Two memories of a rookie’s first touchdown with the Minnesota Vikings stick out vividly for this writer.
When Randy Moss caught his first touchdown pass in the 1998 season opener, a 48-yarder against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it was a portent of Moss’s mastery over defensive backs. Or, in Moss’s case, not so much that greatness was to come in the future but that it had already arrived. That touchdown was in the first quarter of Moss’s first NFL game. In the second quarter he scored another touchdown as the Vikings built a 21-0 lead on their way to a 31-7 win, one of 15 wins in the most exciting modern-era season of Vikings football.
Nine years later, the 2007 Vikings were once again opening the season at home as three-point favorites, as they were in that 1998 home-opening blowout. Chester Taylor’s workhorse role was being threatened by rookie Adrian Peterson, but Taylor was still the starter in the opener, although he rushed only three times for 18 yards. Peterson rushed 19 times for 103 yards, but it was a fourth-quarter reception – yes, a Peterson catch! – that he took 60 yards for a touchdown.
That obviously wasn’t an indicator of his future receiving prowess, but it showed off his explosiveness. And earned him starting honors, when healthy and/or available, for the next 10 years. In 2006, then-coach Brad Childress was criticized for the predictability of his offense, with jokes coming often about the only guesswork being whether Taylor would run behind left guard or right guard for a 4-yard gain.
Childress even correctly pointed out that questions came too often about wearing Taylor down when he ran often and about his lack of usage when he wasn’t used as much. In the end, Taylor finished 2006 with 303 carries for 1,216 yards. The following season, Peterson ran 238 times for 1,341 yards, a 5.6-yard average and doubled Taylor’s 2006 rushing-touchdown total to 12.
Both of those seasons, 1998 and 2007, were memorable for the elite explosiveness on display from rookies at different positions. But ever since Brett Favre’s first season in purple, the Vikings offense has lacked luster and truly top-notch talent other than Peterson that could bring fans to the edge of their seats.
The old joke in the pre-Favre Childress days referenced a sign on an entrance to the Vikings’ practice facility saying that the team banned weapons on the premise.
But this could be the year that the football weapons return to the offense. Although expectations for a complete reversal of execution on the offensive line could be premature – if the old adage about cohesion and time-on-task togetherness holds true, it may take time – the Vikings have at least added some excitement on the offensive side of the ball.
Rookie running back Dalvin Cook isn’t likely to explode on the scene with as much production as Peterson in his rookie season, but he has drawn comparisons to Ezekiel Elliott and Fred Taylor. Either one of those would be tremendous for an offense sorely in need of exhileration. Like Peterson in 2007, Cook could be battling a veteran free agent, Latavius Murray for carries.
For as much as the Vikings have missed Peterson’s production two of the last three seasons, fans and the offensive coaching staff should feel good about having two viable options in the backfield.
Murray, coming off ankle surgery in March, isn’t expected to practice until training camp, which should give Cook ample opportunity to show his skills and build a bond with quarterback Sam Bradford. Whether that makes him the starter in Week 1 or not is a future determination.
“We’ve got a long, long way to go before we make any determinations on any of that,” head coach Mike Zimmer said.
Zimmer was at least was able to formulate some initial impressions of his intriguing rookie.
“He showed acceleration, good feet, good vision, a lot of the same things we saw on tape,” Zimmer said after an initial look at Cook in a rookie minicamp session. “(He’s) a good kid, seems smart in the blitz pickup drill.”
The addition of veteran receiver Michael Floyd could also add to the excitement. Floyd might not crack the regular starting lineup – and he could be facing a multi-game suspension – but with his livelihood hanging in the balance, he has millions of reasons to strive for a career year. His 2017 salary depends on it, and so does his future in the league.
With a troubled past, he is coming back home to Minnesota, where the Vikings hope a combination of family and organizational support that might include Cris Carter contribute to a rebound in football and life for Floyd.
If he can do that, he could bring an explosive element to the offense with his 15.4-yard average per catch. Last year, Bradford averaged only 7 yards per attempt, tied for 18th in the NFL, but showed he can be a deep downfield passer when given the opportunity to set up and find a receiver deep.
Floyd – who ranked eighth in the NFL last year with an averaged depth of target of 15.8 yards, according to Pro Football Focus – should provide the most experienced deep threat the Vikings have had in some time. Pairing him with Adam Thielen – who ranked 25th in the NFL with a 14.0-yard average per catch and possessed the best QB-WR rating in the NFL with Bradford at 122.9 – provides more intrigue.
The possibilities are there at receiver once again. The potential is there in the backfield with Murray and Cook, who easily dominated the rookie running back class by causing 92 missed last year, per PFF.
Right now, it’s fair to say the Vikings don’t have the dominating presence of a Moss in the receiving corps or a Peterson in the backfield. But they do have the most well-rounded weaponry as they’ve had in a long time – partially proven and partially on potential.
That, at least, should provide incentive for attentive fans when the offense is at work. It’s time to make Minnesota’s great again.