This is probably the perfect foreshadowing point where the Minnesota Vikings will say that nobody believes in them.
Frankly, with all the issues the Vikings have had up front as they start preparations on Sunday for the 10-1 Dallas Cowboys, they would be mostly right. Very few outside of the walls of Winter Park will believe that the Vikings will beat the Cowboys on Thursday night.
As a team overall, the Vikings still have a playoff-caliber roster. Yet, with all the injuries to the offensive line it’s difficult to muster much confidence that Minnesota’s melting offense can keep up with the better offenses in the league, no matter how good their defense has been.
If it all starts up front, as most players and coaches will tell you, it’s been a battle to get anything forward momentum started.
Players and coaches continue to say all the right things: There are still five games remaining … they do still have a shot at the playoffs … they will continue to fight.
But, really, what else is there to say in a league that batters the body weekly and where losses drain the soul?
“You just keep moving forward. Obviously, there’s a lot of football left to play and there’s still five games left,” QB Sam Bradford said. “All we can do is worry about who we have next week and that’s Dallas. Obviously, it’s a really big game for us. For us it’s just rebounding, making sure that we don’t let this game (against Detroit) affect us and become two games. We just move on and go out there and try to do everything we can to win the next five.”
If the Vikings win three of the next five they will have a chance at the playoffs. If they win four of them, they should be in. But, even if they do get in with a generally weak four games to close out the season, can this offensive line produce much confidence for their chances in the playoffs?
If fans really want to drive themselves crazy, go back and view some off the 1998 Vikings highlights. That season is remembered for a record-setting offense with an incredibly explosive passing game. But if you can take your eyes off the skill-position players, witness the protection for the quarterback and the holes created for Robert Smith in the running game. Put it side by side with this year’s offensive line.
Even Adrian Peterson would struggle to consistently move the chains with the lack of push generated up front this year.
Looking for any sliver of hope that their running game is improving, the Vikings can point to a 5.1-yard average on Thursday. The reality? Take out Cordarrelle Patterson’s 22-yard run and they averaged 4 yards per carry. That’s certainly better than their historically bad 2.7-yard average over the first 10 games, but NFL teams averaged 4.1 yards per rush over the season and the Vikings are left to grasp to the hope that they might be close to average for one game.
These are sad time, indeed, for an offensive line depleted to the nubs. Fans can blame the personnel department for not doing enough with the offensive line during the offseason, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. It’s impossible to predict that three starting offensive tackles would be lost for the season because of injury, a likely replacement starter (Mike Harris) would be taken out with illness, and another (Phil Loadholt) would simply retire before training camp.
They try to say the right things, but it’s clear that a feeling of hopelessness is inching in.
“It’s something I don’t have words for,” guard Alex Boone said of the injuries on the line.
Said veteran linebacker Chad Greenway: “You just look at who was the inactives (Thursday) and make sure we have enough guys. It’s just really incredible the injuries that we’ve sustained from really day one, and honestly the way that we’ve been able to continue to compete against good football teams with the personnel, the inexperienced guys that we’re throwing in in tough spots, in tough situations, the guys are continuing to compete really hard. And a pat on the back is not what we’re looking for. But the reality is it’s there for the taking for us. We have to continue to try to do what we’re doing and make the plays at the end to win.”
With the trade deadline gone and few street free agents that would be an upgrade, the Vikings are stuck with trying to adjust and improve from within.
They have called up a player from their own practice squad (Willie Beavers) and plucked a player from another practice squad (Rashod Hill). They have desperately tried to move the pieces around and started six different offensive line combinations out of necessity.
“At some point we’ve got to catch a break,” receiver Adam Thielen said. “I mean, you know, you just look at the attrition that we’ve had just on offense on the front and guys have come in and played well and it’s hard. You try to get into a rhythm and that group of five played really well together. You’re starting to get into a rhythm and another guy goes down. We can’t make excuses. Injuries are a part of this game, it’s just unfortunate.”
“Unfortunate” is an understatement for those that have put in so much work since a devastating end to the 2015 season, believing this could be a championship-caliber roster.
The Vikings have tried to adjust. Without much time for Bradford to throw, they moved to an incredibly short passing game that produced the lowest average depth of target (3.5 yards) of any NFL game this season, according to Pro Football Focus. Eventually, that bit them when the Lions knew they weren’t going to be beat deep and jumped a route for the interception to set up their game-winning field goal.
“We’ve probably got to try and find a way to create some explosive plays,” Bradford said.
It’s something they’ve known for a long time, but without continuity or starting-caliber talent throughout the offensive line, it might be a futile effort.
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As the kids would say, “Don’t hate the player; hate the game.” It’s a brutal game that batters the bones and plucks at the pride of players as they see one teammate after another head to the locker room during games. It has put inexperienced players in positions they shouldn’t be, at least at this point in their development, and it has derailed a once-promising season.
Meanwhile, the NFL moves on as the Vikings’ injury list grows in a season of hope that is sinking further by the week.