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Young, inexperienced Vikings enter a period of haze

Brian Murphy, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. –

The Vikings would rather chug battery acid than acknowledge the rebuilding project in bloom at Winter Park, where players, coaches and managers appear liberated by historically low expectations for a team in danger of posting three consecutive losing seasons for the first time in 49 years.

Optimism reigns at 0-0, and the 2012 Vikings have been full of happy talk after burying the 23 losses and tumult that scarred the club following its 2010 NFC championship game loss.

“The sky’s the limit,” linebacker Erin Henderson declared the other day. “That’s what we’re here for. You never know how a 16-game season’s going to play out.”

True enough. But there is no way to gloss over the inexperience and uncertainty pervading Minnesota’s 53-man roster as the Vikings open the 2012 season Sunday, Sept. 9, against Jacksonville at the Metrodome.

Only five offensive starters return, with rookie left tackle Matt Kalil protecting quarterback Christian Ponder’s blind side, four-time Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson unsure when he can expose his surgically repaired left knee to NFL contact, and Jerome Simpson, their downfield receiving threat, idled by a three-game suspension.

The reconstructed secondary is long on upside but short on proven ballhawks.

Vikings players average 26.6 years of age, a full year younger than the 2011 squad, reflecting an overdue purge that created abundant job opportunities for prospects while inviting skepticism.

General manager Rick

Spielman helmed his first draft with complete authority over the roster, while coach Leslie Frazier finally had a full offseason to integrate his schemes and foster unity in the locker room after last year’s lockout.

On the business side, the Vikings have sold out 144 consecutive games at the Metrodome since December 1997, but conceded this year’s team is going to be a tough sell by accepting the NFL’s offer to lower the threshold to 90 percent capacity to lift television blackouts.


like a lot of nails being hammered and wood being sawed on a project that has only just begun.

“There is a little bit of the unknown, which is exciting,” Spielman said. “The team, and the fans, should be very excited about so many new faces and so many young, talented players. These guys hopefully are going to end up being the future of this franchise and be the faces of this organization. I’d be very shocked if they didn’t react in a positive manner.”

Intriguing story lines and wishful thinking that do not necessarily appeal to a nine-year veteran such as defensive end Jared Allen, who ranted during training camp that rebuilding is a euphemism for losing.

“I’m not in this to rebuild. I’m in this every year to compete for a championship,” he said. “If you’re out here saying we’re going to try to win eight games this year, you’re wasting everybody’s time and you’re wasting the Wilfs’ money.”

Owner Zygi Wilf brashly predicted an NFC North championship despite sharing a division with three playoff-caliber teams that are expected to keep the Vikings in last. Then again, owners are entitled to exaggeration, especially one still basking in the afterglow of negotiating a $975 million stadium deal.

Wide receiver Percy Harvin qualified his remarks when asked directly whether Minnesota should be considered a playoff team.

“I hope so. We don’t know yet, but we hope so,” he said. “I definitely think, realistically, we’ll be better than last year, which was 3-13. That’s everybody’s goal, get into the playoffs and go from there.”

There is rationale for renewed hope in the NFL.

Unbalanced schedules, the salary cap and underperforming teams being compensated with high-value draft picks promote parity. In the past 10 years, an average of six playoff teams from the previous season failed to return to the postseason — a topsy-turvy sweepstakes that makes all things seem possible.

But defining a successful Vikings season, or even identifying proper measuring sticks, is complicated.

To be sure, another 3-13 output is unacceptable. One-year coaching blunder Les Steckel’s Vikings were considered the worst team in franchise history until Frazier and his 2011 charges tied that 1984 crew for most

losses in Minnesota annals.

The Vikings will have to massively overachieve this season to avoid matching another low point. The club finished with losing records in its first three years of existence under coach Norm Van Brocklin, capped by a 5-8-1 season in 1963 that concluded three weeks after President Kennedy was assassinated.

This is a franchise that just doesn’t lose like this. For all the lamenting about the Vikings’ inability to win a Super Bowl, Minnesota has been one of football’s most consistently successful teams since its 1961 inception.


— Three straight losing seasons? That’s amazing, compared to the rest of the league. Twenty-two teams have been around continuously since at least 1961 (if you include the combined Baltimore Ravens/old Cleveland Browns). Twenty-one have had longer runs of losing seasons than the Vikings.

— Overall, the Vikings have had only 15 losing seasons out of 51. That ties the Dallas Cowboys for fewest during that time. (And Dallas came into the league only a year before the Vikings … and was 0-11-1 in Season 1 … meaning the Cowboys have had 16 losing seasons in 52 years.)

— Eschewing the franchise’s first three and past two years, the other 46 Vikings teams finished .500 or better 78 percent of the time — with back-to-back losing seasons just three times (1966-67, 1984-85 and 2001-02).

Sure, other teams have won more since the Vikings became the Vikings. And there are those missing Super Bowl berths since 1977. Still, Minnesota’s 364 wins since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger rank tied for fifth with San Francisco.

Is it asking too much for four more in 2012?

To at least beat 2011?

Apart from the standings, the Vikings will be judged on how they compete and develop as professionals, whether they can establish an identity as a tough, disciplined and resilient team that shows up every week no matter the results.

Ponder must demonstrate he is capable of commanding a team and justify Minnesota’s decision to draft him 12th overall in 2011.

Veterans such as Allen, Antoine Winfield, Kevin Williams, John Sullivan and Chad Greenway must demand accountability and stay engaged if injuries and losses start piling up, especially during a brutal second-half schedule.

Moreover, the Vikings have to weather adversity better than in 2011, when the team blew first-half leads of 10, 17 and 20 points en route to a confidence-shattering 0-4 start.

“What’s most important right now is getting off to a good start in Week 1, and that’s the approach we’re taking,” Frazier said. “To conjecture what this team might do if we get off to a slow start or what they might do if we get off to a fast start, it’s hard for me to put my mind around right now. I want us to get off to a fast start for a lot of reasons. We need to build some confidence, and getting off to a fast start would really help in doing that with a win on Sunday.”

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