Northern Reflections

You’ve probably noticed that there’s been a dearth of football-related blogging so far this year–especially when you consider that last season I was actually giving blow-by-blow accounts of Minnesota Vikings games. So what happened? Two things, actually. One, when you spend thirteen hours every Sunday watching football, one of the last things you want to do is write about it. Two, when your football team is in the midst of an utterly appalling season, it makes everything football-related a lot less fun. Yes, that includes football-related blogging.

Seriously, can someone explain what’s happening in Minnesota? The Vikings had one of the most spectacular (in every sense of the word) offseasons in pro football history, which included them trading away their franchise player for way less than he was worth, their head coach getting busted for scalping Super Bowl tickets, their leading rusher from 2004 (Onterrio Smith) trying to smuggle a drug test busting device called “The Original Whizzinator” through airport security and subsequently getting a year-long suspension, a complete overhaul of the team’s porous defence…you name it, and it probably happened to the Vikings last offseason. Meanwhile, the team emerged as a sexy preseason favourite to win the NFC this year; ESPN: The Magazine even called them to win the Super Bowl. For once, my own preseason optimism seemend entirely well-founded.

And why shouldn’t I have been optimistic? Daunte Culpepper had finished second in MVP voting in 2004, Nate Burleson had established himself as a marquee receiver, Michael Bennett had reclaimed his spot as the team’s undisputed featured back (remember, this guy was a Pro Bowler in 2002) and the rebuilt defence was supposedly gelling a lot quicker than anticipated (a point which the American sports media kept making in its preseason dispatches from Mankato). I’ve never pretended to be objective about the Vikings–what fan really is?–but on paper, this team was easily the best team in the NFC North, and probably one of the top two or three teams in the NFC. Remember, a lot of people were saying so–it wasn’t just me.

Six weeks into the season, and the Vikings are 1-4, nailed to the bottom of the NFC North standings (yesterday’s blowout loss at Chicago dropped them below the Green Bay Packers, who moved into third spot without actually playing a game) and the undisputed laughing stock of the NFL. The season so far has been a nightmare; in particular, during their three blowout road losses (at Cincinatti, Atlanta and, now, Chicago) the team actually looked like it didn’t care, while even their single victory wasn’t official until they practically begged their opponents (the homeless New Orleans Saints) to snatch it away. So much has gone wrong so far this year I don’t even know where to begin–although pointing out that the team’s punter is its undisputed MVP seems like a good place to start. I’m not a football expert, but since the Vikings’ woes hardly warrant expert analysis I’ll offer five easily-observable points for discussion:

  1. Mike Tice and the rest of the coaching staff are useless. Honestly, what does Tice need to do to get fired? Most owners would have cut him loose after the ticket fiasco, but since Red McCombs wasn’t about to fork over any money for a decent replacement Tice’s job was safe. Next, he traded away his team’s marquee player for a couple draft picks and an anonymous linebacker (Napoleon Harris); then, with the team’s season started slipping away, he got dropped in the middle of the whole Love Boat scandal. Add in Scott Linehan’s departure (he moved to Miami in the offseason) and Tice’s decision to promote an offensive line coach (Steve Loney) to offensive coordinator, Ted Cotrell’s apparent ineffectiveness and playcalling which would make Dennis Green cringe, and you’re dealing with a loaded gun. With regards to that last point: yesterday, the Vikings had a first-and-goal from the Chicago two…and to the surprise of no one who watches the team on a regular basis the ensuing sequence went pass (Culpepper got dropped for a loss), two penalties (one a hold), two dump-offs and a missed field goal. I guess running three times up the middle would have been too straightforward or something.
  2. I’m pretty sure I could be a starting lineman. Who knew Matt Birk’s season-ending injury would prove to be so vital? Daunte Culpepper has been sacked a stunning numbers of times this season, but he’s probably been responsible for about 10% of them. I’m reasonably confident that I’d be an upgrade over Marcus Johnson.
  3. Culpepper has been off. You know how much I respect Sir Daunte, so it puzzles me to watch him blow up like this. Certainly other factors have come into play, but when you’ve thrown twelve interceptions in five games you’ve got to take at least some of the blame. Yes, he was playing hurt for three weeks…and no, I don’t think that exonerates him. If it was that bad, Brad Johnson should have started–he’s won a Super Bowl, hasn’t he?
  4. The Moss Factor. In retrospect, people diminished the effect that Moss’ departure would have on the Vikings–although to be fair, the team’s performance in the games he missed last season certainly suggested that they’d be able to survive without him. Realistically, however, you can’t take away a guaranteed 1,400 receiving yards/15 receiving touchdowns and not notice it; when you add in the fact that none of the team’s other receivers have stepped up (and that Burleson has been injured for most of the season) you’re starting at a great, big void in the team’s offence. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve uttered “I miss Moss” this season…it was at least ten yesterday alone.
  5. A lack of leadership. The Love Boat scandal typified everything that’s wrong with this Vikings team–and to make matters worse, nobody (not even Culpepper, usually the team’s most reliable leader) is stepping up. Who knew the team could make Randy Moss look classy?

And so on and so forth. When you consider that the Vikings look like a team that doesn’t care, it makes it a lot harder to stomach. If Minnesota was going down fighting each and every week, I’d be a lot better with the whole debacle; the fact that they’re completely spineless–which I’ll attribute primarily to a lack of strong coaching–makes it virtually impossible to watch them.

So that’s it: I’m officially done with the 2005 Minnesota Vikings. I am now rooting for them to lose out so that three things happen: one, Tice and everybody surrounding him gets fired (which is a lock to happen anyway…seriously, you think Zygi Wilf is screwing around with his new $500-million toy?); two, the team brings in a few consummate professionals who actually know what it takes to win; and three, they land a high draft pick (i.e., top three). I’ve consulted with Bill Simmons’ new book, Now I Can Die in Peace, and determined that adopting these measures isn’t an act of betrayal, but rather my duty as a fan. So this weekend, when the Vikings play the Green Bay Packers, I’ll be the one wearing the purple jersey and cheering on the Big Cheese–and no, it won’t be done with any sense of irony. (You know what’s weird? At 1-4, the Vikings are actually only one game out of the lead in the NFC North. They could, with a few good results, turn this thing around…and I don’t care. I don’t want them to turn this thing around; honestly, it’s better for the good of the franchise that they get the shit kicked out of them every week between now and January 1, 2006.) Back in July, if you’d have told me I’d be writing this I’d have laughed in your face–then tried ripping your face off, like Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible, to see if you were actually Tim Jebb in disguise. Sadly, the last six weeks have forced me to come to terms with a very uncomfortable point: that the Minnesota Vikings are officially the biggest joke in the NFL, and that I will unavoidably linked to them until the day I die. God didn’t see fit to bless me with two working kidneys…couldn’t he have at least given me a better football team?

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