by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

History seems to keep repeating itself in Minnesota. Much like the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus, forever doomed to rolling a boulder up a hillside, only to have it always roll back down before reaching the summit, the Vikings have been cursed to the same fate throughout their 51-year history, close to many Super Bowls and championships, only to inevitably have to start over again as the quest continues to reach the ultimate goal.

Never has that pattern been more pronounced than in the past couple of years, when the Vikes were a bit unfortunate not to win the 2009 NFC title (no one in the Twin Cities will ever forget that bitter conference title game loss in New Orleans) but have slid downhill fast ever since.

The Brett Favre fiasco and unraveling of the Brad Childress regime were unsightly. And in their wakes, Minnesota now finds itself looking up at everyone else in a suddenly-potent NFC North, where even the Lions and Bears have roared past and the Packers are somewhere far over the horizon.

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Similar in a way to Hank Stram’s Kansas City Chiefs in the early ‘70s, the Vikings refused to believe they were a team in need of rebuilding last season, hanging to several aging veterans in hopes of one last playoff push, and even enlisting the help of the past sell-by-date Donovan McNabb at QB. Predictably, it all blew up in the Vikings’ faces last fall as the team tied a franchise record for losses (13) set in 1984.

But, unlike 27 years earlier when HC Les Steckel was forced to walk the plank after his 3-13 season, Leslie Frazier gets another go at the MSFC Metrodome after his own 3-13 mess from 2011. A record which could have been much improved if the Vikes caught a few more breaks, losing as they did by seven points or fewer on a staggering nine different occasions.

(We wonder if octogenarian and franchise icon coach Bud Grant was asked to come out of retirement after last season as he was in 1985, when he leant some stability to a franchise badly in need of it before eventually handing the coaching reins to Jerry Burns.)

The difference between now and the mid ‘80s, however, is that the Vikes have admitted the errors of their ways the past few seasons and have begun to build the personnel foundation from ground up, with building blocks acquired in the draft while using free agency for spot additions that could provide short-term help.

As a result, expectations have been lowered, although season win totals posted by Las Vegas sports books suggest Minnesota could be expected to improve upon last year’s woeful W-L record. The Vikes’ 2012 win total is posted at 5 ½ at the majority of Las Vegas sports books.

Whereas Minnesota could always find some backing for other season-long wagers in recent years, few are also going to be tempted by the longer prices being quoted on the Vikes to win the NFC North (25/1 at books offering such wagers, and even that doesn’t appear to offer much value) and 40/1 to win the NFC. Super Bowl prices have the Vikes down in the depths of the league with the likes of the Browns and Jaguars, priced anywhere form 60/1 to 100/1 to win it all.

Any takers?

Most NFC North observers, however, don’t expect Minnesota to re-emerge as a contender until 2013 at the earliest, and that’s if everything goes well in the interim. Which includes second-year ex-Florida State QB Christian Ponder progressing on the learning curve after hinting at bigger and better things to come last fall.

Ponder, however, clearly remains a work in progress after tossing as many picks (13) as TD passes in his rookie campaign. Only once in his ten starts did Minnesota produce a win.

At least Ponder doesn’t have to worry about McNabb stealing snaps this season. Interestingly, a surprising number of NFC North onlookers think the Vikes could also go to battle with backup QB Joe Webb, the ex-UAB gunslinger who has ignited the offense on occasion and if nothing else is a serviceable relief option should Ponder go down.

Ponder was no doubt pleased that new Minnesota GM Rick Spielman decided to upgrade the OL in the draft and spent the Vikes’ first-round choice on Southern Cal OLT Matt Kalil, considered far and away the top offensive lineman in the draft. Like another former Trojan lineman drafted 45 years earlier by Minnesota, Ron Yary, Kalil is expected to enjoy a Pro Bowl career (if, knock on wood, he isn’t slowed by injuries). Better yet, he signed in July, avoiding a protracted contract dispute.

Ponder was even Kalil’s chaffeur on the first day of training camp, which indicates it hasn’t taken Ponder long to figure out the guys he has to keep happy on his strike force.

