Improvement Raises Players' Hopes

Even those players who were skeptical about the Vikings' chances before the 2007 season have seen enough improvement to believe that good things could be in their future. See what several players had to say about the 2008 outlook.

The 2007 season was truly a roller-coaster ride for the Vikings. From a promising start in an home-opening win, the Vikings looked like a pedestrian, run-of-the-mill team after losing six of their next eight games. Following the loss to the Packers at Lambeau Field, the Vikings had lost 16 of their last 21 games and it looked like there could be a shakeup throughout the roster. Tarvaris Jackson was viewed as a failed experiment and chatter started putting Brad Childress at the top of the list of coaches whose jobs were hanging by a thread. In short, things looked bleak.

But then again, the same thing could have been said about the Packers with four games left in the 2006 season. Coming off a hideous year in which they went 4-12 in 2005, the Packers had shown signs of life, but were still wallowing at 4-8. Suddenly, a light came on and the Packers rattled off four wins a row to close out the season. While they were still very middle-of-the-road, it seemed they finally clicked with Mike McCarthy's system and the wins kept coming.

The Packers followed that up with a 13-3 regular season in 2007 – a franchise record for one of the league's oldest and most fabled franchises. They have shown that a team can rise from the dregs to the top with a mix of veterans at key positions and the right blend of youth and experience.

As the Vikings wonder what could have been, the final two games of the season haven't softened their resolve that they turned a major corner in 2007.

"Obviously, it was disappointing because you don't want to end the season on a loss," linebacker Ben Leber said. "I'm proud of the guys. I'm proud of the team. I think we have a great thing going here and we're excited for next year."

The record showed an improvement of two games from 2006 to 2007, but the reality, the players feel, is different. The Vikings were on a horrendous stretch, yet were able to band together and get themselves not only into the playoff hunt, but match point against Washington to lock down a playoff berth in Week 16. While the end of the story was a letdown, the chapters in between start and finish have the Vikings players looking to next year as their chance to step up to the next level.

"I think we took some strides from last year," kicker Ryan Longwell said. "I think we showed a lot of character by being down and out, then winning the five games and getting back into the mix. That's a testament to the group we're trying to build and the group we have in the locker room. Certainly the goal is always to get to the playoffs, and there's room for improvement if you don't get in the playoffs in advance."

Had the Redskins game turned the Vikings' way, there would be considerably more discussion about the progress the team has made since last season. But with the loss to the Redskins, the momentum built during their five-game winning streak came to a screeching halt. Still, the streak proved a lot to the Vikings players. It showed them that they can string together wins and view the season as 16 one-week mini-seasons that keep the team focused and tailoring game plans to the opponent at hand.

"With this crew here, I think we are a playoff team – we just couldn't get it done," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "Given that opportunity, you never know what could happen. But in sports, you can't get those opportunities back."
When fans look back years from now at the 2007 Vikings, they'll see an 8-8 team that didn't make the playoffs. But for the Vikings players, turning a 6-10 team to 8-8 is expected to be part of a continuing progression that could see the Vikings get to 10 or 11 wins in 2008.

"I think we're definitely close," Leber said. "I think all the ingredients are there. All we have to do is tweak some things."

The Vikings may not have made believers among the rest of the league or the national media, but it would seem they have turned a corner in their own locker room. Cornerback Antoine Winfield said he came to Minnesota because he saw the chance to get to the Super Bowl. At one point last year he was critical of their personnel moves. After the season, he was asked if he believes the Vikings can make a run for the title in 2008 and he didn't hesitate to answer.

"I think so," Winfield said. "Teams change year to year. There will be more players coming in. I'm loving that seventh pick – Adrian Peterson. (He's a) big player. The defense will have a year under our belt with (defensive coordinator Leslie) Frazier – we'll be a little more familiar with him. I think we've got a lot of direction."

Why shouldn't he be optimistic? A year ago, would anyone outside of the those who bleed green and gold have given the Packers a shot at being one home game and one road win away from going back to the Super Bowl? Probably not. But as Winfield and many of his teammates view it, the question should be "why not?"

"This league goes year to year," Winfield said. "Green Bay has had a great year this year. Who's to say we can't do the same thing next year?"

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