Madieu Williams (Tom Dahlin/Viking Update)
In an offseason filled with promise and lofty predictions, the preseason didn’t always go as well as hoped. The Vikings finished with a 1-3 record and several questions in the injury department.
The Vikings entered training camp with high hopes that resulted from an offseason spending spree and the feeling that quarterback Tarvaris Jackson had made significant strides in his development.
“Our expectations are very high,” owner Zygi Wilf said just before the team reported to camp in Mankato, Minn. “And we set our goals very high. ... We expect to win the division.”
Wilf couldn’t be faulted for his enthusiasm given that he had written checks that included $60 million in guaranteed money to acquire the services of Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen, receiver Bernard Berrian and safety Madieu Williams.
But not everything has gone according to plan as the Vikings prepare for the season.
Trouble started early in camp when Williams was diagnosed with a neck injury that is expected to keep him out of at least the first three games of the regular season. The Vikings signed Williams, considered a top-notch cover guy, to a six-year, $33 million contract that includes $13 million in guarantees.
The expectation had been Williams and veteran Darren Sharper would form one of the league’s top safety tandems. Now, Sharper likely will open the season playing with rookie Tyrell Johnson, a second-round draft pick.
It’s the Vikings’ offense that actually has the most concerns. Jackson and Berrian both missed time in the preseason because of injuries that can’t be dismissed as just short-term problems.
Jackson has sat out varying amounts of practice or game time the past two years because of a knee injury, a strained groin, a fractured finger on his throwing hand and a concussion. Three of the maladies occurred last season when Jackson went 8-4 as a starter but still had plenty of ups and downs.
A fifth ailment was added to that list in the Vikings’ second preseason game when Jackson suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee while scrambling. Jackson is confident he will be ready to play against the Packers in the regular-season opener Sept. 8, but the greater concern at this point is if he can stay healthy for an entire season.
Coach Brad Childress wants to turn over this offense to Jackson, but that’s not possible with the quarterback on the bench.
The Vikings do have some level of comfort in knowing they have a solid veteran backup in Gus Frerotte, who was signed as a free agent last spring. Last year the Vikings backups - Kelly Holcomb and Brooks Bollinger - went a combined 0-4 in the games that Jackson missed.
You also can’t dismiss the preseason games as meaningless when it comes to Jackson. He got off to a good start in limited action over the first two games - Jackson completed 15 of 22 passes for 200 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions - but clearly the coaching staff wanted to get a longer look at him.
Remember, Jackson threw three more interceptions than touchdowns (12-9) last season and had a sub-par completion percentage (58.2) and passer rating (70.8).
“I think the big thing to point out is consistency,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said when asked about where he wanted to see Jackson progress. “He has made a lot of improvements since the day he got here and even some of the things we asked him to improve on from the offseason until now. He has done that whether it was stepping up in the pocket with two hands, keeping his shoulders perpendicular to the line of scrimmage or keeping his eyes down the field.”
The hope was that Jackson would be able to spend time this preseason developing chemistry with Berrian, who bolted Chicago to sign a six-year, $42 million free-agent deal with the Vikings that includes $16 million in guarantees.
Berrian didn’t even last as long as Jackson. He played three series in the preseason opener against Seattle then missed the next two games because of a toe injury that bothered him for much of last season with the Bears.
Given that Berrian was brought on board because of his speed and ability to stretch the field, this could be a significant issue for the Vikings. Berrian’s presence is supposed to loosen up defenses for a Minnesota running game that features 2007 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Adrian Peterson and finished atop the NFL last season.
The Vikings do have to be encouraged by the performance of Allen, who led the NFL with 15.5 sacks last season. Obtained from Kansas City for a first- and two third-round picks, Allen has fit in well on a defensive line that includes Pro Bowl tackles Kevin and Pat Williams.
Minnesota finished last in the NFL in pass defense in 2007 but the feeling is the consistent pressure Allen will provide from the edge will make life far more difficult on opposing quarterbacks.
“That makes our job so much easier,” Sharper said. “Everyone knows the strength of our defense is our defensive line. Our front four can dominate every team that we face.”
BY THE NUMBERS: .551 — The 2007 winning percentage of the Vikings’ opponents for this season. That gives them the toughest schedule of all NFC teams, trailing only Pittsburgh (.598), Indianapolis (.594) and Jacksonville (.559) of the AFC.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “I didn’t even know I played tackle tonight. Did I? I don’t even remember it. It’s all the same. It runs together. Guard, tackle, tight end, linebacker, free safety. It all runs together.” — OL and resident comedian Artis Hicks when asked about the fact he played left tackle for a portion of the Vikings’ third preseason game against Pittsburgh as the Vikings prepared for the possible suspension of Bryant McKinnie for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. As it turned out, McKinnie was suspended for four games.
There was one surprise in the Vikings’ cuts as veteran LB Derrick Pope was released. Pope signed a one-year contract as a free agent during the offseason and was expected to contribute on special teams.
Pope spent his first four seasons with Miami after being selected in the seventh round by the Dolphins in 2004. He started nine games last season and had a career-high 57 tackles. Atlanta, Kansas City and Tampa Bay expressed interest in him, but he decided to go to Minnesota.
The fact Pope was let go in the first round of cuts is interesting, especially with special teams ace and fellow LB Heath Farwell out for the season because of a knee injury. Pope’s departure leaves the backup linebacker corps looking like this: Vinny Ciurciu, David Herron and Erin Henderson.
PLAYER TO WATCH: WR Aundrae Allison — A fifth-round pick out of East Carolina in 2007, Allison only had eight catches for 122 yards last season. The speedy receiver made strides in the Vikings’ offseason program and has been solid throughout camp. It would not be surprising to see him end up with a significant role in the offense.