Vikings players empathetic, but wary

Some Vikings players know all too well what the Rams are going through. They've been on bad teams, but they also have been part of epic upsets. It's an interesting dynamic and cautionary tale for the Vikings on Sunday.

Coming off a significant domination of the Green Bay Packers and with the powerhouse Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers coming on the schedule later this month, it would be easy for the Vikings to view Sunday's game with the St. Louis Rams as a walk in the park – an easy win that the Vikings can lock down essentially by just showing up.

There are adjectives that can be used to describe the 2009 Rams – rebuilding, brutal, hideous, etc. This is a team that has not only gone winless, but has been beaten to near-pulp. The team has scored just three offensive touchdowns in four games – the same number of TDs its offense has allowed (two fumble recoveries and one interception all returned for scores). They have been outscored 108-24, including being outscored 58-3 in the second half of their four games. Opposing passers have a rating of 100.2, averaging almost 250 yards and two touchdowns a game. Opposing running backs have lit them up for 135 yards a game. The offense has failed to score a rushing touchdown and, with the exception of two second-quarter touchdown passes in Week 3 against the Packers, the offense has scored just 10 points in the other 15 quarters.

To date, the Rams of 2009 make the Lions of 2008 look like the Bears of 1985. This is horrible team that, despite making plays early, have found ways to collapse and burn each week – losing three of their games by 19, 28 and 35 points.

So what is it like to be a player on a team that gets not only beaten but crushed into powder by opponents? Vikings fans haven't had to deal with such a collapse since the 2006 Vikings in Brad Childress' first year as coach, when they lost eight of their final 10 games to wheeze to a 6-10 finish. That was bad, but not as ugly as what the Gateway City fans are dealing with. But, many members of the team can empathize with the Rams, because they've been on teams that struggled.

Linebacker Ben Leber said he went through such an ordeal with the Chargers, where losing bled into rumors of changes coming and players not knowing if they would be around when the house was cleaned.

"My second year in the league in San Diego, we ended up 4-12," Leber said. "It was a tough situation. As the season goes on, you kind of lose faith and lose hope in the system you're running. Every day you walk in and hear rumors of who might be getting fired. It's a tough thing to go through. I've been through it and don't want to go through it again."

Even Brett Favre and Ryan Longwell have experienced the worst of times. Although the Packers have been consistently successful since Favre emerged as their starting quarterback, it wasn't all champagne and caviar in Green Bay. They had a year where Murphy's Law came into play. They were ravaged with injuries, division rivals got some payback and just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong. They, much like the 2009 Rams, knew they had the talent to win, but the wins just weren't coming.

"We went 4-12 in Green Bay one year," Longwell said. "The thing is that you're a professional and your job is on the line weekly. It's not like you throw in the towel or play give-up football. You try every week and tweak something every week to improve. That year it seemed the like the ball just bounced the wrong way every week. It wasn't due to a lack of effort. We fought just as hard the year we went 4-12 as the year we went 12-4."

Sage Rosenfels went through a similar experience in Miami. Except the problem there was on one side of the ball. The Dolphins lost 12 games that year, but still had one of the league's top-rated defenses. He sees some similarities between what he and his teammates went through and the offensive struggles of the Rams.

"We had a year in Miami where we went 4-12," Rosenfels said. "Our defense was still really good, but our offense couldn't get anything going. It seemed like we were in every game, including the game we beat the Patriots in a year they won the Super Bowl. We weren't getting blown out by a few touchdowns, but we were losing consistently and it was very frustrating. We were playing hard and had chances to win a lot of those games, but just didn't get it done. When you watch St. Louis on film, they're playing very hard – from the first play of the game to the last. They're going through a hard stretch and have a lot of first-round talent. They're trying to get a feel for their new coaching staff and it's usually this time of the season when those teams start catching fire – grasping what everyone is doing. That's what we have to watch out for."

