Last year, I locked in my Super Bowl pick early and felt very good about the choice. For once, I wasn't trying to do a roster breakdown or getting myself all tied up in strengths and weaknesses. I was looking for a team with a chip on its shoulder, one that would be coming into the season with something to prove, a hungry team, nasty, etc.
The Saints were my Super Bowl winner.
Then they came out and lost their first four. And finished 7-9. All of which should make Brad Childress feel very nervous about the fact that I'm picking his Vikings to ... to ... dare I say, to win it all? Let's think this thing through.
Dallas is the winter-book favorite. The Cowboys are loading up with all sorts of fancy names -- Zach Thomas, who has already carved out a place for himself in Miami's Hall of Fame, 'Pacman' Jones, whose pardon from the league office seems to be coming an inch at a time. Marion Barber got a new contract that stunned him by its magnificence. So did cornerback Terence Newman. They even gave Terrell Owens enough money to make him happy.
This is their year, right? Sorry, but I just don't feel it.
I look around the league, from the perspective of an individual coming off a nice, fat vacation, and I see the usual summer notes of unsettlement. Oakland's Javon Walker, who should be trying to prove himself after Denver became the second team to give up on him, was found unconscious in a Vegas alley after he had supposedly spent the evening spraying nightclub patrons with bubbly.
"And they got mad at ME for carrying a gun," said the Cowboys Tank Johnson, who got busted by the league for building a home arsenal.
Once again, Jeremy Shockey is pouting for the Super Bowl Giants, their wideout, Plaxico Burress, is unhappy with his contract. The team is in a mid-June disarray mode. People look at the almost-unbeaten Patriots, expecting to see cheat sheets falling out of their pockets. Elsewhere there are ... but why go on? This is about my Super Bowl team, right? And why I have such positive views about the Vikings.
Dare I pick them to go all the way? They're a team for whom I never had much of a feel, and this goes back to their old Super Bowl days, when they were marched to the slaughter by any AFL or AFC team they faced. They're a team that turned timid and blew the NFC Championship game against Atlanta in '99, and then, two seasons later, brought a powerhouse offense into Giants Stadium for the same title match and got undressed, 41-0.
Since then? One playoff season out of the next seven. So why do I get this real hunch about them? OK, yeah, right now they're my choice for the winner of Supe XXIII. And here's why:
Let's get down to basics. Run the ball. Stop the run. Best in the league at both last year. I can't help it -- I'm hooked on the fundamentals. Their middle triangle of tackles Kevin and Pat Williams, backed up by E.J. Henderson, is classic, and now there's a serious element added to that mix.
A trade with the Chiefs brought them defensive end Jared Allen in April. He brings with him the 2007 NFL sack title, plus a two-game DUI suspension at the beginning of the year. A gamble? Childress says no. Allen says he's on the wagon.
"I'd be very surprised if he has any trouble in that area from now on," the coach says. "We're talking about a very bright, engaging person. When his plane came in here, our defensive line coach and both defensive tackles all went to pick him up at the airport."
It's almost a miracle to get a guy like that in a trade. Sack specialists are like diamonds, and Allen's a young one -- only 26 years old! And he's not one of those wild-angle loopers who leaves a couple of acres inside for the runners. He's a technician who honors the down home of the game.
In the offseason, when I was carrying on with my, "That's it ... all the pieces are in place," rant, a few negative voices were heard. "Why," I was asked, "did Allen's production usually fall off in the second half?" And my answer was because he was on the field too much. The way the game is now, no defensive lineman, especially an edge rusher with a high motor, can do it without relief. And the Chiefs kept Allen on the field.
"We're more what I would call a wave rushing team," Childress says. "If we dress eight defensive linemen, they'll all play. Jared's gonna be in there, sure, but I'm not going to sit Brian Robison, who plays behind him.
"There's no shame to putting your hand up when you're tired and have to come out. Of course, if you're going to be standing on the sideline next to the coach on every critical down, there's going to be a problem."
Pass rush begets pass defense, which begets better statistics than the Vikings had last year, one of their big failings. They finished last in yards allowed. Where's the fix there? Madieu Williams, an active free safety for the Bengals last year. Charlie Gordon, a good, quick, free-agent cornerback.
I get the feeling that I haven't convinced anybody yet. How about the league's flashiest runner in '07, Adrian Peterson, working behind, arguably, the best run blocking left side of the line in the NFL, Bryant McKinnie and Steve Hutchinson? It's a what? A nice try? How about their new wideout, BernardBerrian, the Bears' only big-league receiver last year in a one-receiver offense. OK, I saw you shrug.
And I know where we're headed. Tarvaris Jackson, QB. Just 25 years old. Fine athlete, terrific scrambler, able to make big plays, but so far in his two years in the league, not enough of them. Sixth from the bottom among the ranked passers last year. When does it happen? Third year? Fourth? Not at all?
"How long?" Childress says. "I talked to Rich Gannon, who used to quarterback this team, and he told me, 'Every day you don't know more about what you don't know.'
"What can I tell you about Tavaris? Well, a quarterback has to be wired the right way, and he's wired that way. He doesn't show that he's sweating. The physical skills are there, but then there's another thing. There's a mantle to being the starting quarterback. Matt Schaub found it out last year.
"Besides the production, there's something to walking into the building every day and being the man. I mean every day. Tavaris is pretty good with that."
There aren't many better situations for a young quarterback than the one in which Jackson now finds himself. Childress played the position. He coached on the offensive side for 29 years before getting his head coaching shot at Minnesota two seasons ago. For seven years he was the Eagles QB coach and offensive coordinator. Donovan McNabb made the Pro Bowl in five of those years. When McNabb was hurt during the 2002 season, Childress' offense set a team record for points, using three starting quarterbacks. In 2005, when McNabb tried to struggle on with a sports hernia, Childress practically talked him through it.
"I told him that when those legs go, you're going to have to learn to rely on other things," the coach says. "You've got to evolve. It's like a wounded animal. All the other senses are heightened. And he went out and had some of his most accurate games, passing the ball.
"When I got the job here, well, in my wildest dreams I didn't think I was going to have to get rid of a franchise quarterback. But after three weeks in the spring, it was just obvious that it wasn't going to work, with Daunte Culpepper. So I replaced him, and everybody pilloried us.
"Daunte was a guy who always used his legs. He wasn't an anticipatory thrower. He had to see the whites of their eyes. And once he got hurt, well, coming back from the injury, he couldn't play that way."
Well, could this be the year that Tarvaris Jackson takes the Vikings the whole way, under a coach who can do everything for the position except throw the ball? I kind of think so. There's a storybook angle here, older coach, young quarterback, as the troops rally round.
"As a franchise quarterback, there's the matter of the work ethic, putting in your hours," Childress says. "Tarvaris knows that, how important it is that people see you working when they come in. Is he in the right place for a guy evolving? Yeah, I'm convinced he's got what it takes.
"We just have to see how he does on the field."
So en fin, do I like the Vikings to go all the way? Well, yeah, why not? A feeling of destiny, that's what I sense about Brad Childress and his baby quarterback.