End Zone

The Vikings Stink

The Vikings Stink
Credit: Laura

Let’s start with some numbers. Three: the number of games the Vikings won in the 2011 season. Six: the number of games Donovan McNabb, who was picked up by the team after Brett Favre (finally, for real) retired, played that year as starting quarterback. Seventy point one: the quarterback rating of Christian Ponder, the rookie from Florida State who replaced him for the last 10 games of 2011. Thirty-one: the Vikings’ defensive rank last season, by points allowed.

It doesn’t take a mathematical savant from Football Outsiders to know those numbers stink. In fact, when the Daily Norseman (that’s a real website devoted to the Vikings and associated with the sports network SB Nation) sat down with Andy Benoit, who wrote the Vikings preview for FO’s legendarily data-driven annual Almanac, his best case scenario projections—6-10; third place in their division, NFC North—were relatively grim.

And yet, there are these numbers. Five: the number of weeks since the start of the regular season. Four: the number of games the Vikings have won. One: the Vikings’ current rank in the NFC North.

It wasn’t just stats junkies who thought the team didn’t stand a chance at making the playoffs. Purveyors of conventional wisdom—Sports Illustrated, for example—were of the same mind.

Even Vikings fans couldn’t seem to believe in their team. When Bill Barnwell at Grantland predicted that the Vikings would finish 7-9, he got messages from fans who thought he was overestimating the team. On the Daily Norseman, Sunday’s win over the Titans occasioned this less than triumphant headline: “Vikings Might Actually Be a Good Football Team.”

Out of years of disappointment, Saints fans have constructed a narrative, all evidence to the contrary, of victory against the odds; Vikings fans have constructed one of heartbreaking bad luck.

You don’t have to go back all that far to figure out why: the 2009 Vikings-Saints NFC Conference Championship, lost on a last-minute Favre interception that sent the game into overtime. Not quite a primal scene, it did reinforce neurotic tendencies in Minnesota fans who have never seen their team win a Super Bowl.

The next year the team went 6-10; in November, after an embarrassing 31-3 loss at home to the Packers, Head Coach Brad Childress was fired; in December, the roof of the Metrodome collapsed under heavy snow.

But 2011 was when things got really weird. The Vikings started the season with veteran quarterback McNabb at the helm. The trade was sealed by a series of negotiations involving McNabb’s jersey number, 5, which was already being used by Vikings punter Chris Kluwe. Kluwe agreed to give McNabb the jersey; all McNabb had to do was done $5,000 to the charity “Kick for the Cure,” promote Kluwe’s band, Tripping Icarus, during a press conference, and buy Kluwe an ice cream cone.

Despite such auspicious beginnings, McNabb led the team to a 1-5 start. By October, he had lost his starting gig, which left Christian Ponder, who was born in 1988 and looks like he would be down to hang out with his bros after the markets close at QB1. He did not perform well. In 11 games, Ponder completed under 55 percent of his passes; his sack rate was around 10 percent; he threw for 13 interceptions and lost five fumbles.

Don’t call it luck, but this season, Ponder is somehow completing almost 70 percent of his passes; he’s calmer in the pocket, more confident. He didn’t throw a single interception until week five.

This clip of Ponder’s touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph on fourth down against the 49ers is as remarkable for what it doesn’t show—anxious dumping of the football in the face of Dashon Goldson’s aggressive rush—as for what it does: an accurate pass thrown to the back corner of the end zone over several defenders’ heads.

Ponder may never be an awe-inspiring quarterback—in the Vikings’ week four game against Detroit he failed to throw a single touchdown, and two weeks ago, I couldn’t have picked his frat boy mug out of a lineup—but he seems to be developing into a reliable one, in the Alex Smith short-pass, convert-on-third-down, make-no-mistakes mold.

Ponder has been getting impressive assists from wide receiver Percy Harvin, who scored a touchdown on the first play of the game against the Lions in week four—a beautiful, 105-yard kickoff return that was the longest in franchise history and put the Vikings on the path to their first NFC North victory after 11 straight losses against their division rivals.

Harvin was key again in the victory over the Titans, as this you-have-to-see-it-to-believe it gif from SB Nation demonstrates:

Vikings fans, of course, are still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Running back Adrian Peterson, who tore both the ACL and MCL in his left knee last December and has since made an astonishing recovery, twisted his left ankle on Sunday. And the front end of the team’s schedule has been considerably easier than the back end will be: They’ll face the surprisingly competent Bears and the bizarrely floundering Packers twice each in the space of six weeks at the end of the season.

Still: As dictatorial as NFL can be, as amply demonstrated by the referee lockout, the Vikings out-of-nowhere resurgence suggests the way in which the league, at the level of the team, is more egalitarian than other sports. The salary cap, the short season, the draft rules, the brief careers of most players (the Vikings have one of the youngest teams in the league)—all of these mean that the team you saw last year might well not be the same one on the field this season.

That’s good news if you’re a Vikings fan, and someday it might even be good news for a Browns or a Jaguars fan. If you’re, say, a Packers fan, it should scare the crap out of you.