The beginning of something great?

It's no secret that the Vikings are not going for any quick-fix solutions as they build this team under the ownership of Zygi Wilf, the personnel moves of Rick Spielman and the coaching of Brad Childress. They are indeed building for the long run and lots of legitimate questions remain about how good they can be right now.

Among those key building blocks are a good run-stuffing defense that needs improvement against the pass, a strong offensive line, and some talented, but largely unproven skill-position players in quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, running backs Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, wideouts Troy Williamson, Sidney Rice and Bobby Wade, and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.

Other than Taylor’s 1,200-yard season in his first year as a starter a year ago, none of those guys have put up Pro Bowl-type numbers since their college days.  While most concur that none have proven themselves in the NFL yet, most also concur that they all have the talent to do so.  The big question is simply whether they can all do it now.

Fair enough, but they are likely to develop or not develop together in the years to come.

It seems like there’s a new surprise team in the NFL every season.  Gone are the days of dynasties of the 1970s.  Perhaps the closest thing to a dynasty in recent NFL history was the 1992-95 Dallas Cowboys, who won three Super Bowls and lost in the NFC Championship Game during that four-year span.

So what were the key components of that “dynasty” BEFORE they became one?  Everyone knows those Cowboy teams were built around Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin.

Well, Jimmy Johnson inherited a horrible team that did no better with a miserable 1-15 record in his first season (1989) at the helm.  In terms of points scored/allowed, they ranked 28th and 24th in the league.  Aikman (155-193-1749 yards, 9 TD, 18 INT) was thrown to the wolves as a rookie that year, Herschel Walker was traded to some fool up North and Irvin put up modest numbers (26-378-2 receiving) that year.

In 1990, Johnson saw some progress with the addition of Smith.  The Cowboys improved to 7-9, but were still just 28th on offense and 24th on defense.  Aikman was still pretty mediocre, completing 226 of 399 (56.6%) for 2,579 yards with 11 TDs and 18 INTs.  Smith rushed 241-937-11 (3.9 avg.) as a rookie and was spelled by Tommie Agee (53-213-1).  His top receivers were Kelvin Martin (64-732-0), tight end Jay Novacek (59-657-4), Irvin (20-413-5) and Dennis McKinnon (14-172-1).

That’s about where the Vikings were in 2006:  6-10, ranked 26th on offense and 14th on defense (in points allowed, many by the offense).  Their quarterbacks completed 330 of 538 (61.3%) for 3,371 yards, 11 TDs and 20 INTs (not far off from Aikman’s numbers of 1990).  Chester Taylor rushed 303-1,216-6 (4.0 avg.) and got relief from Artose Pinner (43-190-3), Mewelde Moore (24-131-0) and Ciatrick Fason (18-99-1), which exceeds the production of Smith in 1990.  Minnesota’s top receivers a year ago were Travis Taylor (57-651-3), Jermaine Wiggins (46-386-1), Troy Williamson (37-455-0), Marcus Robinson (29-381-4) and Billy McMullen (23-307-2).

So can the Vikings make the next step, like the Cowboys did in 1991?  The development of Jackson and Williamson, coupled with the addition of Rice, Wade and Shiancoe will be the key.

The Cowboys of 1991 went 11-5, made the playoffs, but lost in the Divisional Playoffs.  Their offense improved to seventh, their defense improved to 17th.

Individually, Aikman 237-363 (65.3%), 2,754 yards, 11 TDs, 10 INTs.  Smith rushed 365-1,563-12 (4.3 avg.), Ricky Blake 15-80-1 (5.3), and Daryl Johnston 17-54-0 (3.2).  Their leading receivers were Irvin 93-1,523-8 (16.4), Novacek 59-664-4 (11.3), Alvin Harper 20-326-1 (16.3), Martin 16-243-0 (15.2), Alexander Wright 10-170-0 (17.0)

They then won the Super Bowl three of the next four years, twice with Johnson and once with Barry Switzer.

