The Minnesota Vikings entered this year's training camp eager for a fresh start after enduring an incredibly turbulent and trying 2010 season.
It's a feeling Donovan McNabb can certainly relate to.
Fielding ultra-high expectations after amassing a 12-4 regular-season record and coming within an eyelash of the Super Bowl in 2009, last year's Vikings instead face-planted under a tidal wave of injuries and in-house drama. A 1-3 start out of the gate quickly ratcheted up the temperature on the already hot seat of then-head coach Brad Childress, who later furthered his unpopularity among players, management and the media with his controversial decision to release recently-reacquired wide receiver Randy Moss after only four games at midseason.
Childress would be gone as well soon afterward, given his dismissal by owner Zygi Wilf following a lopsided home loss to rival Green Bay that left the Vikings at 3-7 and miles out of the playoff chase.
Minnesota did catch a spark from Childress' replacement, former defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, and won three of its final six games to close out an otherwise forgettable campaign on a bright note. That encouraging finish has the Vikings optimistic that 2010 was nothing more than a bump in the road for a franchise that had been seemingly on the verge of great things.
"The way the guys have responded here at the very start [of training camp] has been so positive," said Frazier. "It just gives me the impression that we've moved on past 2010 and we have opened up a new era."
That new era will include a change in quarterback, with Brett Favre finally calling it quits for real at last season's end after the legendary gunslinger's historically-resilient 41-year-old body finally betrayed him. In his place will be McNabb, who's seeking a measure of redemption of his own following a ignominious one season in Washington in which the six-time Pro Bowl selection was benched in December for inconsistent play.
McNabb was never really able to get a handle on Mike Shanahan's offense during his brief time with the Redskins, but the Vikings believe the 12-year veteran could be primed for a bounce-back in a system that new coordinator Bill Musgrave has been tinkering with to accent his pupil's strengths. McNabb has acknowledged he feels more comfortable this year, both with the playbook and his surroundings because of his familiarity with Frazier, who served as Philadelphia's defensive backs coach during the longtime Eagle's first four seasons in the league.
"I'm excited to get started with the guys we have around on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, as well as the coaching staff," said McNabb. "I've known Leslie for a number of years now. His opportunity of becoming a head coach now and to make me a part of it...we want to bring that success that we had in Philadelphia here to Minnesota."
Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the Minnesota Vikings, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2010 RECORD: 6-10 (tied 3rd, NFC North)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2009, lost to New Orleans in NFC Championship
COACH (RECORD): Leslie Frazier (3-3 in one season)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Bill Musgrave (first season with Vikings)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Fred Pagac (sixth season with Vikings, second as DC)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Adrian Peterson, RB (1298 rushing yards, 36 receptions, 13 total TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Jared Allen, DE (60 tackles, 11 sacks, 2 INT)
2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 23rd overall (10th rushing, 26th passing), 29th scoring (17.6 ppg)
2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 8th overall (9th rushing, 10th passing), 18th scoring (21.8 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: QB Donovan McNabb (from Redskins), OT Charlie Johnson (from Colts), NT Remi Ayodele (from Saints), QB Christian Ponder (1st Round, Florida State), WR Michael Jenkins (from Falcons), WR Devin Aromashodu (from Bears), TE Kyle Rudolph (2nd Round, Notre Dame), DE Adrian Awasom (free agent), DE Stylez White (from Buccaneers)
KEY DEPARTURES: QB Brett Favre (retired), FB Naufahu Tahi (not tendered), WR Sidney Rice (to Seahawks), OT Bryant McKinnie (to Ravens), DE Ray Edwards (to Falcons), NT Pat Williams (not tendered), OLB Ben Leber (to Rams), FS Madieu Williams (to 49ers), QB Tarvaris Jackson (to Seahawks), WR Greg Lewis (not tendered), WR Hank Baskett (not tendered), DT Jimmy Kennedy (to Giants), CB Lito Sheppard (not tendered), CB Frank Walker (to Titans)
QB: Minnesota's addition of McNabb (3377 passing yards in 2010) was meant to serve a dual purpose, with the 34-year-old brought aboard to provide the offense with an experienced commander while also serving as a mentor to his eventual successor, rookie Christian Ponder. The Vikings plan to use the No. 12 overall pick in this past April's draft's first pro season as an apprenticeship, though it's a decent bet he'll be pressed into action at some point when considering that McNabb has missed 17 games due to injury over the past six years. He was essentially healthy last season but hardly effective, throwing more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (14) for the first time in his accomplished career and producing his lowest quarterback rating (77.1) since his 1999 debut with the Eagles. No. 3 man Joe Webb (477 passing yards, 3 INT) started the Vikings' final two games as a rookie last season and guided the team to a stirring road upset at playoff-bound Philadelphia in late December. Though still a raw project, the 24-year-old offers intriguing options as a situational player due to his running ability and off-the-charts athleticism.
