Zulgad: Development for 2012, not wins in 2011, are key for Vikings
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Having been a member of the 1985 Chicago Bears team that started 12-0 before losing a Monday night game at Miami, Leslie Frazier knows what the Green Bay Packers are experiencing with an unbeaten record halfway through the season.
In discussing the chase for a perfect season on Thursday, the Minnesota Vikings coach said his team's goal entering Monday night's game at Lambeau Field, "is to squelch the talk of an undefeated season," for the Packers.
He isn't the only one who feels this way.
"We're not anybody's pushover," defensive end Jared Allen said. "I know they're thinking 16-0. Well, they're going to have to play us first."
Added tight end Visanthe Shiancoe: "They need a loss, don't they? They need one. So, let's see what we can do about that."
No one can fault Frazier and his players for using the Packers' 8-0 record as motivation to knock their NFC North rival down a notch. The Vikings are 2-6 and while they closed the first half of the season with a victory at Carolina they long ago lost any realistic hope of making a playoff run.
"We're really not thinking about that," cornerback Antoine Winfield said when asked about the state of the team. "What we do know is we have eight games left, we have a real tough opponent this week, Monday night. So our focus is on the Packers. We can't worry about what's going to happen down the road."
All of this is exactly what you would expect players to say. However, Frazier and vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman, among others, also have to be realistic and realize that at this point victories aren't the only key to what will determine the success of the second half of the 2011 season.
Sure, wins would be nice and build confidence. But more important is the development of this franchise for 2012 and beyond.
Ponder, the 12th pick in last April's draft, made his first start against the Packers and other than a rocky third quarter performed admirably. He then guided the Vikings to a 24-21 victory over the Panthers that sparked more optimism.
However, there are inevitably going to be more than a few rocky moments for Ponder and the Vikings in the second half. Short of a major meltdown, those should not be seen as setbacks as much as lessons learned.
The Vikings' second-half schedule is tied with the New York Giants for the toughest in the NFL, according to Elias Sports Bureau. The Vikings' foes are a combined 40-25, giving them a .615 winning percentage.
There appear to be at least three winnable games -- home against Oakland (5-4) and Denver (3-5) and a road contest at Washington (3-5) -- but ultimately the only sure thing the results of those games will do is impact the Vikings' draft position.
Frazier admitted he and his coaching staff spent the bye, as many teams do, looking not at upcoming opponents, but examining film of their own games from the first half of the season.
"We spent a lot more time on just taking a look us and trying to figure out what we have to do going into this second half to be a better team than the first half of the season and we feel like we learned some things," Frazier said. "Time will tell if we really did and if we can enact some of those things we think we learned. That's where our focus was, more so on us than the upcoming opponents."
Frazier's focus should remain internal in the coming weeks and include everything from getting long looks at younger players who could eventually be used in key roles to enabling offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave to keep challenging Ponder on a weekly basis so the quarterback can hit the ground running when the offseason program starts next spring.
Ultimately, there will have to be some interesting decisions made as well.
Do you continue to give running back Adrian Peterson the ball 20-plus times a game or do you scale that back in order to limit the hits on a 26-year-old superstar who will be expected to be around when times get good again? Toby Gerhart would be Option B.
Do you start looking at second-round pick Kyle Rudolph more at tight end, knowing that veteran Visanthe Shiancoe could walk away as a free agent? Ponder and Rudolph are friends and appear to have good on-the-field chemistry that could be improved in game situations if the Vikings elect to focus on getting Rudolph the ball.
If the Vikings were 6-2, the above two issues would never come up.
The important thing to keep in mind is that in the NFL the rebuilding process doesn't have to be a lengthy one. It does have to be efficient.
Frazier will have two years remaining on his contract after this season and unlike Gophers coach Jerry Kill - who has a seven-year contract and seems to be set on using much of that to try to turn things around at TCF Bank Stadium - progress will need to be displayed in a timely fashion at Winter Park.
A five-year rebuilding plan for the Vikings, for instance, would not end up including the current brass.
Frazier and Spielman know this and that's why these final eight games are so crucial - no matter how many, or few, wins that stretch yields.