The National Football League is an acknowledged genius in stirring public frenzy around its productions. Wednesday night it staved off the Democratic Convention and Bill Clinton with relative ease by putting the Cowboys and Giants on television.
But the NFL it may be seriously tested Sunday in Minneapolis.
There the Minnesota Vikings play the Jacksonville Jaguars in a game matching two teams that combined to lose 24 games out of possible 32 in 2011.This not an easy feat in a league that is almost neurotically pledged to maintain parity. Still, it might have offered an end-to-end match of the ranking running backs in pro football, the Vikings Adrian Peterson and Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew. But Jones-Drew’s holdout took him to the brink before it ended two days ago; and Peterson’s comeback from a knee operation remains clouded.
Which does inject legitimate mystery into Sunday’s game, plus a certain amount of psychological warfare. The Vikings don’t want Jacksonville to know any more about Peterson’s playing potention than the league requires them to tell. Peterson has been working out but being withheld from normal contact. He says he’s ready. Healthy, Adrian Peterson is the best running back in pro football — powerful, swift, often reckless, but a game-changer with a scoring potential on every play. His coach, Leslie Frazier, re-affirmed his decision Friday that barring any new development, he would make no determination on Peterson’s status until Sunday.
All of which compounds the questions rattling around this football team in the midst of a makeover that leaves serious doubts about its competence at virtually all levels of performance.
What’s dependable? Jared Allen will terrorize quarterbacks like nobody else can. With him, Kevin Williams, Chad Greenway, Brian Robison, Jasper Brinkley and Erin Henderson are quality defenders. The major addition on the offensive line is Matt Kalil, the massive All-American from Southern Cal, the third player selected in the 2012 draft and now being called on to provide quarterback Christian Ponder a security on his blind side that was seldom visible a year ago. John Sullivan is an emerging dependable at center. The rest of the offensive line looks adequate. The defensive backfield looks like a garage sale but it can’t be any worse than a year ago, and a rookie like Harrison Smith at safety will make a difference. And that marvelous old vet, Antoine Winfield, will offer a stability that was nowhere in sight last year.
Among the more puzzling decisions at draft time was the Vikings’ choice of Blair Walsh to replace the departed and reliable Ryan Longwell as the Vikings field-goal kicker. Longwell meant accuracy and security. Walsh’s attributes are said to be length and more dependability than his record in college — right around the 50-50 mark in field goal conversions — seemed to suggest. Nothing he did in the exhibitions offered a whole lot of comfort.
Ponder is key
But the crux of the Viking season will revolve around Ponder, the bright young quarterback whose grades in his rookie season were mixed, and his troubles in navigating the drop-back pocket largely unsolved. This is an attractive athlete, bright with promising qualities as a leader and popular with the team, but still in the trial stage. All of his assets — an adequate throwing arm, his quickness as a learner and his physical toughness — point to success in pro football.
But now he will have to reveal more. He needs to make better decisions in the pocket, sharpen his accuracy and mercifully discover better receivers than he had a year ago. If it’s going to be substantially better there it may have to come from tight end, where Kyle Rudolph offers strong prospects of becoming one of the league’s best. And if John Carlson, the veteran acquired from Seattle, gets healthy in time to help the team early, the Vikings’ offense will acquire another dimension. Both, incidentally, played college football at Notre Dame. So did John Sullivan, a maturing presence at center, and young Smith, the defensive back. The significance of this may not be immediately apparent, but it does suggest that they all graduated, which is still counted as a plus in football.
The Vikings are still thin in receivers, and it doesn’t help with the new acquisition, Jerome Simpson, temporarily out with a suspension. The best of receivers, of course, is Percy Harvin, whose skill set in the pro game is matched by only a handful of others. He is an absolute threat to score any time his fingers touch the ball. The Vikings will line him up in a half dozen places Sunday. They will throw to him downfield, throw to him off the flank, hand off to him, lateral to him and reverse to him. Sometimes he’s bothered, seems aloof. Sometimes he struggles with illness. He’s not easy to predict. But he competes. And when they put the ball in his hands, a touchdown is always possible, and even likely.
But Sunday is the day of a potential new horizon for the Vikings. If Adrian Peterson plays, there will not only be wild anticipation in the crowd and some genuine fear from the Jaguars, but tension all around. If he plays, can he absorb a hit? If he plays, will he finally try to AVOID a hit?
The answers there may set the tone of the season.
Jacksonville has problems of its own. It’s quarterback, Blaine Gabbert, experienced a genuinely horror rookie season as the No. 6 draft choice. Some folks talked about his “timidity” in the pocket. He’s probably better than that. Christian Ponder’s problem was not that. But his decisions in the pocket we’re frequently questionable. And, when you think of it, why not? Not many quarterbacks learn this game overnight.
Ponder will be better. Allen will hound the Jaguar pocket. Percy will run. And Adrian?
If he can play, you’re tempted to say, “take care.” One thing you know. He won’t.