Adrian Peterson (Bruce Kluckhohn/US Presswire)
The Vikings surprised a good number of observers and analysts with their start to the 2012 season. They have had a number of pleasant surprises and then some disappointments in building a 5-3 record halfway through the season.
At the midway point of the season, the Vikings have to view their 2012 season to date as a success despite coming off their worst loss of the season. With half of the season in the books, we can look back on that has worked for the Vikings and what will be cause for concern moving forward.
The positives center around the Vikings’ top two offensive stars. When the season started, the biggest question regarded Adrian Peterson. There were concerns of rushing him back too soon and whether he would be the A.P. he was prior to his devastating knee injury. Eight games into the season, Peterson has 775 yards rushing, 23 receptions and four touchdowns. He is on pace to have a 1,500-yard rushing season and is on pace to have one of the greatest comeback seasons of all time.
The same is true for Percy Harvin. He hasn’t put up a 1,000-yard receiving season in his first three years, but (barring injury) it clearly is coming this time around. He is on pace to catch 120 passes for more than 1,300 yards and, given his versatility as a receiver, rusher and returner, there is reason to believe why he could be in the discussion for the Offensive MVP of the NFC. He has cemented his place among the elite players in the NFL and it would appear that he has only scratched the surface of what he can accomplish.
Defensively, after a slow start, Jared Allen has picked it up and is on pace for a 14-sack season and Brian Robison and Everson Griffen have proved to be solid pass rushers and difference-makers in their own right. Chad Greenway is once again playing at a Pro Bowl level, Antoine Winfield is turning back the clock with his play, and Harrison Smith is giving the secondary a tough-guy image that is getting the attention of the NFL (and the fine police). The Vikings defense has allowed 14 points or fewer in four of its games and has allowed 24 or more points just twice. If that continues, the wins will continue as well.
Perhaps the best news is that Blair Walsh has been one of the league’s top rookies. He has made 17 of 18 field goals, including a perfect 4-for-4 from 50 yards and beyond and has allowed just 11 kickoffs in eight games to be returned. He has helped force opposing offenses to drive 80 yards to score touchdowns and has been as valuable as just about any player on the roster.
With the good comes the bad. After getting off to an extremely strong and efficient start, Christian Ponder has reverted to the bad habits he had at times in his rookie season. After going 4½ games without an interception, in his last 3½ games he has thrown seven interceptions and his completion percentage has dropped from 70 percent down to 65 percent. If the Vikings are to get back on track, he will need to get his confidence and swagger back to his September form.
With the individual performances that have made Peterson and Harvin a lethal 1-2 punch, the Vikings have received almost nothing from their two top offensive free agents – Jerome Simpson and John Carlson. Simpson has just seven catches for 95 yards and Carlson has just three receptions for eight yards – nowhere near what the Vikings were expecting.
Also troubling is the recent issues controlling the run. In their first five games, the Vikings found ways to contain and corral some of the game’s top runners, including Maurice Jones-Drew, Frank Gore and Chris Johnson. However, in the last three games, the Vikings have allowed a 100-yard runner in each game, including QB Robert Griffin III, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Doug Martin. That will have to change if the Vikings are to remain in the playoff hunt.
The defense will also have to improve in some critical areas, including third-down defense, where opponents are converting more than 44 percent of their opportunities, and time of possession, which goes hand in hand with the inability to get the defense off the field on third downs. The Vikings also need to become more aggressive in terms of taking the ball away. Through eight games, the team has just four interceptions and the big defensive plays have been few and far between.
Few would have imagined that we would even be having a discussion about the playoff potential of the Vikings after a 3-13 season last year and a gutting of the veteran core of the team. However, thanks to a strong start, at the midway point of the season, it is part of the conversation. The second half of the season will test the Vikings markedly more than the first half of the season, but, if you’re one of the “glass half full” types, there is a lot to be impressed with and the future looks a lot brighter than it did two months ago when the Vikings were expected to lose double-digit games.
Will the second half live up to expectations that have been set by the strong first half of the season? Time will tell, but it will give us an accurate reflection of how close the Vikings are to returning to legitimate playoff contention. If they can replicate their 5-3 start to the season, they’ll make the playoffs. If they finish .500, they will show the type of improvement that will make more believers. If they collapse down the stretch, they will prove that they are still a distance from being a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
So far, so good. But the true test of the Vikings is squarely in front of them.
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.