It was a roller coaster ride for football fans
in Minnesota in 2003, as the Vikings started 6-0, then went 3-7 the rest of the way. That 9-7 record wasn't good enough, as the team missed the
playoffs on the final play of the season. Despite the collapse, head coach Mike Tice's team still boasted the top-ranked offense in the NFL last
season. Leading the way was quarterback Dante Culpepper, whose improved play made the talented receiving corps even more dangerous. Top target Randy
Moss will be joined this season by Marcus Robinson, a free agent signing from Baltimore, and solid holdovers Kelly Campbell and Nate Burleson.
At running back, Michael Bennett will continue to shoulder the load, with Onterrio Smith getting some carries as well. Each will be working behind an
effective offensive line featuring all of last season's starters. The Vikings' defense, 23rd-ranked last season, remains a question mark. While the
defensive line and secondary are solid, the linebacker corps is inexperienced and could be the team's weakness. Mike Tice is on the clock, the
Minnesota Vikings' head coach has been known primarily for two things since taking over the team at the tail end of the 2001 season. One, the ill-
conceived "Randy Ratio," in which wideout Randy Moss was to receive a preponderance of touches, contributed to Minnesota's 6-10 record in 2002. The
second notable item during Tice's tenure was last year's 6-0 horrific collapse. The Vikings managed to lose to some of the NFL's worst teams during
the slide, including the Giants, Raiders, Chargers, and Cardinals, all of which finished 4-12.
Since Las Vegas odds-makers have Philadelphia as the favorite in the NFC and Minnesota second, the two teams' NFC showdown on
Monday Night Football on Sept. 20 will be a key early-season indicator of how good both teams can be. That will be a nationally televised game on ABC,
and there is little doubt the talking heads will have plenty of comparisons between the Vikings' Randy Moss and the Eagles' Terrell Owens. The other
key game is Nov. 14 at Green Bay. Most observers feels the NFC North will be a battle between the Vikings and Packers, and this first meeting at
Lambeau Field could set the tone for the second half of the season.
Daunte Culpepper (QB, 6-4,264, 6th year) to Randy Moss (WR, 6-4, 210, 7th year) has been the repeating theme the last few years in
Minnesota, but if Michael Bennett (RB, 5-9, 209, 4th year) returns to full health in 2004 after a Pro Bowl season in 2002, along with a host of very
talented complementary players on offense, this will be a dangerous unit. The Vikings also added veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield (CB, 5-9, 180,
6th year) on defense to go with a speed/youth movement on that side of the ball.
Free agents Antoine Winfield (CB, 5-9, 180, 6th year, Buffalo), Marcus Robinson (WR, 6-3, 215, 8th year, Baltimore); drafted
Kenechi Udeze (DE, 6-3, 281, R, USC) and Dontarrious Thomas (LB, 6-2, 241, R, Auburn) will also make an immediate impact.
With a great salary cap position, the Vikings lost no one they wanted to keep.
Pro Bowl center Matt Birk, TE Jim Kleinsasser, DT Kevin Williams, DT Chris Hovan, S Corey Chavous.
Besides Atlanta's Michael Vick, Daunte Culpepper may just be the toughest QB in the league to defend. He has a strong arm, he's very mobile, and
he’s bigger than a lot of linebackers in the league. He's great at buying time with his feet and he runs very well for his size. And once he gets
out of the pocket, he can be very tough to bring down. Improvements in his ability to read defenses and to protect the football have taken his game to
the next level, and if he can remain consistent, the Vikings offense will be in good hands for years to come.
Minnesota has possibly the deepest backfield in
the NFL with Michael Bennett, Onterrio Smith, and Moe Williams. And with a healthy Bennett on the field for a full season, the running game should
match the quick-strike ability already seen in their passing game. Smith and Williams did a great job filling in for the injured starter during the
first half of the 2003 season, and both backs fit well and compliment each other in this offense, but Bennett is an explosive runner who can take it
all the way at anytime. He has tremendous speed, he hits the hole as hard as anyone in the league, and despite injury, he has average 5.0 yards per
carry - or better - over the past two seasons. Smith, whose skills are similar to Bennett's, was an excellent value in the fourth round of last year's
draft and could probably start for a lot of teams in the league. Williams is an excellent short-yardage back who seems to have a nose for the end
zone, so he will most likely get the call in goal-line situations again this year. Randy Moss is the most dangerous receiver in the game today, and he
appears to be in the best shape of his life. He has also dedicated himself as never before during the off-season, so he could be in for possibly the
best year of his career, which is really saying something. Veteran wideout Marcus Robinson was brought in through free agency, and he should draw a
little attention away from Moss and give Culpepper another big target. He doesn't possess the speed he once had (pre-injury), but he proved last
season that he can still make big plays. Promising second-year receiver Nate Burleson will fill the No. 3 role and speedster Kelly Campbell, who could
be a deep threat, will come in at No. 4 when the Vikings try to spread the field. Jim Kleinsasser is a good all-around tight end. He can block. He can
catch the ball. And he's just an all-around tough guy. His backup will likely be Jermaine Wiggins, who is a good receiver in the short to intermediate
Last season's collapse was puzzling, and the lack of a postseason trip in 2004 would also be confounding for one of the league's most talented clubs.
With the possible exception of linebacker, the Vikings are a top-tier team at every position, with two strong line units perhaps the most important
components in that strength. The linebacking corps has talent as well, but Henderson and Thomas are young and should make mistakes here and there.
Tice's main job will be getting his team to show up every week, which he failed to do in 2003. If the Vikings come to play, they should beat out Green
Bay for the NFC North crown, and will have a chance to make a serious playoff run as well.