Chris Cook (Tom Dahlin/Viking Update)
The Vikings are a great example of the role health plays in the success of a team. When they’ve been healthy over the last four years, they’ve made the playoffs twice. When injuries have ravaged the roster, they’ve won far less than half their games.
In a sport where the difference between winning and losing is a razor-thin line, there are certain factors that play into team success.
Dominance in any one phase of the game can take a team a long way. In 1998, the Vikings went 15-1 with an offense that could dominate any opponent and a defense that faced teams forced to be one-dimensional on offense midway through the second quarter. The Rams took it a step higher the next year with a potent offense, a suspect defense and a Super Bowl ring. The next year, the Ravens did the same in reverse – a crushing defense, a pedestrian offense (one that didn’t score a touchdown for an entire month) and a ring to show for it.
Franchise quarterbacks can get the job done. With the exception of Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson, who rode world-class defenses to the Super Bowl, the list of championship quarterbacks leading potent offenses includes Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco. It would seem that, over the early portion of this century, if you have an elite quarterback, you have a great chance of getting 52 other guys a ring.
But perhaps the most important product of success is a team staying healthy – or as healthy as any team can be over the course of a 16-game season. The Vikings may be a perfect example of that.
In 2009, when the Vikings made their run for the Super Bowl, only one player was placed on injured reserve during the entire season – linebacker E.J. Henderson 12 games into the season. Of the 53 men on the active roster when the Vikings left Mankato, 52 of them started and finished the 2009 season and helped the Vikings earn the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
In 2010, the Vikings fell hard after having all 22 of their primary starters from the previous season on the roster. The 2010 Vikes put nine players on injured reserve – including successive starting cornerbacks (Cedric Griffin and Chris Cook), both starting guards (Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera) and both starting safeties (Madieu Williams and Tyrell Johnson). Add to that, Favre’s top downfield target Sidney Rice opted to have surgery that day after Favre came back and missed the first 10 games of the season. The result was clear and undeniable.
In 2011, when the Vikings hit bottom, they did so thanks in no small part to putting 10 players on injured reserve, including starters Hutchinson, Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Antoine Winfield, Husain Abdullah and Michael Jenkins – not to mention cutting starting QB Donovan McNabb six games into the season. Is it any wonder the team finished 3-13? The team they envisioned on Day 1 was a far cry from what closed out the season.
Coming off a couple of injury-riddled seasons, not much was expected of the 2012 Vikings. It shouldn’t have been. However, from the time the Vikings cut their roster down to 53 players, the changes that were made to the roster were as minimal as any modern-era Vikings team. Only two players all season were put on injured reserve – Chris Cook and Percy Harvin. Cook was designated for a potential return, which he did. Harvin was the only player shut down. The Vikings made the playoffs despite Harvin’s absence.
The number of players placed on injured reserve may speak louder than any offensive or defensive ranking. In the two years (2009 and 2012) in which the Vikings placed a total of three players on injured reserve (technically two since Cook did return to the team), the Vikings had a record of 22-10. In the two years (2010-11) in which the Vikings placed a total of 19 players on I.R., the Vikings had a record of 9-23.
Coincidence? Don’t believe it. The difference between a good team and a bad team is often the personnel that make up the squad that season. When the 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 Vikings left Mankato, the coaching staff had a plan in place based on a roster that would stay healthy. Everyone from the first man to the 53rd had a role on that particular team. In the two years that the depth chart remained essentially that same, the Vikings have won 69 percent of their games. In the two seasons they have been weakened by injury, they have won 28 percent of their games.
As the Vikings prepare for the 2013 season, they do so with a roster that, through luck, youth and toughness, hasn’t lost many players to injury and those that they have – like Peterson and Jasper Brinkley – came back strong. If the Vikings are to repeat as an NFC playoff team, they may have to replicate the sort of health they had in 2012. The first line of the Vikings depth chart is, for the most part, solid. What they need now is to use free agency and the draft to fill in the second line – whether it means acquiring players to take over that second line or to get players to force first-liners down a spot on the depth chart.
In many respects, a team is no better than its second line of the depth chart. The Vikings are as good a test case as any as to what happens when injuries don’t play a major role on a roster and when they do. When the Vikings don’t have injury issues, they’re successful. The last two times they’ve faced significant adversity, they’ve crumbled. The goal for 2013 is to make sure that when the call for “next man up” goes out, there’s someone ready to step in that will do the job just as well.
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.