The Minnesota Vikings and their fans need to steel themselves for what could be the 2008 NFL season’s ultimate letdown, not Sunday in Detroit but Tuesday in New York.
In another sign of these volatile times, right up there with Washington’s and Wall Street’s ability to turn a frown upside down — and back again — more quickly than Adrian Peterson makes would-be tacklers look silly, the elation from the Vikings’ 34-14 victory Sunday night at the Metrodome over the Chicago Bears rapidly could turn into depression. If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and others in the league’s executive and chemical branches decide that it’s time to tear down Minnesota’s Williams Wall, the rest of the team and its postseason hopes could tumble too, brick by brick.
Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, the Vikings’ Pro Bowl defensive tackles and the guts of the team’s defense, face four-game suspensions for violating the NFL’s anti-steroids policy, with the belated verdict (news of their positive test results leaked five weeks ago) expected to be rendered Tuesday. Both players have maintained their innocence or, at least, their ignorance, claiming that they were unaware the diuretic they used, Star Caps, contained the illegal substance Bumetanide.
The NFL’s position is that Bumetanide is a possible masking agent for steroids and that, bottom line, players are responsible for anything that goes into their bodies — shoddy ingredient labels be damned. And while it is possible that the two Vikings, three New Orleans Saints and one Atlanta Falcon will fight any suspensions — Jay Glazer of FOXSports.com reported Sunday that they and their union (NFLPA) might seek a temporary restraining order and even sue the league, claiming it failed to fully disclose information about Star Caps — it is important for fans to remember that this is the NFL, not major league baseball or the NBA when it comes to players’ and agents’ clout.
Until it’s proven dumb, the smart money remains on Goodell and the league to enforce and uphold a policy that is considered essential to the NFL’s business operations, an anti-drugs stance with more teeth than anything comparable in sports. It would be reckless, foolish even, for Vikings fans to rely on the courts to preserve their first-place berth in the NFC North for one or two weeks, much less all four remaining.
If the middle of Minnesota’s defensive line gets yanked out for the balance of the season, we’re looking at the sweaty, purple rubble of a life-sized game of Jenga. With Williams and Williams no longer demanding extreme attention from offensive linemen, defensive end Jared Allen faces nonstop double-teams. With Allen getting blocked by multiple opposing blockers, his freedom and abandon get halved or worse while the strained tendons in his right shoulder get tested. Or worse.
With Allen hogtied, the Vikings’ defense — so thorough in its throttling of Chicago on the Metrodome floor and through its ventilated air — doesn’t function nearly as effectively. And with its defense muted, the team that has won six of its last eight might have trouble breaking even over its final four.
‘That’s a nightmare’
“I try not to think about that,” Vikings safety Darren Sharper said as the suspensions loomed in recent weeks. “That’s a nightmare. You don’t like to have nightmares.”
Look at it this way: If not for the defensive stand at the 1-yard line late in the first half Sunday, Gus Frerotte’s 99-yard pass play to Bernard Berrian — and what essentially was a 14-point swing at the game’s most pivotal point — doesn’t happen. All Minnesota and its fans would have been left with Benny Sapp’s juvenile unnecessary-roughness penalty to keep alive a stalled Chicago drive and a touchdown to make it Bears 14, Vikings 3. No Frerotte-to-Berrian for their NFL record-tying play. No gaffe by cornerback Charles Tillman, suddenly turning away from Berrian like a maitre d’ sniffing blue jeans. No Vikings touchdown there and, quite likely, no momentum for the one four minutes later that made it 17-7.
So no Williamses, no spot atop the division, maybe no shot at the playoffs at all. (A loss Sunday would have left Minnesota effectively two games behind Chicago, with the Bears in possession of three more home games and a sweep of the Vikings that would serve as a first tiebreaker.) And while we shouldn’t dismiss possible replacements Fred Evans and Ellis Wyms lightly — they do give up a combined 33 pounds to the two starters, though — it’s not unthinkable that the troubles could start immediately, against the hapless and winless Lions.
First of all, there’s the inevitable emotional letdown. Against Chicago, the Vikings were battling for first place, at home, on national TV, against a fierce rival sporting an identical record and bragging rights from an Oct. 19 victory at Soldier Field. Against Detroit, they will be on the road, against a longtime patsy they already have beaten once, feeling significant, league-wide pressure not to lose and become the clods who “spoil” the Lions’ oh-fer season.
Consider also that, in the first meeting on Oct. 12, the Vikings barely won anyway, 12-10. Their vaunted run defense, averaging 73.1 rushing yards allowed, gave up 100 to the Lions that day. Then there’s the Daunte Culpepper factor, the former Vikings quarterback who is three games into his sputtering comeback and might get an adrenaline boost to his 53.6 passer rating, especially if he doesn’t have to look across at a Williams Wall. Don’t forget the Minnesota defense’s penchant for penalties, either — the Vikings have given up a league-high 791 yards, 10 percent more than the No. 2 team (Atlanta, 719) and 176 more than the next-closest NFC North squad.
If nothing else, that should prepare Vikings fans if the commish flags Kevin Williams and Pat Williams Tuesday, docking the team half the distance to its goal line … of the playoffs.