The Vikings 2016

Since the Vikings games are so rarely broadcast on the West Coast, I watched with particular interest (via DVR) their surprising 17-14 win over the Packers in their home opener. I say “surprising” because I am still enough of a Minnesotan that I expect the worst from any tense situation, and having the ball in Aaron Rodgers’s hands with time left and only a 3-point lead is tense.
My first takeaway is how impressed I was with Sam Bradford. Forget that he had only been on the team two weeks and that, with or without Adrian Peterson, he had no running game to use. He made passes that I haven’t seen a Viking quarterback make in years. Not the dinks of Daunte Culpepper, not the “game management” of Teddy Bridgewater, these were legitimate 20-yard throws into the smallest of windows. On both his touchdown passes – first to Kyle Rudolph, then to Stefon Diggs – the receivers were covered but his throws were perfect.
My second reaction, however, was “more of the same”: namely, the inferiority of the offensive line. Again, I don’t know how many years it has been since I’ve seen a Viking quarterback able to stand in the pocket and pick out a receiver without fearing for his life, the way Tom Brady and Peyton Manning routinely do. This may be why the Viking offense has relied so heavily on check-down passes. Bradford, as I saw it, never had the luxury of looking for a secondary receiver and more often than not had a Packer in his face as he threw. The TV announcer singled out Brandon Fusco as being particulary unable to slow down his man, and replays show Matt Kalil flailing as his rusher raced by him. The two off-season additions to the line were considered “average” in assessments I had read, and there doesn’t seem to have been any upgrade from the draft. It’s hard to see how the Vikings will be able to “improve” their offensive line as the season progresses, which will make it a challenge for Bradford to remain healthy (he did suffer one injury already, to his non-throwing hand) and as charged up as he must have been for his debut.
Third, the Viking secondary must be a strength, if not the main strength of this squad. Just the fact they have held two NFL opponents to 16 and 14 points is remarkable. More than that, you couldn’t help notice how much trouble Rodgers had in finding someone to throw to. Several times he counted to five and just threw the ball out of bounds. When he was sacked – and it happened four times – he always had time to throw first but couldn’t pull the trigger. The Packers’ main offensive weapon was the defensive interference penalty – two by the oldest Viking defender, three by the youngest. You have to think that coaching, practice and experience can eliminate much of this problem. Trae Waynes, who isn’t even a regular starter, was always right with his man; he just made unnecessary grabs at the receiver’s jersey. And Green Bay’s last touchdown came on a long scramble by Rodgers – when he couldn’t find anyone to throw to.
In sum, there is considerable hope for the season. The Vikings have a major weakness – bad offensive line and weak running attack – but there don’t seem to be any world-beaters in the (injury-prone) NFL this year. Their defense should keep them in most games, and if Bradford stays healthy they have a quarterback who can make deep throws and good decisions. Diggs, Rudolph and Adam Thielen provide an above-average receiving corps, with competent backups. Cordarelle Patterson and Marcus Sherels are good kickoff and punt returners, and Blair Walsh better be good. I’m sorry I won’t get to see more of their games.