There is one thing that the Viking management must never forget when approaching offseason improvements for 2013. It is not an easy thing to always remember, since they probably don't want to recognize it. If they remember it, 2013 could be an awesome year. If they choose to forget it, 2013 will disappoint us all. That thing is this:
The Minnesota Vikings are a mediocre football team.
Even if that's not entirely true, believing it to be true is the only way this team will make the necessary improvements to be a competitive team in 2013. Look at the closer numbers of this 10-7 team.
They were 13th in the NFL in point differential (31 points, which gives them an expected 8.8 wins)
They were 14th in points scored. They were 14th in points allowed.
They were 20th in offensive yards, and 16th in defensive yards.
The Vikings were also 14th in Football Outsiders' DVOA.
All those numbers point to a mediocre football team. Where is the dominant unit? Where is the sign of greatness in any area? It isn't there.
I think Leslie Frazier and the Viking coaching staff got the absolute most wins they could get from this roster (one year after getting the fewest wins they could from that roster). All the numbers point to a team that is average or just a little above average. Notably, the Vikings' biggest weakness (the passing game: more specifically a questionable starting quarterback, no quarterback depth, and very little talent at the wide receiver position and almost no downfield passing threat whatsoever) is probably the worst weakness to have in today's NFL. But that's not the only thing making this team mediocre: the numbers just don't show a team that is really great at anything.
The Viking management may go into the offseason thinking "We're a playoff team. This is a good roster. We've got the core of a contender here, and we have a few notable weaknesses that we must address to get there." That's tempting. It's the things a fan wants to believe about the team. And I suspect it's the sort of thing Rick Spielman wants to believe about the roster he built. But if they believe that, they're not going to get better in a significant way.
It may not be entirely true that the Vikings are mediocre (though it mostly is), but if the Viking management at least convinces itself that it is true, they will make aggressive and maybe even difficult moves to make the team better.
Here are the specific things I would do if I were running the Vikings (I am aware I am not).
1. Sign an elite free agent wide receiver.
Don't bother telling me free agent wide receivers are often busts: every method of acquiring a player to play any position can be a bust. It's a weakness, and they have to try fill it. Free agent WRs can be busts, high draft pick WRs can be busts, late draft picks might never pan out. Try try try.
2. Get more wide receivers!
Getting Mike Wallace or Greg Jennings alone would be terrific. But the Vikings could use one or two or three more playmakers at the position. Just keep throwing more players at the position and hope something sticks.
3. Get a quality veteran backup QB.
OK, I'm convinced: it's not crazy to let Christian Ponder begin 2013 as the starter if he is given better wide receivers. But that doesn't mean saying "It's Christian Ponder or bust." Ponder may fail, and the Vikes have to be both willing and able to replace him if he does. I don't know what veteran QB to get, or how high-level he should be, but it must be somebody ready to play (I screamed "free Joe Webb!" for parts of this season in frustration at how Ponder was limiting the team and a desire to at least see what they could do with Webb. Now I think he shouldn't have a roster spot next season. He's not a valid backup QB, and the team doesn't try to use him in other ways. So what's his purpose?).
4. Draft a cornerback in the first four rounds of the draft and at least two defensive backs overall. This isn't just specific to the Vikings--though it is, as a lack of depth in the secondary made any injury devastating the last two seasons--but a basic rule I would have for running any NFL team.
5. Acquire the best available players, considering no position on the roster taken care of.
I suppose if you want to be more specific, the team is good at left tackle--but shouldn't avoid acquiring better offensive linemen overall--and #1 RB--but should look to find a better #2. Really, there is no position at which the Vikings could not use improvement. With Jared Allen, Brian Robison, and Everson Griffen, the team is strong at defensive end, but one reason they are strong at defensive end is because they're willing to draft good pass rushers even when they are already strong at the position. Kyle Rudolph is fine at TE, but better depth at the position would be good, and any athletic, talented pass catchers will improve this team, whether WR, TE, or RB. They could upgrade at starting safety next to Harrison Smith, and they could upgrade at linebacker in general. Really, other than RB, LT, and maybe DE or TE, is there any position the Vikings shouldn't target in the first round of the draft? (Uh, kicker and punter PV. Shut up, inner-PV. I got this).
What is love? (baby don't hurt me...)
Darren says the feeling he has for the Vikings isn't love, but something else. I think that's fair. Many of the things I would say I love (Portlandia, cold press coffee, Stephen King, gin) I love for what they provide me. They provide me entertainment, joy, pleasure. I say I love them because whenever I have them they make me happy. They give. You love your favorite food not with some moral feeling, but with relish of the pleasure of the senses it gives you. That's not the same as something I obsess over, worry over, and often get angry, frustrated, disappointed, or despondent over. The love is all about what these things give to me: I give nothing (maybe some money and time) for this sort of love. If we think of the Vikings as from the realm of hobby/entertainment (like watching sports generally can be), then this isn't love: it sometimes hurts too much.
