Zulgad: Vikings' slide might be disappointing but it's not surprising
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The Minnesota Vikings almost certainly will be without playmaking wide receiver Percy Harvin for Sunday's game against Detroit because of a badly sprained ankle. Christian Ponder is struggling, any confidence he seemed to possess has disappeared and the passing game is in shambles. The run defense hasn't been much better of late.
The team's 4-1 start, which included an upset victory over the San Francisco 49ers, has been long forgotten.
Coach Leslie Frazier and his players appear to be trying to convince themselves that at 5-4 things will be OK, even as you can sense a self-doubt that has made a two-game losing streak feel more like a five-game slide.
Yet, there is one thing to keep in mind when it comes to this edition of the Vikings: This team was never built to win in 2012. This was the season for general manager Rick Spielman, in his first year in that capacity, to get answers.
Answers about the quarterback he drafted 12th overall in 2011. Answers about many of the young players that were added to the roster this past offseason in place of veterans who went through the motions during a 3-13 debacle in 2011. Answers about a coach who is in the second year of a three-year contract.
The Vikings were one of the early-season surprises in the NFL, something that had to make Spielman very happy, but the reality is he can't be surprised by what's happened in the second quarter of the season.
Disappointed, perhaps. Not surprised.
The Vikings have dropped games to Washington, Tampa Bay and Seattle after winning four of their first five, while only beating an Arizona Cardinals team that has gone into a massive tailspin after a 4-0 start.
There's little doubt that before Spielman was promoted to general manager last January that he sold owners Zygi and Mark Wilf on a long-term plan that would end the trend of quick fixes that former coach Brad Childress had attempted to use when he was in charge of the 53-man roster.
Bringing Brett Favre aboard in 2009 proved, in the short term, to be a great move but it also reflected an approach that showed no interest in the future. As good as Favre was in his first season with the Vikings, he also provided little help in 2010 after the team had to beg him to return because it had no other suitable options at quarterback.
That same season the Vikings also gave up a third-round pick to New England for receiver Randy Moss because with Sidney Rice out the team was in desperate need of a vertical threat in the passing game. The problem was that Moss was no longer a true deep threat and when he decided he didn't like Childress' offense, or the fact he wasn't getting a new contract, he also became a major problem in a locker room that a year earlier had been a harmonious place.
Whether Spielman proves to be the right choice at general manager remains to be seen, but he's extremely meticulous in his approach and he isn't going to abandon his plan because the Vikings got off to a better start than anyone could have expected.
This means that short of injury it's highly unlikely Ponder is going to be benched at any point this season.
Fans have become upset at Frazier for sticking with Ponder, but in this case the anger is misguided. Spielman knows that he's attached to Ponder and he needs to find out sooner rather than later whether he might need to sever that tie.
Benching Ponder now would slow Spielman's entire plan for the future and he's simply not going to do that. Joe Webb isn't the long-term answer at quarterback and the Vikings know what they have in him.
Spielman learned plenty of lesson about what not to do from Childress. This includes the approach that Childress took with Tarvaris Jackson, a second-round pick in 2006. The running joke around Winter Park with Jackson was that he was always "the guy," until something went wrong. Then suddenly, he was no longer "the guy" and the latest veteran quarterback Childress brought in replaced him.
The issue is that Childress never really was able to make a true evaluation on Jackson and so he remained on the roster as a potential starter without the team ever really giving him the full-time job or deciding they had seen enough.
The same mistake won't be repeated with Ponder.
Spielman's philosophy extends beyond the quarterback position, too.
It's why Spielman didn't go out at the trade deadline and try to get help at wide receiver. Could the Vikings have used a receiver who could stretch the field? Of course. And if the coach had control of the 53-man roster, it's entirely possible a draft pick would have been traded to acquire such a player.
But part of Spielman's plan is to accumulate draft picks and not trade them. The other part of the plan was to build a roster that might take its lumps in 2012, but then begin to show improvement that could be sustained for the long term.
Owner Zygi Wilf has long talked about owning a team that is successful season after season and doesn't ride the type of roller coaster that the Vikings seemed to be on during Childress' tenure.
The only thing is that the sacrifice to build that roster was never made and, thus, Wilf ended up saying one thing but running a franchise that ran counter to the philosophy he wanted to take.
After Sunday's game against Detroit, the Vikings have a bye and then return with games at Chicago, at Green Bay and at home against the Bears. This could be an extremely difficult stretch against NFC North rivals.
The Bears are 7-1 and possess a defense that has been dominant and opportunistic. The Packers are 6-3 and, despite injury issues, have won four in a row, beginning with a convincing 42-24 victory over a very good Houston Texans club.
There is a chance that after the next four games, the Vikings will be in complete free fall.
But keep this in mind: The plan all along for this season was to get answers and no matter what the results are in the coming weeks some key ones will be provided. They might not be what the fan base or Spieman necessarily wanted, but they should help establish a direction for this franchise to take in the coming seasons.