Nationally, the Minnesota Vikings are getting respect. They aren’t favored to win the Super Bowl, nor should they be. Heck, they aren’t even favored to win the NFC North, although that point could be debated.
Locally, the story is a bit different. They aren’t just getting cautious respect; they’re being praised.
The Vikings are generally young, although still reliant on some aging veterans like Adrian Peterson, Terence Newman and Chad Greenway. They are seemingly drafting better, whether that’s because Rick Spielman’s system is being refined to precision or Mike Zimmer and staff are touching all the right buttons in developing draft picks.
Whatever the reason, the Vikings are the major-sport toast of the town. Expectations are as high as they’ve been since Brett Favre – that quarterback that every Vikings fan loved to loathe when he was across the border, then loved to love when he crossed the border – returned after vengefully taking the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game before a swollen ankle and swollen ego ended their hopes.
In some ways, expectations are back to 2010 levels, however overhyped those predictions were.
“I was trying to correlate to a season. 2010 would be probably the easiest correlation … just in that offseason kind of with the mentality and that excitement,” Greenway said about the current outlook. “Yes, we didn’t make it. And then in (2011) with Donovan (McNabb) coming in and then we had a crappy year, but the expectations seemed to be high because we had Donovan coming over.”
Greenway and other longtime Vikings should let that 2010 season be a reminder that heated expectations in June and July can be frozen over quickly if they don’t perform. No doubt Zimmer will throw his zingers to remind his team they have accomplished nothing so far.
The pieces are in place, but pride makes for a dangerous bedfellow.
That 2010 season was an all-or-nothing poker game. The nucleus of the team was aging without as much young talent for the future. This year is a bit different. The Vikings have built in younger players they think are nearly as capable behind many of the aging veterans, despite many of the young group not having proven much yet.
It’s also different because 2009 and 2010 were hyped because of Favre. And if 2011 brought similar expectations because of McNabb (I was never a big believer in him after he showed up for training camp), they were all wrapped in the belief that a singular player, the quarterback, could be the difference. This year, it’s a more well-rounded team with a formidable defense and the outlook for an improved offense.
“We don’t have to lean so heavily on Adrian. We don’t have to lean so heavily on our defense or whatever the example might be that you want to use,” Greenway said. “Obviously we’re strong in a lot of different places. I think that’s something that’s new to even me. We’ve had some depth issues coming into a season, wherever that position might be. Now we look so strong kind of across the board, but it’s just a look so who knows?”
Some teams or players prefer to play the underdog role. For those Vikings, they need look no further than the Vegas odds that give the edge to Green Bay even though the Vikings took away the Packers’ run of NFC North titles last year.
Other players, like new guard Alex Boone, embrace the accolades and relish the opportunity to live up to them.
“I think everybody knows what the expectation here is and I think that we’re excited to meet it. People say, ‘I’d rather go under the radar and show up at the end of the year.’ Why? You want everybody to know who you are right away. You want to be proud of that. You want to go into a game knowing what you can do,” Boone said. “So I think for the expectation level, it just means that we’ve got to achieve it. It’s one of those things that everybody in the locker room feels the same way. When I first got here the guys were telling me, ‘Hey, listen, this is what we expect of ourselves.’ It was exciting to hear what they were saying because it was all things that I agreed with – we’re going to work and we’re going to work and we’re going to work some more. Being back here, it’s more blue-collar and you feel more blue-collar. I’m excited.”
Even the richest of Vikings (Peterson) maintains a blue-collar work ethic. It’s hard to imagine anyone in the NFL outworking Peterson even after he has drown the doubters by leading the league in rushing once again. Others prefer to use doubt to fuel their inner fire. The staple of the team – its defense – is built with a mix of chip-on-the-shoulder, lunch-pail overachievers and athletically gifted guys just beginning to realize their full potential.
But blue-collar can sometimes turn into the Monday blues. While realizing and embracing the platitudes, the Vikings have to be careful to maintain their attitudes that they have plenty to prove.
They have the pieces in place, including a shiny new stadium that can either feed the momentum or crush their underdog attitude that TCF Bank Stadium and brutal elements helped build. Their first game of real meaning at U.S. Bank Stadium can build increased expectations if they exert dominance over the Packers in the home opener in front of a prime-time, national television audience.
“When you have your rival and a team like that come in here the first game in the new stadium, it’s one of those, how are we going to set the tone for the year?” Boone said. “How are we going to set the tone for this stadium? You obviously want to come out on top, but you know it’s going to be a physical fight and it’s going to exciting.”
Win that one in style and the Vikings may start to turn heads, and expectations, among the national NFL media. Like Zimmer, Greenway is aware of the pitfalls along the way. He’s experienced the thrill of a deep playoff run following the 2009 season and the agony of a quick ending. He’s experienced the accolades of the 2010 preseason and the gut-wrenching reality that rebuilding brings.
“I think we’re in the position to be successful, but yet it’s the NFL and this thing could turn on its head in a second and we’ve all seen that if you’ve been around this game long enough,” Greenway said. “Expectations are a slippery slope and a risky business in the NFL just because there is so much parody and there’s so much talent across the board and across the league. So many games come down to a play here or a play there. I think managing expectations is going to be critical for us.”
The 2015 season can be used a building block or could turn out to a prideful stumbling block. It’s up to the players to decide whether the expectations this time around will be written as fiction or fact in January.