Vikings safety Darren Sharper limped out of the Metrodome Sunday evening and might never return. Tight end Jim Kleinsasser, 10 years in, stripped off a purple jersey for what might have been the last time. Veteran center Matt Birk, a St. Paul native and also at the end of his contract, took time after his team’s dreary 26-14 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC wild-card playoff game to snap a family portrait on the stadium’s cold, hard turf.
Then there’s Leslie Frazier, the defensive coordinator and hot NFL head-coaching property who almost certainly will be in charge of his own team elsewhere next season.
Frazier’s work with the Vikings defense, the praise he gets out at Winter Park from those working both above and below him and the quiet authority he projects through the media have revived the sort of talk last heard when Tony Dungy was about to leave Denny Green’s staff for his own opportunity. As in: Can’t the Vikings just, er, open up the top job and promote the guy themselves?
That won’t happen; Zygi Wilf and the other Wilfs who own the Vikings haven’t wavered in their support of head coach Brad Childress — and a 10-6 record, the NFC North division crown and the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2004 make a compelling case for retaining the man (who happens to have two years left on his contract, too).
2009 likely to offer a repeat season
Which means that the more things change with this team, the more they will stay the same for 2009. Childress will continue to incur the zanies’ wrath on Internet boards and call-in shows while those less-frothing among Vikings fans will split between questioning his decision-making, acknowledging the respect he commands from his staff and roster and secretly pining for someone more jut-jawed, more brawny, more striking on the sideline. More, y’know, head coach-ish.
Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson will be back, too, with an approval rating when training camp opens in July that’s within a couple of percentage points of his numbers four months ago. As the market-research folks say, that’s well within the margin for error because, Lord knows, Jackson’s margin for error is huge.
His performance against a Philadelphia defense that got increasingly bold, quarter by quarter, was a bookend to the shaky two starts he logged against Green Bay and Indianapolis at the season’s front end. Jackson showed a little bit of promise and a whole lot of reasons for doubt; for instance, that solid scoring drive in the second quarter immediately after his horrible interception and reckless attempt to stop Eagles safety Asante Samuel near the goal line (Jackson got body-slammed into the end zone by a Philly blocker).
Jackson started the second half well enough, too, with a pair of 17-yard completions to Kleinsasser to quickly position his club at midfield. But on a third-and-6, Philadelphia’s Brian Dawkins knocked the ball from Jackson’s grasp and sacked him. From there to the end, the third-year quarterback was 6-of-17 for 44 yards, his passes increasingly erratic. Afterward, reporters questioned Jackson and Childress about the future — gee, no big announcements, what a surprise! — and teammates said the right things.
“You start where you left off,” said receiver Bernard Berrian, the former Chicago Bear whose standard prior to this season for quarterback comparisons was Rex Grossman. The sample this year: Jackson and Gus Frerotte.
“You can’t just throw a guy out,” Berrian said. “He finished very strong [in the regular season]. He took the benching well, showed a lot of character, came back and had some really great games. That just shows the coaching staff and the rest of the players that we have faith in Tarvaris.”
Running in place?
It also shows that the Vikings will begin 2009 more or less where they began 2008. Sure, they gained some experience and coalesced with some new talent from September through December. They overcame some significant injuries, including linebacker E.J. Henderson, safety Madieu Williams and nose tackle Pat Williams.
But someone gets injured every year. New players get absorbed and indoctrinated every year. There isn’t one thing the Vikings know about Adrian Peterson now — elite running back with some blocking deficiencies and occasional fumbilitis — that they didn’t know down in Mankato last summer. They know as much, and as little, about Jackson’s long-term prospects at quarterback as they knew then. Fans and media folks like or dislike Childress in pretty much the same breakdown, then as now.
Come the 2009 season, odds are great that one or more Vikings will get nailed by the NFL’s anti-steroids policy, pass-rusher Jared Allen will cough up some fine money for a late hit or three, Chester Taylor and Peterson will split time lugging the ball, fans will wring their hands over Peterson being called on too much or too little, the secondary will be better by December than it is in September, other teams’ quarterbacks will look tantalizingly more adept than whoever is taking the snaps in purple, the Wilfs will be making noise about public money for a new stadium and more than one diehard will paint a “Fire Chilly!” sign — in August.
People prone to philosophy always talk about the journey mattering more than the destination, but in sports that can be a problem. For the Vikings and every other team, the destination — the Super Bowl — is what matters, and the journey can get old fast. It’s no easy thing to face another 16 games, to work hard and hope that everything goes well enough to reach precisely the same point as last week and then, only then, to improve upon the results.
It’s even tougher for a team that found itself this season on a figurative roller-coaster, a contraption mentioned several times Sunday by Peterson, by Jackson and by others in the losing locker room. All a roller-coaster ever gets you is the right to do it all, the ups and the downs, all over again on the next lap.