In both 2007 and 2008, the Vikings entered October with a 1-3 record. In 2007, October began with the team on a three-game losing streak. In 2008, after losing their first two games, starting QB Tarvaris Jackson was benched in favor of veteran Gus Frerotte – who was told he would start the rest of the season. That never happened because his aging body couldn't withstand the pounding of a full NFL schedule anymore, but the problem facing the Vikings was eerily similar both years. They had the talent to be a winner but dug themselves such a deep hole early on that it took October and November to climb out of it and put themselves in position to make the playoffs.
They were able to overcome the adversity both years. In 2007, they controlled their own destiny heading into Week 16. A home win in prime time against the Redskins would have locked down a wild card berth. Instead, they fell flat and finished the season 8-8. Last year, they won nine of their final 12 games to finish 10-6 and won their first division title since 2001.
This year, however, the Vikings have jumped out of the box with a 3-0 record and a chance to put some significant distance between themselves and the Green Bay Packers with a win Monday night at the Metrodome.
So what's different? Asking the players, you find out not that much has changed and the failures of the past are kept hidden away. 2009 is its own entity, and what happened last year or two years ago isn't important to what the team hopes to accomplish this time around.
"Everybody is having fun," veteran defensive tackle Pat Williams said. "We're just having fun. It's a whole different year. We have some new players and things have started off different, but our goal remains the same and we're working toward that. Everyone is more focused on having fun."
While the early struggles of the recent past may not be a front-burner topic of discussion this year, it was during minicamp and training camp. The Vikings took too long to hit their stride and play up to their potential and made it a mission to start the regular season strong and see the world from the top instead of clawing their way out of a pit of their own creation.
"One of the focus points all offseason was getting out of the gates quick," said kicker Ryan Longwell said. "But I think what's different about this year is that we're 3-0, but there's no satisfaction among the guys on the team. There's almost more of a grinder mentality this year at this point – even though our record is better this year. It says a lot about the maturity and focus of our team. Where we want to get, we realize how we've played the first three weeks isn't enough to get us there. We need to keep improving."
Another factor that comes into play for the success or lack of it with many teams is injuries. Last year, the defense lost Madieu Williams for the first seven games because of a training camp neck injury and E.J. Henderson for the duration of the season in Week 4. The offense had turmoil at quarterback and the top special-teams player (Heath Farwell) was lost for the year in the preseason. There were a lot of negatives the team had to overcome that they aren't dealing with this year.
"We had so many variables last year," linebacker Ben Leber said. "You didn't know who was going to be our quarterback. As the season wore on for us on defense, you didn't know who was going to be at the (middle linebacker with E.J. Henderson lost to injury). There were so many little things we had to think about at the time. It is just comforting to know that we have our pieces in. Of course we need to tweak it. We do need to play better. We haven't played a full game – all three phases – yet. We've done some good things, but we're excited about the possibilities of this team and those possibilities will never come to light unless we work at it and unless we have the drive and the hunger to get better. So we're going to come out and prepare our butts off and hopefully we'll be 4-0 at the end of the week."
Whereas the Vikings seemingly found ways to lose early in the season last year, they have found ways to win this year – despite trailing at halftime of each of their three games to date. They haven't hit their stride yet, making their 3-0 start even more gratifying. Linebacker Chad Greenway, whose huge effort against Detroit in Week 2 helped seal that win, said if the Vikings can hit their stride like they expect they will, they could be a dangerous team in November and December.
Some may credit the Vikings' success to whom they've played. All three opponents had new head coaches in their first full season at the helm and are implementing changes. Cleveland's Brady Quinn was making just his fourth NFL start when he faced Minnesota. Matthew Stafford of Detroit was making just his second start. And San Francisco's Shaun Hill was in his first season as a full-time starter. Those have been viewed as contributing factors to the Vikings' succes, but, as they are quick to point out, wins are always hard to come by in the NFL and road wins are even more difficult.
You would think with the confidence the Vikings have built this September that there would be a swagger that would carry over into each successive week. While the practices were extrememly intense as the Vikings faced potential elimination games at midseason against division rivals each of the last two years, being at the top of the divisional heap this year hasn't made things any easier.
"It might be tougher this year," defensive end Jared Allen said. "This is what you practice for since training camp. You don't change your routine because you're struggling. Look at Detroit last year. I bet they had some really good practices. Sometimes you have the greatest week of practice ever and get your butt kicked during the game. It just happens this year we've won a couple of close games that could have gone the other way. Last year, we lost a close one at home to the Colts and we had the ball at the end of the game against Green Bay with a chance to win. We didn't capitalize on those chances last year and we are this year."
As the Vikings prepare for the Packers Monday night, they do so with the knowledge that a win will improve them to 4-0 on the season and, at least in the case of the Packers, give them a two-game lead with a win in hand over the team many picked to win the NFC North. The Packers will be their toughest opponent to date, but their opponents have yet to see the best of the Vikings – something they hope to rectify Monday night.
"It's all about just getting better each week," Leber said. "We've had some great moments in games in all aspects, but haven't really played a game that, when it was done, we knew we dominated the other team. We have that in us and, until we have one those types of games, we're going to keep pushing to get there."