As the NFL prepares to quietly wind down its preseason Thursday night, the focus is going to quickly shift to the Week 1 schedule, which officially starts a week from today when the Cowboys and Giants open the 2012 season. The Vikings desperately need to get off to a strong start to the 2012 season, because September hasn't been good to them in recent years.
The Vikings have been notoriously slow starters in recent years, which has consistently dug them a hole that has been hard to get out of. In four of the last five seasons, the Vikings have had a losing record when the calendar has flipped from September to October and they haven't recovered from the deficit they created early on the last two years.
The Jacksonville Jaguars may be the ideal opponent for the Vikings as the new season begins and they try to erase the nightmare that was the 2011 season. No running back in the league – not even Adrian Peterson – was more important to his offense than Maurice Jones-Drew was last year to the Jaguars. He had 50 more carries that all but one running back last year (Atlanta's Michael Turner, whose 301 carries was 42 less than MJD's) and his 1,606 rushing yards was 242 more than the next-highest total (from Ray Rice of the Ravens).
Not only was Jones-Drew the league's most prolific runner, he was the centerpiece of an offense that finished last in the NFL with just 4,149 total yards. Jones-Drew accounted for 1,980 total yards of offense – which represents 48 percent of the Jacksonville offense. Rice led the NFL with 2,068 yards, but that figure represented 38 percent of the Ravens' total offense.
Perhaps it was that dominance of the offensive yardage numbers that has prompted Jones-Drew to hold out, despite being under contract – a front-loaded deal he signed two years ago that isn't currently paying off as handsomely as it did from the outset. As things currently stand, he's been running a tab of $30,000 a day in fines for being away from training camp and the preseason. His bill has reached seven figures and, while there is reason to believe he will show up at Jags headquarters, as far as the Vikings are concerned, the longer MJD stays away, the better.
While other running backs have held out for a better contract in the past, including Hall of Famers like Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders, when they returned to their respective teams, they were welcomed back by ownership, the coaching staff and their teammates with open arms. Jones-Drew? Not so much.
Jags head coach Mike Mularkey said Tuesday that, even if Jones-Drew kisses and makes up with the franchise tomorrow, he won't start against the Vikings Sept. 9. Mularkey clarified a statement made over the weekend that "for today" Rashad Jennings was the starter. The local Jacksonville media interpreted that to mean that Jennings would be the starter until MJD came back. Mularkey, who was accurately quoted by all accounts, took umbrage with the (correct) interpretation of his remarks. On Tuesday, he clarified his statement – to the delight of Vikings fans everywhere.
Mularkey made it clear that Jennings will be the starter when the Jags play at the Metrodome, whether Jones-Drew is back or not. Considering the damage he is capable of doing – he rushed for 95 yards or more in 10 of 16 games last year and has less than 84 yards rushing just once – that is huge news.
While no disrespect is directed at Jennings, Jones-Drew has been such a focus of the Jacksonville offense that the game plan is devised around him. At a time when running backs are having less of an impact on the league, Jones-Drew is a throwback to an earlier era. As much as the Jaguars need him, it would appear that his unexcused absence from camp isn't sitting well with ownership, the coaching staff or his teammates.
For a Vikings team desperately looking to get off to a strong start to the season (and with a schedule that could very well allow that to happen), seeing MJD being brought to task by his head coach is manna from heaven. If Jacksonville intends to compete – in Week 1 or Week 17 – it will be largely on the back of Maurice Jones-Drew. The less he plays, the better the odds are for the Jaguars' opponents and, from the sounds of things, he will be playing a backup role (if any at all) Sept. 9 when the Jags head north to play the Vikings.
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.