VIKINGS FANSaren't the only ones thinking big this season. Cornerback Antoine Winfield seesgreatness in the defense. Running back Adrian Peterson believes the offense hasno ceiling. And defensive end Jared Allen can envision a season-ending strollthrough a shower of confetti.
Coach BradChildress? He sees the potential pitfalls in such talk. "The great thingabout this league is that you've got to show up week in and week out and beconsistent," he says. "We harp about that all the time. There are noflash-in-the-pans. Each game counts. They're one-sixteenth deals, and we haveto treat each one as such."
Still, as theVikings went through two-a-days in Mankato, Minn., the expectations among theplayers soared with the temperature. The team finished 6--10 and 8--8 inChildress's first two seasons, showing promise late last year with a five-gamewinning streak. Now the off-season additions of savvy free safety MadieuWilliams, big-play wide receiver Bernard Berrian and Allen, the NFL's sackleader in 2007, have the players thinking about more than winning a divisiontitle and getting back to the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
"When I sawthe trade for Jared and the signing of Madieu, I knew they were making all themoves for us to make a run at not only the playoffs but the pinnacle, the SuperBowl," says strong safety Darren Sharper. "Coach's first year here, weknew there would probably be some growing pains. We knew it was going to be aprocess each and every year to get better. But with the pieces we have inplace, we have the attitude that it's win now."
The key will bethird-year quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. He was 8--4 in his first full year asa starter in 2007, but with 12 interceptions against just nine touchdownpasses, he failed to consistently make the right reads and throws. Minnesotamasked his shortcomings to some extent with a ground game that led the NFL inrushing. The catalyst was Peterson, the 2007 Offensive Rookie of the Year.Showing a unique blend of size, speed and power, he set a league record with296 yards rushing against the Chargers in Week 9 and finished the year with1,341 yards on a gaudy average of 5.6 per carry.
This year thebeefed-up defense figures to alleviate still more pressure on Jackson byimproving the Vikings' field position. While Minnesota ranked No. 1 against therun last season, it was last against the pass, giving up an average of 264.1yards per game. Allen, whose 15 1/2 sacks with the Chiefs in 2007 were 10 1/2more than any Viking had, will help shut down the aerial attack, as willWilliams, a fifth-year veteran from the Bengals who'll act as the quarterbackof the secondary.
The Vikings alsohelped Jackson by bringing in Berrian to stretch the field. Last seasonMinnesota ranked 31st with only 25 completions of 20 or more yards. Berrian,the former Bear who set career highs with 71 catches for 951 yards, is a bonafide deep threat: 10 of his 15 career scores (including the postseason) havebeen for 30 yards or more, including six for 40 or more. Childress also loveshis tenacity.
"He'sslightly built, but he's a tough-minded guy," the coach says. "Whetherthat comes from his parents' service background [both are retired Air Forcemechanics] or the fact that he's the middle of three boys, I don't know. Buthe's tough. He'll block you, which is required of our wideouts. He's not adiva."
Childress talks alot about attitude because he believes the team had a miserable one before hecame on board. He illustrates that with a story about a road trip during hisfirst year. Seated in his customary first-row seat on the charter, he wasstunned to hear a player walking up the aisle, soliciting participants for acash raffle. Suffice it to say the carnival atmosphere stopped soonthereafter.
COACH BRAD CHILDRESS (14--18 in NFL), third season with Vikings
SACKS 4 1/2
SACKS 15 1/2
2007 RECORD 8--8NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 1/28/13 DEFENSE 1/32/20
8 at Green Bay (M)
28 at Tennessee
6 at New Orleans (M)
19 at Chicago
9 GREEN BAY
16 at Tampa Bay
23 at Jacksonville
7 at Detroit
14 at Arizona
28 N.Y. GIANTS
NFL Rank: 5
Opponents' 2007 winning
Games against playoff teams: 7
SI.com's NFL personnel expert Michael Lombardievaluates the Vikings' units.
Can Jackson handle all the looks that will be thrown at him?
Greatness with Peterson; depth with Chester Taylor.
Need Berrian to be a deep threat, and Rice to emerge.
Shiancoe improving as a receiver; Jimmy Kleinsasser is mobile.
McKinnie's status (possible suspension by NFL) is the key.
Allen brings an edge rush to already stalwart group.
Henderson anchors a unit that is big, strong and fast.
Pass rush will take pressure off; Sharper is a playmaker.
Solid in every phase; Longwell is a reliable vet.
The Vikings ranked last in pass defense in 2007, andGriffin, in his first full year as a starter, was one reason—he usually hadgood position but often failed to finish plays. Antoine Winfield, the othercorner, is a quality veteran, so offenses will again challenge Griffin. Coachesand teammates say he's been more confident and assertive in camp.
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EXCERPTED FROM SI
October 29, 1962
FRAN TARKENTON, the often beleaguered quarterback ofthe Vikings, is a football player whose cup runneth over. More often than not,young Mr. Tarkenton's overflowing cup leads to a varied assortment ofcontusions, sore bumps and miserable afternoons that he remembers with as muchenthusiasm as he would an acute case of food poisoning.
Free access to all VIKINGS stories and photographs from the SI archives, plusvideo clips.
TOM TOMSIC/US PRESSWIRE
FOR PETE'S SAKE A new long-ball threat at receiver will help lighten Peterson's load.
NEIL LEIFER (COVER)