But then sometimes love is about suffering and pain. Some things that people love don't just give pleasure, but requires them to give something as well, will in fact demand a lot. I love running, but it often hurts. Long runs hurt. Hills hurt. January cold hurts. I run for my health--I'm still concerned with what running gives me. But I sort of crave and love that hurt too--that's part of the exquisite feeling. It's not just the physical toll of a sport or workout I'm talking about: you may have other loves the demand much of you. A craft, a job, a difficult game. Completing a complex woodworking project. Sewing a dress from scratch. Juggling. Working at a difficult puzzle. Winning a challenging video game. Reading a difficult novel or poem. These are activities that demand something of you: your concentration, your time, your practice, even your suffering. But you may love them in part for what they demand of you.
But while a sports team may make you hurt, that's not quite the same thing, is it? Whereas a craft requires you to give something that is necessary to the work itself, a sports team's performance is completely independent of what you give to it. It's not a difficult pleasure that asks you to work or sacrifice or suffer for the enjoyment of the work, or for a good feeling of accomplishment. If you put in the time and effort and practice to develop the skills at a craft like sewing or woodworking, that sacrifice you put in pays off directly--you see that sacrifice in your improved skills, in the quality of the work you've done. Whatever you've put into the Vikings hasn't paid off at all--you can't do anything about the team's performance. So while there are many loves that demand something of you, the love you have for a sports team isn't quite that.
There's also a kind of love that isn't about what you get from it at all. I'm thinking of the unconditional love that comes from parenthood. Most parents would say their kids can frustrate them (it's a rare parent who wants a baby be awake and crying at 3:00 a.m., or a leaking diaper in public). Kids have their own will: they like what they like, and they want what they want (you may need them to get their shoes, jacket, hat, and gloves on now to get out the door, but they may not feel liking operating on your pressed schedule. They may also feel like squatting down in the snow on the way to the car just for the sheer hell of it). They are these little independent entities whose actions affect you greatly. Many parents obsess over their kids. Many parents worry a lot (or constantly) about their kids. It's a bond often filled with fear and anxiety (any illness, any first step out into the mysterious and dangerous world...), though also joy. Yet this is love. It's an unconditional love that can hurt, but is independent of what joy the child brings you. That's the thing: though children do give back much to parents, a parent's love for a child isn't based on what the child gives. It's something else, rawer and deeper.
Thinking about that kind of unconditional love can give us some language to think about sports fan love. Maybe the team doesn't do just what we want it to. Maybe the team frustrates us. Maybe when we add it all up, most of the emotions we spend on the team are worry, fear, and anxiety. But the team has got its claws into our souls--we don't want to let it go. Because maybe amid all that worry and fear and anxiety is joy and hope and true, deep fulfillment. Now of course I hope and assume a parent's love for his/her child is many degrees stronger than a fan's love for the Vikings. But as I said, that language might help to explore it.
Yet...I don't think sports fan love is unconditional. But here is the difference: the conditions are based on the fan, not the team. Fandom is a love that is not based on what the team actually does for me, but what I bring to the experience. It's not the team's actions that make this love, but ours. It's the Sunday afternoons watching. It's the tailgating and the tickets. It's the jerseys and shirts and hats we wear, the posters we put on our walls, the football cards we collect. It's the articles we read, the blogs we write, the conversations we have. It's the emotions we feel--anticipation leading up to a game, joy after victory, agony after defeat, hope at a draft pick or free agent signing, anxiety over an injury, whatever. We're the ones who daydream about the team. We're the ones who remember (or memorize) things about the team. A sports fan's love for the team is based on the sports fan, not the team. You may never, ever be given something back in return. But that almost doesn't matter: you keep bringing something to it, and that's what matters. The team will go on being the team no matter what you do. The team will keep on keeping on. For you to have a relationship with the team, you need to keep bringing it.
It's not a relationship without escape: I think over time a fan can lose his/her love for a team, or can willfully "break up" with a team. But that will be because of the fan, not the team. It can happen if the fan, slowly over time or with deliberate decision, chooses not to give anymore. If you choose to stop watching and reading and caring, you probably could. It might be a difficult transition, but it could happen (which is why I don't think a fan's love for a team is like a parent's love for a child). You are the one setting the conditions. It's a love you choose to feel.
So the love I have for the Vikings is something like pleasure (it is fun to watch their games!). It is something of a demand (it sometimes hurts). It is something unconditional (think of it like "The King is dead. Long live the king." There may be few players and coaches I even like on the team during the middle of a 3-13 season, but I still love the Minnesota Vikings). It's some combination of those things but also none of those things, something else altogether.
All this means that yes, we sometimes need a break from the emotional investment, and about half the year the offseason provides is the good and necessary break.
This week when my eldest son expressed disappointment in something, I said "It's OK to be disappointed. I'm disappointed with things sometimes." He said, "Yeah, like when the Vikings lose to the Packers. Everybody in our house is disappointed when the Vikings lose to the Packers."
I thought it inappropriate to shout "Skol!"
Today I happened upon this at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.