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A year ago at this time, the Vikings were a well-oiled machine after bursting out of the gate with a 34-20 road victory over the Browns spearheaded by Adrian Peterson's 180-yard, three-TD rushing performance.
With future Hall of Famer Brett Favre pitching in with a 12-2 TD-interception ratio and never looking better, the Vikings looked sharp while grinding out one victory after another, quickly catapulting to the top spot in PFW's power rankings with six consecutive wins to start the 2009 season.
But in their first game this year on a national stage in New Orleans, the rust on the Vikings' machine was undeniable in a 14-9 loss to the defending Super Bowl-champion Saints.
"Anytime you get shut out in the second half in the NFL, the percentages of winning do not bode very well," a Vikings insider said of the team's listless offensive performance against a Saints defense that played well but was far from impregnable.
Last year, after missing most of training camp — which is nothing new for him — Favre still managed to perform at peak efficiency, keeping mistakes to an absolute minimum while comfortably distributing the ball to a host of solid offensive weapons.
But this year, after missing most of training camp, Favre looked every bit like you'd expect a 40-year-old grandfather to look in the opener against the Saints.
He missed open WRs Greg Lewis and Percy Harvin on key third-down plays in the second half. The interception by Saints LB Jonathan Vilma came on a forced throw similar to the one that was picked off by Saints CB Tracy Porter in the final minute of the fourth quarter of the 2009 NFC championship game, ending a Vikings drive and setting the stage for New Orleans to win in overtime.
In Week One, Minnesota's offense had only three gains longer than 15 yards and went three-and out exactly half the time (five of 10 possessions). Favre connected with his wide receivers only four times.
"The receivers did not do a whole lot of anything — there was not a lot of precision," the insider told PFW. "The route running was not crisp. The receivers were not getting to the right spots, and I'm not just talking about Harvin. New Orleans made more plays than the Vikings did. I did not think they were special; they just capitalized on more opportunities.
"It's difficult to blame it all on the quarterback when the receivers were not getting where they were supposed to be. The receivers did not have a lot of production — most of it came from backs and tight ends."
Which brings us to what is widely considered the biggest problem currently bringing down the Vikings: None of the production came from WR Sidney Rice, a key factor behind the Vikings' six-game win streak to begin the '09 season.
Rice, one of an NFL-high eight Pro Bowlers on the Vikings' roster, will miss at least the first six games this season after being placed on the physically-unable-to-perform list following a surgical procedure on his hip that not a lot of people saw coming.
With Rice out of the mix, the onus is on the all-purpose Harvin, an electric talent prone to short-circuiting due to on-and-off migraine headaches. With reported sleep apnea problems complicating matters, the second-year receiver appeared to prematurely break off a few of his routes against the Saints, clearly irritating Favre.
Besides Rice and Harvin, the Vikings are left with Bernard Berrian, who has looked spotty since the end of last season, and a pair of serviceable possession receivers in Lewis and Greg Camarillo.
Could possible reinforcements like Vincent Jackson, the Chargers' holdout receiver who is reportedly being considered in a trade by Minnesota, make a difference?
"I never rule out anything anymore," the team insider told PFW. "I don't think anyone expected they would have pulled off signing Favre last year. Trading for Jared Allen came out of left field, and he was a guy, like Jackson, who was one night out on the town away from a suspension.
"So I think the question that will have to be answered is how much Jackson can be trusted. The other problem I see is that Sidney Rice will be coming off the PUP list not long after Jackson will be eligible to return (from a three-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, as well as likely having to sit out an additional three games because the Chargers placed him on their roster-exempt list), and both of those guys want to be paid. Most teams are going to reward their own first."
Whether the Vikings go after Jackson or decide to sign one of the long-limbed veteran receivers reportedly working out with the team this week (Reggie Brown, Sam Aiken, Ruvell Martin or Demetrius Williams), a quicker solution to the problems plaguing them one week into the season could be more dependence on Peterson. Having a desire to improve his contract, he reportedly welcomes an expanded workload.
Of course, had Peterson not followed in the footsteps of Favre and, to a lesser extent, Harvin and not missed the team's offseason program and minicamp, the coaches' confidence in him becoming a successful workhorse on a depleted offense would be a lot greater. As it is, though, the half-hearted work ethic displayed by the team's aforementioned heavy hitters in the offseason is widely considered partly responsible for the team's less-than-stellar start to the 2010 season.
There are some league observers who believe such questionable commitments to the team are tied into the lack of respect those players have for head coach Brad Childress, whose quirky personality and sometimes abrasive demeanor have been known to rub his troops the wrong way on occasion, particularly Favre.
"There is definitely some history with 'Chilly' not getting along with quarterbacks," said one league observer. "I think the end result will be a little different with Favre because he seems to deal differently with Brad than most guys, probably because whatever happens, it does not really matter to Favre. He is in that 'whatever' mode — there is not a lot you can say or do to get him ruffled."
Including the mention of a schedule during the first half of the 2010 campaign that couldn't be more challenging, with games coming up relatively soon against four bona fide playoff contenders — the Jets, Cowboys, Packers and Patriots in Weeks 5-8.
"The whole schedule is rough," the insider said.