RB: While the Vikings can't be completely sure of what they'll get out of the quarterback position this year, there's little uncertainty in regards to the backfield. Minnesota sports one of the game's premier ball-carriers in perennial All-Pro Adrian Peterson (1298 rushing yards, 36 receptions, 13 total TD), who's averaged nearly 1,450 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns through his first four seasons in the league. Just 26 years old and entering a contract year, he should put up huge numbers once again and possesses no real weaknesses now that he's improved upon the ball-security issues that had plagued him in the past. Former Stanford star Toby Gerhart (322 rushing yards, 1 TD, 21 receptions) will once again spell Peterson after turning in a solid rookie campaign last year, while speedster Lorenzo Booker -- signed in December after spending most of the season playing in the UFL -- is being considered by Musgrave for the third-down role in addition to handling return chores. Fullback Ryan D'Imperio, a converted college linebacker who spent all of 2010 on the practice squad, will be trying to make a case to stick as a lead blocker and special-teamer during the preseason.
WR/TE: Injuries and roster shuffling took their toll on a receiving corps that was a real strength during Minnesota's run to the NFC title game in 2009. Top target Sidney Rice played in only six games after making a slow recovery from offseason hip surgery, split end Bernard Berrian (28 receptions) and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (47 receptions, 2 TD) couldn't match their previous year's production, while Moss' second tour of duty as a Viking lasted only four weeks because the problematic wideout couldn't mesh with Childress. A lone bright spot was the exploits of young playmaker Percy Harvin (71 receptions, 6 total TD), who easily led the team in every receiving category a year ago, and the dangerous and versatile weapon will once again be the focal point of the passing game now that Rice has jumped ship to Seattle in free agency. The fallout from his departure was softened somewhat by Minnesota's signing of veteran Michael Jenkins (41 receptions, 2 TD with Falcons), a big-bodied receiver who can block and is well-versed in Musgrave's offense from their time together in Atlanta. Shiancoe, who hauled in a team-best 11 touchdown passes from Favre in 2009, heads up a crowded collection of tight ends that also contains blocking specialists Jim Kleinsasser (17 receptions) and Jeff Dugan along with rookie Kyle Rudolph, a second-round choice in April's draft who provides an enticing target with his 6-foot-6, 260-pound frame. Returnee Greg Camarillo (20 tackles, 1 TD) is the favorite for the No. 4 receiver's role due to his ability to play the slot and value as a punt returner.
OL: Another area which experienced a drop-off last season, the Vikings will be counting on better health and continuity triggering an uptick in performance for an offensive line that brings four of five starters back from the 2010 group. Decorated left guard Steve Hutchinson and right-side regular Anthony Herrera missed a combined 11 games in 2010 due to injuries, a concern for two players who are both over 30, while center John Sullivan had his effectiveness hampered by a nagging calf problem. The unit will be undergoing one major change this season, with Minnesota cutting ties with longtime left tackle Bryant McKinnie after he showed up at camp grossly out of shape. Ex-Colt Charlie Johnson, who's spent the past couple of years protecting Peyton Manning's blind side, was in turn brought in as a replacement and will line up opposite third-year right tackle Phil Loadholt, a surprisingly nimble 343- pounder who's started all but one game for the team since entering the league. Depth will come from holdovers Ryan Cook, a versatile veteran who owns starts at center, guard and tackle during his five-year tenure with the Vikings, and second-year guard Chris DeGeare, a five-time starter in his debut season.
