed up the armored car full of cash to bring Jennings into the fold. It makes sense. They have gone the conservative route far too many times – only to fail on each and every occasion – over the last decade-plus. It's not a list of "who's who" that they've used to try to cure their ills. It's been a case of "who's that?" For the most part, all of them are trivia answers casual fans would have a hard time remembering – and those of us who have covered the Vikings during that period have had a hard time forgetting.
Jennings is finally the big-time receiver that can make a difference with the Vikings offense. His arrival has been a decade in the making … and the Vikings hope he will be the one to reverse a habit of free agent signings at wide receiver that became a disturbing and disappointing trend.
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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