I felt a familiar sense of dread set in as we began creeping closer and closer opening kickoff. My team will not be playing until Monday night, and yet, anxiety over an impending matchup between the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs still hit me like a ton of bricks.
I had no stake in the game and no horse in the race — why did I care so much about the outcome of a relatively meaningless early-season matchup?
Tom Brady isn’t my quarterback; Kareem Hunt isn’t my running back; and neither the Patriots nor Chiefs are my NFL franchise of choice. But, like so many other fans, I attach myself to storylines, search for a common thread, and create reasons in my mind — hello, Fantasy Football — to cheer on the contest.
This sport has always always had that effect on me. No matter how many games I’ve played, coached, or watched, the butterflies, without fail, find a way into my stomach. I can’t sit down on a Sunday — or Monday or Thursday — without feeling that familiar, nostalgic excitement.
Maybe it’s going months without football each year, or maybe it’s the culmination of a lifelong love of the game, but whatever the reason, I’m anxious for the Minnesota Vikings to begin the 2017 season. The cold, dark days are behind us, and in a matter of hours, we’ll be watching this iteration of the Vikings as they begin their quest for the Lombardi Trophy.
Having a little deja vu? Me too, and understandably so; I feel like I write something similar at the beginning of every season. “The Vikings are prepared to put the past behind them. This team is ready to take the next step. Last season was a fluke. Minnesota is primed for a turnaround.”
I’m not here to make grand proclamations or predictions about the team’s fate, though. I’ll save that for the regular season, when Sam Bradford’s throwing passes that count and Mike Zimmer’s unleashing the breadth of his blitz packages.
We’ve spent an offseason speculating and analyzing, but to what end result? Think back to last year, when Bradford arrived two weeks before the regular season, cramming most of those late nights to absorb Norv Turner’s Air Coryell system. Shaun Hill started Week 1 in his place, and shockingly, helped the Vikings defeat the Titans in Tennessee.
I wouldn’t have predicted an undefeated start the first five weeks of the season, and no amount of data or film breakdown could’ve gotten us closer to that answer. The narratives we created in the dead of summer, from Matt Kalil’s impending bounce-back to Adrian Peterson’s late-career surge, never materialized. Instead, we were left with T.J. Clemmings at left tackle and a historically poor rushing attack behind Bradford.
I know we’d like to forget the 3-8 record to finish the year, but it’s critical to reflect as we try and take stock of the team’s current situation. Because, for as cyclical as the football calendar may be, circumstances are volatile and can change in an instant.
Regardless of last season’s result, I fully believe the offensive line will be much-improved, that Danielle Hunter, for example, will come close to breaking the NFL’s sack record; but I also fear another freak injury or more of the same in a sputtering passing game. And this is where I’ve struggled the most this offseason — creating realistic expectations in the face of overanalysis and overthinking.
If you couldn’t tell by now, I overthink most things. After an offseason searching for answers and explanations for the team’s 2016 woes, I’m left with even more questions heading into 2017. There is no way to see what’s at the bottom of this proverbial cliff; because that’s where we’re standing — the precipice.
I imagine the offseason like this: a long journey from the bottom of the mountain to the highest peak. Once we reach summit — the edge of the range’s tallest rock — we’ve hit the regular season. And everything that ensues — the descent down the cliff — is an enormous leap of faith.
We hope the ropes are tight, our shoes secure, and our hands ready for the steep traverse down. But so much is out of our control, even more so as fans of a team like the Vikings.
Our speculation in recent months isn’t going to change Pat Shurmur’s conservative system, improve depth at tackle, or guarantee a return to form from Anthony Barr; these are the factors we leave up to to an organization that burdens so much of our blind faith.
That’s what fandom for the Vikings is, right? Blind faith? For some, that trust extends back into the 1960s, and for others like me, it was born when Randy Moss blew up the NFL in 1998. We’re like moths to the flame, coming back for more despite the repeated years of disaster, disappointment, and disdain.
We’ve been in this same spot before, and yet, no matter how many scrapes we’ve suffered or bones we’ve broken along the way, we make the climb back up the mountain, hopeful the uneasy descent is worth yet another journey fraught with danger.