Belisle’s Burning Takes: No One Knows

For as unpredictable a sport as football, our ability to foresee future outcomes is pretty surreal. Credit the number of tools, metrics, and resources we can access, but the average, plugged-in fan is more well-informed than ever.

Less stunning, though, is the number of bad takes and opinions we contribute to the running narrative. Given the breadth of options at our disposal, we should have a better grasp on what we’re seeing and how we interpret that information. But football, for all its cut-and-dried variables, is an emotional game, and those emotions can seep into the logical nerve endings of our brains.

I’m no stranger to the phenomenon. Just the other night, I sat on the VT Roundtable and declared Jordy Nelson “washed,” only to watch him score two touchdowns on Thursday Night Football. I said Dez Bryant was less of a threat than Cole Beasley in Dallas, labeled Trae Waynes a “good” cornerback, and generally, elicited raised eyebrows from my cohosts.

It happens; we don’t always hit our mark with our opinions, and that’s okay. I think it’s important to embrace the fact that no one knows — really knows — what’s happening, or what’s going to happen every Sunday. It’s healthy to admit fault, to take a step back from the hyper-aggressive sandbox that is Twitter and say, “You know, I don’t have to be right.”

So, raise your hand if during Training Camp, you had Case Keenum slotted in as your Week 4 starter. Yell “aye” if you knew when the Vikings signed Latavius Murray he would be a complete non-factor in the early part of the season. Give yourself a gold star if Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs were two of the NFL’s top-3 wide receivers.

I don’t see any hands, hear any cheers, or spot any gold stars. Heck, I don’t have any gold stars; if anything, I’ve had some taken away. Remember when I called for Laquon Treadwell‘s breakout season, or hitched my wagon to Emmanuel Lamur as Chad Greenway‘s successor? I once wrote that Murray was the perfect replacement for Adrian Peterson, only to have that blow up in my face when Dalvin Cook arrived in Winter Park.

Football is a funny sport that way. One day, you can be so sure of something — Sam Bradford, savior after Week 1 — and the next, have that positive feeling ripped away. You can doubt an offensive line’s chemistry heading into the first week of the season and come away pleasantly surprised by back-to-back-to-back performances.

[quote_center]It’s a volatile game, one that deserves more respect than we often give it.[/quote_center]

There’s a tendency to make everything about this team black and white; to rip away the context and nuance in favor of a strong opinion or “hot take.” It’s easy to go on Twitter, hit “send” on a controversial thought, and forget about it hours later. That’s not adding to what should be a thoughtful conversation; it’s creating more noise in an already crowded field of opinions and perspectives.

In the midst of the Vikings’ preseason struggles, for example, we as a fanbase suffered from groupthink, latching onto the idea that Minnesota’s offense was doomed heading into 2017.

Bradford wasn’t attacking defenses, Cook wasn’t slicing through the line of scrimmage, and Mike Remmers played more like a sieve than a right tackle. Through the four exhibition games, Pat Shurmur’s top unit failed to put a touchdown on the scoreboard. I’ll admit a small part of me was concerned, but only in those brief moments during games that felt all too 2016 Vikings.

In an attempt to see the entire forest for the trees, I convinced myself otherwise. Sure, no one likes to see their team struggle, but within the context of the preseason, it’s a cyclical occurrence.  Despite finding plenty of success in such games since 2014, Mike Zimmer clearly doesn’t approach exhibition matchups as win-or-lose propositions. With 10 rookies making the team, new faces along the offensive line, and a shiny toy in the backfield, this preseason was all about creating chemistry and finding the perfect mix of talent for the 53-man roster.

In the team’s first game, Cook saw, likely by design, a large share of the offense’s early touches, giving fans a sneak preview of his potential use in the games that would count. Bradford didn’t challenge secondaries deep, but again, we’ve seen how easily smoke and mirrors of simplified play calls can fool us; the Vikings are currently the NFL’s second-best offense, consistently hitting on deep passes with none other than a backup quarterback.

My point above isn’t to discount or discredit anyone’s feelings during the preseason. We all put way too much time into rooting for our favorite team, making every win or loss the equivalent of a traumatic or victorious life moment. I was admittedly bummed after Minnesota’s Week 2 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers; mostly because of the Bradford injury and the letdown of a winnable game. But…context.

Case Keenum was thrown into the mix late into the week, and I can’t accept the “he was planning to be the starter all week” narrative. Offensive coordinators begin their prep work almost immediately after a game, and following Bradford’s career performance against the Saints, there’s no doubt in my mind the idea was to roll into Pittsburgh with a Bradford-tailored game plan.

We’re talking about football, though, and situations can change in an instant. Bradford’s knee swells, a capable backup is thrust into the mix, and a team struggles to rally around inconsistency. It was clear from the start that Keenum, while perfectly adequate, wasn’t fully prepared to succeed against the Steelers. He missed reads, held the ball too long, and put his tackles in near-impossible blocking situations; all while operating with what we can assume was a shortened playbook.

Fast forward to last Sunday, and Keenum delivered what was probably his most impressive statistical showing in the NFL. His three touchdowns came against a decimated Buccaneers secondary,  but that’s not where the focus should lie. Pat Shurmur, he of constant belittlement, gave Keenum a fighter’s chance with a tailored scheme, one designed to complement the Vikings’ playmakers and expose Tampa Bay’s flaws.

If NFL teams can adjust, we as fans should do the same. There’s always going to be something to nitpick and criticize; it’s how we demand excellence and improvement. We shouldn’t drink the Purple Kool-Aid and give the team a pass for all its decisions, but we should commend Zimmer and his staff for putting the Vikings in a prime position, despite the injuries and freak circumstances.

I’d argue that as fans, our faith up to this point has been rewarded, even if that reward’s come with some nasty bumps and bruises along the way. For me, it’s a lot easier to sit and watch the game for what it is; take the positives at face value, understand the negatives for the short- and long-term impact, and hope for a win each week. No one knows or has all the answers, but that’s the fun of football — we’re constantly searching for them.

And yes, Jordy Nelson is still washed. Own your takes, people.

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Austin Belisle

Austin Belisle is the West Coast's biggest Vikings fan, a football diehard cheering on the purple and yellow from sunny California. After graduating from San Jose State University in 2014, he began working full-time in corporate marketing and blogging on various sports websites. Austin's passion for the Vikings led him to Vikings Territory, where he hopes to share his lifelong enthusiasm for the team with readers on a daily basis. You can follow him on Twitter @austincbelisle

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