Here’s who they did it with:

1992:  13-3 – Jimmy Johnson (Won Super Bowl)
Offense: 2nd, Defense:  5th
QB:  Aikman 302-473 (63.8%), 3445 yards, 23 TD, 14 INT
RBs:  Smith 373-1713-18 (4.6), Curvin Richards 49-176-1 (3.6), and Johnston 17-61-0 (3.6)
Receivers:  Irvin 78-1396-7 (17.9), Novacek 68-630-6 (9.3), Harper 35-562-4 (16.1), and Martin 32-359-3 (11.2)

1993:  12-4 – Jimmy Johnson (Won Super Bowl)
Offense: 2nd, Defense: 2nd
QB:  Aikman 271-392 (69.1%), 3100 yards, 15 TD, 6 INT
RB:  Smith 283-1486-9 (5.3), Derrick Lassic 75-269-3 (3.6), Lincoln Coleman 34-132-2 (3.9), Johnston 24-74-3 (3.1).
Receivers:  Irvin 88-1330-7 (18.1),
Novacek 44-445-1 (10.1), Harper 36-777-5 (21.6), Kevin Williams 20-151-2 (7.5)

1994:  12-4 – Barry Switzer (Lost in NFC Championship Game)
Offense:  2nd, Defense:  3rd
QB:  Aikman 233-361 (64.5%), 2676 yards, 13 TD, 12 INT
RBs:  Smith 368-1484-21 (4.0), Lincoln Coleman 64-180-1 (2.8), and Johnston 40-138-2 (3.5).
Receivers:  Irvin 79-1241-6 (15.7), Novacek 47-475-1 (10.1) Harper 33-821-8 (24.9), and Kevin Williams 13-181-0 (13.9).

1995:  12-4 – Barry Switzer (Won Super Bowl)
Offense:  3rd, Defense:  3rd
QB:  Aikman 280-432 (64.8%), 3304 yards, 16 TD, 7 INT
RBs:  Smith 377-1773-25 (4.7), Sherman Williams 48-205-1 (4.3), and Johnston 25-111-2 (4.4)
Receivers:  Irvin 111-1603-10 (14.4), Novacek 62-705-5 (11.4), and Kevin Williams 38-613-2 (16.1).

Granted, that’s a big leap to project this year’s nucleus of Vikings to that lofty level of success.  But the talent is there.

Tarvaris Jackson didn’t play his college ball at UCLA and he wasn’t the first player picked in the NFL Draft, but he’s no slouch in terms of pure talent, either.  He has every bit the physical stature and frame that Aikman possessed.  Athletically, he might be superior.  And in terms of arm strength, he wouldn’t have to take a back seat.  His senior-year numbers at Alabama State included 195 of 320 (60.9%) for 2,941 yards with 29 TDs and just 5 INTs.  The ONLY question with Jackson is if he can be ready NOW.

With all due respect to Emmitt Smith, who won Super Bowls, rushing crowns and Dancing With the Stars titles, Adrian Peterson is an even more highly-rated prospect coming out of college.

How good?  Well, here’s a comparison based on pre-draft grades of previous top running backs each year, according to Pro Football Weekly’s annual draft preview:  Going back to 1983, only one running back has ever been rated higher than the 8.50 grade that Peterson carried – Bo Jackson (8.90) in 1986.  Reggie Bush (2006) also carried an 8.50 grade.  Barry Sanders (1989) was an 8.00; then Eric Dickerson (1983) at 7.90, Curt Warner (1983) at 7.80; then Edgerrin James (1999), Ricky Williams (1999) and Marshall Faulk (1994) at 7.50.  If Peterson (FOX Video) can avoid injuries, you’re looking at a player at least on par with Emmitt Smith.  If healthy, only LaDainian Tomlinson might be a better running back in the entire NFL at this time.

The similarities between Irvin and Rice (Sidney Rice, that is) are interesting.  Irvin was never known as a 4.4 speed guy, but he was a great ball athlete who knew how to use his body and possessed acrobatic pass-catching skills.  Rice might actually be more than an inch taller and a half-tick faster.  He also brings many of the very same strengths to his game (FOX Video).

Can Troy Williamson be another Alvin Harper?  We think so; in fact even better.

Can Bobby Wade be another Kelvin Martin?  We think so; an appropriate comparison, actually.

Can Visanthe Shiancoe be another Jay Novacek?  We think maybe; perhaps not quite the pass-catching all-around athlete, but bigger and more of a blocker.

And the Cowboys never had anyone remotely as effective behind Emmitt as Chester Taylor.  “Swervin” Curvin Richards, Derrick “No Ordinary Pickle” Lassic, Lincoln Coleman, “Ask” Sherman Williams?

What about the guys in the trenches?  Bryant McKinnie, Steve Hutchinson, Matt Birk vs. Erik Williams, Nate Newton and Mark Stepnoski.

Again, it’s a long, long, long ways from 6-10 to building a dynasty that wins Super Bowls, especially in Minnesota where it has NEVER happened.  But Tarvaris Jackson, Adrian Peterson, Chester Taylor, Sidney Rice, Troy Williamson, Bobby Wade and Visanthe Shiancoe have a lot of raw talent.

Can it be fully developed?  We’ll see.

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