Of course, all eyes in the Twin Cities are on RB Adrian Peterson (right) as he seeks to return from a devastating knee injury last December when tearing his left ACL. Don’t expect to see much, if any, of Peterson in the preseason; he sat out the opener last Friday at San Francisco. The goal is to have him ready for that September 9 regular-season opener vs. the Jaguars.

If Peterson isn’t ready or is otherwise compromised, ex-Stanford slammer Toby Gerhart is a serviceable infantry option, though he lacks Peterson’s many dimensions. Frazier and o.c. Bill Musgrave will also continue to look for ways to involve Percy Harvin, a versatile weapon who gained more than 1200 yards from scrimmage last season via run and pass receiving.

But Harvin (left) must be used judiciously; at a mere 185 pounds, his durability is always a concern, and the Vikes run risks if he is overworked.

Minnesota did make a few free-agent upgrades to the receiving corps in the offseason, adding TE John Carlson from Seattle and WR Jerome Simpson, the human pogo-stick, from Cincy (remember his wild, acrobatic TD catch vs. the Cardinals last December?).

Carlson, expected to team with holdover Kyle Rudolph at TE, did suffer an MCL injury early in training camp which could keep him out of preseason action, although Frazier said early indicators were that the injury wasn’t serious. Keep an eye on this situation regardless.

A potential surprise contributor from the draft is WR Jarius Wright, a 4th-round pick from Arkansas who set Razorback records for receptions and yards out of a slot position.

Still, in an overview of the strike force, there are questions, beginning with how far Ponder might advance in his second year, Peterson’s health, and, aside from Harvin, a true go-to receiving threat. Place-kicking is also a concern after Ryan Longwell was released; Georgia rookie Blair Walsh, a 6th-round pick, is going to get the first shot at replacing Longwell. The OL also remains an issue despite the addition of Kalil, as three new starters will be operating up front.

Meanwhile, that once-robust defense that Frazier used to coordinate was also a shell of itself a year ago when the Vikes dropped precipitously in NFL stats, indeed all of the way to 31st (next-to-last) in points allowed at 28 pg.

This season, Frazier has turned coordinator duties over to Alan Wilson, who is expected to keep the Tampa 2 scheme but add in more man coverages and blitz packages as needed.

Minnesota went for help in the secondary on draft day, adding Notre Dame’s physical safety Harrison Smith, whose early training camp reviews suggest he could be the big, instinctive, hard-hitting safety the “D” has lacked for years, and big enough to move into the box if necessary. Third-round pick CB Josh Robinson from UCF was perhaps Conference USA’s top defensive performer last fall.

The Vikes also added veteran CB Chris Carr (most recently with the Ravens) as insurance in the offseason, while hoping RCB Chris Cook will be ready to contribute after missing the final ten games last year due to legal issues. Keeping LCB Antoine Winfield healthy is another concern.

At least star DE Jared Allen hasn’t slowed down; his 22 sacks last year set an franchise record, and DE partner Brian Robison proved he was an every-down player last year. The LB corps, however, needs MLB Jasper Brinkley to return at full speed after missing last season with a hip injury.

Spread-wise, the Vikings have been a money-burner the past two seasons, recording a subpar 11-20-1 overall mark vs. the line since 2010. Two years ago, many of those failures were due to being wildly overrated while Favre was still in tow and distorting perceptions, but the pointspread mark didn’t improve appreciably a year ago (6-9-1). The Metrodome has also ceased to be a benefit vs. the number lately, with the Vikes covering only twice in eight home games a year ago.

Minnesota has also covered only three of twelve NFC North games the past two seasons, and has really had its problems vs. the Bears, who have won and covered all four meetings sicne 2010.

Summary...Expectations are low for a reason in Minneapolis, as the Vikings have adopted the sort of rebuild them that the Lions embraced a few years ago. As was the case in Detroit, it’s going to take time to put a playoff contender back in the field. This fall, look for signs of progress from QB Christian Ponder, RB Adrian Peterson getting back to his old self after injury, and the defense at least holding its own.

That might signal an improvement in the Vikes’ spread fortunes, but any thoughts of a playoff push will likely have to wait until 2013 or 2014 at the earliest.


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