DL: Minnesota's defense has been anchored by one of the most dominant front fours in the business in recent years, but an extensive offseason renovation has put into question whether the line can maintain that level of superiority. Gone are premium run-stuffing tackle Pat Williams and quality end Ray Edwards, with the Vikings opting not to retain the former and the latter signing a lucrative five-year contract with Atlanta in the offseason. The team does believe it has a capable replacement for Edwards in Brian Robison (15 tackles, 2 sacks), who's done well in situational duty over the past four years, while newcomer Remi Ayodele (37 tackles, 1 sack with Saints) is an experienced big body who will be asked to fill the void left by Williams' departure. Minnesota does still have a couple of all-stars on the payroll in six-time Pro Bowl tackle Kevin Williams (39 tackles, 1 sack) and pass-rushing terror Jared Allen (60 tackles, 11 sacks), who's compiled double-digit sack totals in four consecutive years. Kevin Williams could miss some time early in the season, however, due to a controversial suspension by the NFL for testing positive for a banned substance, in which case rotational piece Letroy Guion (16 tackles, 2 sacks) would step into the starting lineup. Veteran reserve Fred Evans and rookie Christian Ballard, a fourth-round draft choice out of Iowa, will also figure in the interior mix, while more pass-rush help was added with the late signing of ex-Buccaneer Stylez White (36 tackles, 4.5 sacks), who amassed 24 sacks in his four years in Tampa Bay.
LB: The Vikings are in excellent hands at two of the three linebacker spots and feel good about the prospects at the other heading into this season. Middle linebacker E.J. Henderson (105 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) made a remarkable recovery from a career-threatening broken leg suffered in 2009 to earn a spot in last year's Pro Bowl, while steady strongside starter Chad Greenway (144 tackles, 1 sack) made a good case for a trip to Honolulu after topping the team in tackles for a third straight season. Minnesota let seasoned weakside regular Ben Leber walk via free agency, with Erin Henderson (E.J.'s younger brother) tabbed to take over that spot after working exclusively on special teams the past three years and alleviating concerns with a solid preseason showing. Third-year pro Jasper Brinkley (17 tackles) is back to man his post as E.J. Henderson's understudy in the middle, while returnees Heath Farwell (16 tackles) and Kenny Onatolu (10 tackles) and rookie Ross Homan (6th Round, Ohio State) will primarily earn their keep on kick and punt coverage.
DB: Cornerback was another position in which the Vikings were hit hard by injuries in 2010, with right-side starter Cedric Griffin suffering a season- ending ACL tear for a second straight year and promising rookie Chris Cook (21 tackles) battling knee problems of his own throughout his pro debut. The good news is Griffin has been healthy this preseason and ready to return opposite consistent veteran Antoine Winfield (91 tackles, 2 sack, 2 INT), who continues to play at a high level entering his 13th NFL season. With both Cook and third-year man Asher Allen (58 tackles, 2 INT) each garnering significant playing time in Griffin's absence, depth behind the starters also shouldn't be an issue. The back end is led by returning regular Husain Abdullah (75 tackles, 3 INT), an undrafted free-agent find in 2008 who's developed into a reliable safety, with 2008 second-round pick Tyrell Johnson and valued special teamer Jamarca Sanford (22 tackles, 1 sack) competing for a spot left open by Madieu Williams' offseason release.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Vikings have a dynamite kick returner in Harvin (23.3 avg.), who's scored three touchdowns in that phase during his first two NFL seasons, but the new kickoff rules and his expanded role on offense figure to cut down the 2009 first-round choice's special-teams contributions this year. Booker should see time on kick returns as well after averaging 23.8 yards per runback in 2010, while Camarillo (9.2 avg.) was serviceable handling punts last season. Kicker Ryan Longwell is back for a sixth year with the Purple and Gold and turned in another fine season in 2010, with the 37-year-old making good on 17-of-18 field goal attempts one year after missing only twice (26- of-28) on three-point tries. Punter Chris Kluwe may best be known for his candid comments on Twitter regarding the lockout, but he let his foot do most of the talking last season by posting a solid 43.0 gross average and placing 32 kicks inside the 20-yard line.
PROGNOSIS: Frazier's positive personality was clearly a factor in the Vikings' improved play down the stretch of last season, and the team will be leaning on both its player-friendly head coach and the powerful legs of Peterson to continue that progress in what's shaping up to be a transitional year for the franchise. Minnesota lost four starters on defense and will be relying primarily on unproven former backups to fill those spots, and there's plenty of uncertainty on the other side of the ball as well, with McNabb coming off a dreadful season in Washington and the talent level decreasing at wide receiver and offensive tackle following the departures of Rice and McKinnie. Expect the Vikings to be competitive in Frazier's first full season at the helm, but Minnesota doesn't have the look of a playoff team -- especially in an NFC North pack that seems pretty sound from top to bottom -- with all those question marks.