The Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears are where the Minnesota Vikings were last year–the NFC Championship game. Last season, the Packers were in the playoffs but were knocked out in the first round, while the Bears, with a 7-9 record, didn’t even make the playoffs. Something changed over the offseason for all three teams and it resulted in an extreme reversal of fortunes. What happened and can the Vikings learn from it?
The Vikings virtually stood pat this season–bringing back all 22 of their starters–until the point when some of those starters became injured and were not showing up. As it was, the lack of Sidney Rice begat Greg Camarillo (and the loss of Benny Sapp), the Randy Moss experiment and other stop-gap failures. The Vikings tried to fill holes in the secondary caused by the Cedric Griffin injuries with free agent Lito Sheppard, and they might have done so with rookie Chris Cook had he stayed healthy.
They drafted Toby Gerhart to replace the departed Chester Taylor and Chris DeGeare to add depth to the offensive, from which Artis Hicks departed. But they never made the big free agent moves to get them over the hump.
The best that could be said of the Vikings this past offseason is that they moved backward by not moving forward.
If you look at the Bears and the Packers, they used two different approaches and now are playing in the NFCGC. The Packers method of building through the draft and eschewing free agency must be viewed over more than just the past season. GM Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy have been finding good young prospects for years and not diving into the quick-fix free agent market (despite criticism from their fan base), and what they have built is a young, deep squad that has allowed them to withstand a spate of injuries early in the season.
One good example of the Packers’ ability to find and develop players is cornerback Tramon Williams, who has had a solid season and been a star of the past two playoff games–being named to replace injured player Asante Samuel in the Pro Bowl. Williams was an undrafted free agent who was unable to make the Houston Texans in 2006 and then picked up by the Packers. How does he end up starting for Green Bay with a chance at the Super Bowl?
“I don’t know,” Williams told Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune. “Things could be different now. It’ll probably be something that I never know, but it really doesn’t matter right now. It’s about the Packers. They gave me a chance, and I’m thankful I’m able to play like I am.”
The Bears, on the other hand, were aggressive in free agency, since they gutted their draft picks in the trade for quarterback Jay Cutler one season earlier. They had some holes to fill and lured Taylor from the Vikings with more money (and seemingly less playing time) and then secured one of the biggest finds in the free agent market last spring, defensive end Julius Peppers. Peppers, along with the return of some injured stalwarts on the Bears defense has served to return the unit to its form that help land them in the Super Bowl just four seasons ago. By snaring Taylor, the Bears also created a deficit on the their NFC North rival that had won the division the past two seasons.
The Vikings have certainly delved into the free agent market in the past, with perhaps Brett Favre being the biggest name they have landed in recent times. But too often their method has been to trade their future for a shot at the present (Jared Allen, comes to mind). In fact, sending a third-round draft choice to New England for the four-game rental of Moss is just the latest bad example of a team tricked into the “win now” mentally by a successful previous season.
Rather than retooling, reloading or refining, the Vikings thought that their team would just saddle up and return to the NFCCG. They went “all in” with the chips they had (so, the saying went around Winter Park last season), but perhaps no one knew it better than the reluctant QB Favre that such a plan was illusory at best. (“No guarantees,” he was often heard to say.) Things change so quickly in the NFL, that no team can afford to push in all they have on one last-gasp gamble. The all-in Vikings are now all-out. The Hershel Walker trade should have taught this organization that.
So, the Vikings are now changing things up–considerably. A new coaching staff is being assembled, and with it, one can presume, a new way of doing things. The Vikings team cupboard isn’t bare, but personnel changes will be the next order of business. Will the Vikings dive into free agency and try to make a big splash like the Bears? Or will they be patient and start building a younger and deeper team with the draft? A combination of both? Certainly, they won’t stand pat.
The answer to all that remains to be seen. But one thing may soon become apparent: as the Vikings are sitting home watching the Packers beat the Bears in the NFCCG on Sunday, they will be able to see which method for building a Super Bowl team has been the most effective.