The resolve of the players doesn't always show up in wins and losses. Antoine Winfield went through much the same problems when he was with the Bills. They had a new head coach, were installing a new offensive and defensive scheme and the process took much more time than anticipated.

"My third year in Buffalo, Gregg Williams' first year as head coach, we went 3-13," Winfield said. "That was a long season. It's tough on you, but we're all professionals and are expecting the Rams' best shot. Usually when you have a season like that, players try to do too much to make big plays to help the team. What usually ends up happening is that by doing that, they end up out of position and giving up big plays they shouldn't. It kind of snowballs on a team when something like that starts happening."

The Rams' struggles have been epic but have largely flown under the radar because of the Lions record-setting streak of futility in 2008. For most of the decade, the Rams have enjoyed success, including a Super Bowl championship. But recently those memories have dimmed. Since the start of the 2007 season, the Rams have played 36 games. They have lost 31 of those, including 14 straight and 22 or their last 24. For the players who were on those recent teams that enjoyed success in the years leading up to their franchise collapse, it has been disheartening. They know what it takes to win, but haven't found the formula to translate it on the field.

Vikings center John Sullivan knows the feeling. Prior to his senior season in college, Notre Dame was a national power. With the departure of most of their offensive starters, including quarterback Brady Quinn, wide receiver Jeff Samardzja, running back Darius Walker, guard Dan Santucci and tackle Ryan Harris, the Fighting Irish struggled mightily. They lost to teams that hadn't beaten them in 20 years. It was a constant struggle, but Sullivan said the Rams find themselves in the same position – trying to prove a point amid epic futility.

"Our 2007 team in Notre Dame was like that," Sullivan said. "We had enjoyed a lot of success prior to that. We were hard-working and young, but could never seem to put it all together on game day. We ended up winning some games later in the year, but that was due to just fighting through all of the adversity. You can never count any football team out. We're not taking anything for granted with St. Louis, because we know they're trying and aren't giving up because of their slow start."

For the record, not everyone can feel the pain the Rams and their fans feel. Whether coincidence or not, some players have never faced that kind of adversity. Percy Harvin, for example, has a lot of championships on his résumé from different sports and doesn't have first-hand knowledge of the funk that permeates a team that loses so often with such disastrous results.

"I've never been on a team with a losing record," Harvin said. "Since I've been a kid, we won championships in everything – Pop Warner, Little League, high school, college football. I've never had to go through things like they are, but I can only imagine that is has to be tough. Some of my buddies call me and say how their players barely talk and don't hang out at each other's houses. That could be tough. Fortunately, I haven't had to go through that."

So, as the Vikings prepare to invade St. Louis in what everyone is seemingly convinced will be a blowout win, they do so with the knowledge that just because the Rams have looked awful doesn't guarantee a victory. Longwell recalled a similar situation to what the Vikings are facing in his rookie season in 1997 – one even more lopsided in pregame appearance than Sunday's Vikings-Rams game.

The Packers were 8-2 and on a five-game winning streak. They were heading into Indianapolis to face the 0-10 Colts, a team so bad it would earn the top pick in the 1998 draft and select Peyton Manning. It was supposed to be a cakewalk. Instead, the Colts won 41-38 in a game in which the Packers got two late touchdowns to make the score much closer than the game actually was. He learned that day that no NFL team can be overlooked, because even the great teams can get tripped up on the proverbial "any given Sunday."

"There's very little difference between the good teams and the bad teams in the NFL," Longwell said. "It's like the difference between the best quarterbacks and the average ones. It's literally just an inch. The best ones make the big throw and the worst ones don't. The talent level is so good from team to team in this league that there isn't much difference. My rookie year, Green Bay was coming off a Super Bowl win and we were on a roll. We went into Indianapolis, which hadn't won all year, and they beat us badly. The way they beat us, you would have thought they were the best team in football. If you sleep on somebody in this league, you will get burned in a hurry."

So be forewarned, Vikings fans. A 20-point win looks all but assured Sunday, but stranger things have happened.

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