Vikings’ top 10 signs of hope from 2014

The Vikings didn’t have a winning season, but they provided plenty of reasons for hope, as we recount the promise that showed in 2014.

As we bid farewell to 2014, we do so with a smile. Given that Vikings fans have been through more pain than pleasure since Bountygate raised its ugly head in early 2010, it’s gratifying to have the light on the other side of the tunnel in sight. The future looks brighter than the recent past. That’s a good thing.

In the first of a two-part miniseries of a look back on the 2014 season, we look at what went right with the Vikings. We’re waiting until 2015 to air the dirty laundry. By that time, it will be in the rear view.

Today, like a Corey Wootton sack homage, it’s a celebration. We’re picking the top 10 reasons why Vikings fans should be hoisting their champagne glasses with smiles on their faces. Given the malaise that accompanied Black Monday last year, there’s nowhere to go but up … until we rank the rank moments of 2014 in the comfort of a calendar-based rearview mirror.

What positives can we take from 2014? Here are some:

1. Bridging the Gap

Back in January, Teddy Bridgewater was being touted as the first pick of the first round of the 2014 draft. Bridgewater went 6-6 as a rookie starter. How impressive was that? The other rookie starting quarterbacks combined to win six games, but posted a dismal 6-31 record – Blake Bortles was 3-10, Derek Carr was 3-13, Zach Mettenberger was 0-6 and Johnny Manziel and Connor Shaw each went 0-1 for Cleveland. If you need reason for optimism, latch onto that, or the fact that he finished with the highest completion percentage (64.4) and passer rating (85.2) among the rookie quarterbacks.

2. Don’t Mess Around with Zim

When the Vikings went looking for a new head coach, they didn’t want to have a replica of the soft-spoken Leslie Frazier. What they got was Mike Zimmer, a fiery coach who isn’t afraid to get in the face of players or sit them down when they’re not doing their job – from the first to the 53rd man on the roster. Just ask Cordarrelle Patterson or Robert Blanton. Zim surrounded himself with a staff of knowledgeable and experienced coaches, while retaining some key in-house coaches. One year into his tenure, he has the players and the fans believing better times are coming.

3. Barr None

There were some raised eyebrows when the Vikings took rookie Anthony Barr with the ninth pick of the draft. Most draft analysts saw him as a mid-first-round pick and he was thought to be a much better fit in a 3-4 system than Zimmer’s 4-3. He had proved his skeptics wrong before he singlehandedly won a game with his athleticism, stripping Tampa Bay tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins of the ball on the first snap of overtime and, without breaking stride, scooped up the fumble and returned it for a game-winning touchdown. Before Barr was lost for the season with a knee injury, he was their leading tackler with 99, had four sacks, 13 quarterback hurries, three passes defensed, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

4. Dirty Harry 22: Make My Day

Big things were expected from Harrison Smith in 2013, but a turf toe injury took care of that. Healthy and in a safety-friendly system, Smith made an impact like few safeties in the NFL, combining hard hitting and a nose for the ball to put together a Pro Bowl-worthy season (whether he makes it as an injury replacement is another story). Smith finished as the team’s leading tackler with 120 and showed his immense versatility with three sacks, five interceptions, nine passes defensed and a forced fumble.

5. Consider the Shoes Filled

The Vikings made a bold move late in the 2013 season – opting to give a pass-rushing defensive end a lucrative contract extension. It wasn’t Jared Allen. It was Everson Griffen. Few players had to step out of a longer shadow than the one cast by Allen during his Vikings career. The front office saw a decline in production and opted to invest in the younger talent. Griffen earned every dollar he was owed in 2014, producing 12 sacks in his first season as a full-time starter.

6. The Replacements

The loss of Adrian Peterson was more devastating to the Vikings offense than most fans realize. Norv Turner came to the Vikings looking to replicate the success he had with bell-cow running backs like Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson. When Peterson was removed from the equation, Turner had to turn to Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata. Between them, they got the job done with 1,108 yards rushing and nine touchdowns, and they made enough critical plays to at least partially fill the massive vacuum left behind in Peterson’s wake.

7. X Marks the Spot

When the Vikings drafted Xavier Rhodes, he seemed a bit miscast for a Tampa-2 defense. He was a college corner that relished bump-and-run man coverage and being asked to play a specific zone didn’t seem like a glove fit. He prospered in the Zimmer defense of ability and accountability with a team-high 18 passes defensed. Minnesota may not have Revis Island, but it has its Dead End Rhodes.

8. The Bank Vault

No franchise has ever undergone an experiment of being an indoor team that plays two years outside and then returns to playing their craft on a dry track in the climate-controlled comfort of the “yet-to-be named after a different bank” stadium. The first year at TCF Bank Stadium brought with it the chance for players to celebrate Packers style. The Lambeau Leap has become synonymous with Green Bay, but the Vikings’ Adam Thielen was the first to inaugurate the “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” Bank Vault. The Vikings hope, in their final season at The Bank, the vaults will keep on coming.

9. Charles In Charge

When the Vikings signed Charles Johnson, there wasn’t much fanfare. In fact, he was the second Charles Johnson on the 53-man roster when he came in. By season’s end, he was a regular for the media jackal pack. Why? Because he has all the looks of the hidden-gem playmaker that can give the Vikings options moving forward with the horseshoe in the pocket that they found a budding star for pennies on the dollar. He didn’t emerge until the second half of the season, but he had 31 catches for 475 yards (15.3-yard average) and two touchdowns.

10. Polar Vortex Is Dead

The majority of Minnesotans celebrated a brown Christmas in 2014. A year ago, as bad as things were for the organization, the weather made it seem like Winter Park was in northern Siberia – forbidding climes indeed. Even Zimmer would have declined outdoor practices, regardless of the necessity. Players who survived have told the tales. Free agents were scared to come. Selfies of a brown Christmas give hope that newcomers won’t dread coming the Great White North.

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