In no other sport is the phrase “here today, gone tomorrow” more appropriate than in the NFL. Just five months ago, Tim Tebow was viewed in reverent terms in Denver. Five months later, he’s brought his circus to New York, as John Elway’s bromance with Peyton Manning took precedence, despite Tebow perhaps being the most popular Bronco since Elway himself.
That’s the business of the NFL. In baseball, a left-handed pitcher who can get one or two guys out in the eighth inning can last until he’s 40 years old or beyond. In the NBA, if you’re seven feet tall, you can have a 10-year career even if you don’t have much talent but are willing to move. The NFL is a different animal completely. Whether it’s the propensity for injury or the “what have you done for me lately?” mentality, the shelf life of players in the NFL is shorter than any other sport.
Perhaps the best example of that mindset is the 2009 edition of the Minnesota Vikings. They lost to the New Orleans Saints in January 2010 and all the buzz heading into the 2010 draft – a scant 25 months ago – was that the Vikings were returning all 22 starters from a team that should have gone to the Super Bowl. As they hit Mankato in July 2010, less than two years ago, the pieces were all in place to make a Super Bowl run.
As we all know, that didn’t happen, but the meltdown and roster transition from that 2009 team has been nothing short of stunning.
In the Vikings media guide they list the 22 primary starters from the 2009 season. Of those 22 players, which doesn’t include kicker Ryan Longwell, only seven remain on the team – Adrian Peterson, Phil Loadholt and John Sullivan on offense and Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Chad Greenway and Antoine Winfield on defense.
Gone are offensive starters Brett Favre, Sidney Rice, Bryant McKinnie, Steve Hutchinson, Anthony Herrera, Visanthe Shiancoe, Jim Kleinsasser and Bernard Berrian, and defensive starters Pat Williams, Ray Edwards, E.J. Henderson, Ben Leber, Cedric Griffin, Tyrell Johnson and Madieu Williams on defense.
The reality of football is that, when players clean out their lockers at the end of each season, they will never see the same group of players again. The draft and free agency takes care of that. But never in the history of the Vikings franchise has there been such a pronounced turnover of starters as the organization has experienced in the last two years.
In an incredibly brief period of time, the Vikings have gone from being one of the oldest teams in the league to one of the youngest. Of the seven starters remaining from the team that went to training camp in 2010, five of them are home-grown draft products, one of the other two (Allen) was acquired for three 2008 draft picks and the other (Winfield) was a free agent signing. The process of rebuilding the Vikings began in 2010, was kicked up a notch last year and is in full force in 2012.
Not only is the turnover of starters a Vikings record, it rivals the dismantling of the Dallas Cowboys under Jimmy Johnson that went 1-15 early on but would eventually result in multiple Super Bowl titles. After Favre left Green Bay, the Packers were the youngest team in the NFL and, although they struggled early on to find a new identity, they too became Super Bowl champs. There have been a lot of teams that have cleared the shelves of veteran talent and started over, but the Vikings may be treading on new ground. Rarely if ever has a team dismantled itself so quickly and reloaded with new talent.
Will the Vikings follow in the famous footsteps of teams like the Cowboys and Packers that went from being inexperienced whipping boys to Super Bowl contenders? They are hoping it will happen and history says it is at least possible down the road. The Vikings and their fans have struggled through the lean times that have resulted from the mass exodus of veteran starters. 2012 is expected to be the first step in the team’s rise back to prominence. It has happened before. Their plan came at the expense of the present in hopes of creating a 53-man roster that will have a window of opportunity over the next four or five years.
The first crucial step in that plan will unfold in the coming months, as the Vikings look to rise from the ashes and reclaim some of their past glory.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.