Vikings: 10 steps to Jacksonville Kevin Seifert, Star Tribune September 8, 2004 10 THE BIG THREE STAY ON THE FIELD It might seem too obvious to be recorded for posterity, but the unique explosiveness of the Vikings offense depends on QB Daunte Culpepper, WR Randy Moss and RB Michael Bennett staying healthy and playing together. Yes, the team is deep at running back and receiver, and QB Gus Frerotte is one of the NFL's top backups. It is also true Moss has not missed a game since his career began in 1998. But to be an elite team, rather than just one with a good offense, the Vikings need the big-play capabilities of the Moss-Culpepper-Bennett trio on an every-down basis. There is no (legal) way to defend against all three. Bennett's preseason knee sprain will limit the offense until his full-speed return. 9 GIVE MOSS A HELPING HAND The Vikings hope to be in Jacksonville, Fla., this January to play in the Super Bowl at ALLTEL Stadium.John MoranGainesville SunThe preceding scenario would be enhanced further, of course, if a reliable alternative to Moss emerges in the passing game. It could be receivers Marcus Robinson or Nate Burleson, tight end Jermaine Wiggins or even or all-purpose running back Mewelde Moore. The identity and position are not vitally important. What is crucial is finding a second option who not only can catch the ball when he's wide open, but make a play against coverage. That latter attribute, missing here on a consistent basis since Cris Carter departed, could open the floodgates for Moss and the rest of the offense. 8 STEADY AS THE KICKING GAME GOES For the third consecutive summer, the Vikings' kicking situation came down to the wire. The drama was a surprise this year, however; Aaron Elling was handed the job in the offseason and faced no competitive challenge in training camp. As we all know, Elling imploded and coach Mike Tice turned first to veteran Brett Conway before settling on Morten Andersen. The move came at a critical time for a crucial position. After spending so much time building an explosive offense and a competent defense, they couldn't go into the season with a kicking game that could spoil the whole plan. Andersen must provide a reliability the team hasn't enjoyed since fellow future Hall of Famer Gary Anderson retired. 7 OWNERSHIP DOESN'T DISTRACT Owner Red McCombs put up the team for sale in May 2002, but public discussion of the situation never has been more rampant than it was this summer. In the abstract, an owner's identity should not have an impact on the field. Whether McCombs or Glen Taylor or Reggie Fowler is atop the letterhead, the team still must play games on Sundays. In reality, however, a change in ownership -- or even the strong possibility of one -- can affect the entire organization. Who is going to sign the checks? Is he going to pay for free agents? Does he like the current coaching staff and front office? These are questions the team's on-field personnel must ignore as the season progresses. 6 COACHING STAFF CONTINUES DEVELOPING Like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, coach Mike Tice has made it clear he's ready to spread his wings. On several occasions this summer, Tice has noted he plans to take a more totalitarian approach to his job -- relying more on his instincts and less on the democratic input of his coaches. But make no mistake, assistant coaches will play a critical role in any Vikings playoff run. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan is at the controls of one of the NFL's most high-powered offenses; Linehan's task is to elevate the team's red zone performance so that its scoring output reflects its yardage output. Defensively, Ted Cottrell must convince his players they finally are a competent group that can win games -- and not just not lose them. 5 A LITTLE HELP ON THE CORNER The last Vikings cornerback to be named to the Pro Bowl was Audray McMillian, who was selected in 1992. Will Antoine Winfield be the next? After a 12-year drought, the Vikings certainly wouldn't turn down that type of season from their prime free-agent catch. In all reality, however, what they need is a cornerback who will play at a consistent level for 16 games, giving their coaches a reliable measure around which to construct their game plans. By all accounts, Winfield, who comes to the Vikings after five seasons with the Buffalo Bills, is capable of providing just that. His coverage skills appeared solid during the preseason, although he didn't come close to making an interception, and his tackling abilities proved as strong as advertised. 4 ROAD WARRIORS MUST EMERGE At times last year, it was as if the Vikings were two different teams: One at home in the Metrodome, another on the road. After winning Oct. 5 at the Georgia Dome, they lost their final five road games -- most in lethargic fashion. To get where they want to go this year, the Vikings will have to rediscover how to play with poise and confidence away from the Dome. They have three night games on the road -- at Philadelphia, New Orleans and Indianapolis -- as well as tough matchups at Houston and Washington. Suffice it to say, there will be no room for messing around. 3 FRONT FOUR DOMINATES When their rebuilding process began, the Vikings made it their top priority to assemble a dynamic defensive line. Three years later, they believe they have accomplished that mission. The four starters include three first-round draft choices -- DT Chris Hovan (2000), DT Kevin Williams (2003) and DE Kenechi Udeze (2004). Many believe Williams is poised for a Pro Bowl season, while Udeze should offer speed on the pass rush. Hovan has rediscovered his quickness and must rebound from his subpar 2003 season. This group must not simply be competent, however. With a young linebacker corps and a secondary with questionable depth, the defensive line must wreak havoc on a regular basis. 2 LINEBACKERS HOLD THEIR OWN Greg Biekert retired. Henri Crockett was released. Chris Claiborne changed positions. The Vikings have revamped their linebacker corps, opting for speed and athletic ability over experience. E.J. Henderson replaces Biekert in the middle, Claiborne shifts to the strong side and rookie Dontarrious Thomas has stepped into the weak-side spot. There is nothing to suggest Henderson won't succeed. He proved instinctive and a sure tackler during the preseason. He just hasn't proved it in a regular season setting. Thomas will make mistakes, but is fast enough to compensate for some. Claiborne is the wild card; he is a capable playmaker if he stays healthy and is allowed to run. 1 A KILLER INSTINCT EMERGES It's more important than how many points the offense scores, how many three-and-outs the defense creates and how many times Darren Bennett has a punt downed inside the 20-yard line. For this season to go as the Vikings hope, they'll need to play like champions. That means blowing out inferior opponents, whether home or on the road. It means avoiding early deficits and 10-minute lapses of concentration. It means owning the fourth quarter, putting teams away rather than giving them a chance to come back. In short, it means achieving all the intangibles of competition they failed to grasp last season. That, friends, would be the finishing touch on a March to Jacksonville.