With the 2011 season in the rearview mirror, it's time for NFL.com's annual "Exit Interviews," a chance to review the ups and downs of each team's past season and spin it forward.
2011 in a Nutshell: The Vikings' season was like the collapse of the sub-prime housing market. The franchise over-extended itself for two years prior to 2011, mortgaging its future by investing in Brett Favre and an aging roster. This season, everything blew up in the Vikings' faces, ruining Leslie Frazier's first full campaign as head coach. Minnesota drafted Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick, then tried to capture lightening in a bottle once again with another aging vet in Donovan McNabb, an approach that could not have gone worse than it did. To throw salt in the wounds of an ugly 3-13 effort, tailback Adrian Peterson tore his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments late in the season.
What Went Right: Defensive end Jared Allen bounced back from a sub-par 2010 season with a career- and NFL-high 22 sacks. He never stopped trying to make things right, which, more than anything else, shows why Allen is among today's best players.
Many argued that the sacks were hollow because they didn't translate into victories. To the contrary: Sacks are exceptionally hard to come by when playing on a bad team, because opponents tend to spend most of the time with the lead and thus throw the ball with relative infrequency. Allen had fewer opportunities to make plays than pass rushers on more competitive teams.
Peterson also can't get enough credit for totaling 970 rushing yards in just 12 games. He was the Vikings' offense. Every team knew it, and they all tried to stop him. Peterson still ground out 12 touchdowns and averaged 4.7 yards per carry. Once again, he also protected the ball very well, giving up just one fumble.
When Peterson went down, backup tailback Toby Gerhart showed he's very capable. This was huge, because Gerhart probably will have to carry a heavy burden early next season while Peterson rounds back into form.
What Went Not So Right: During training camp, the makeup of the roster made it clear that things could go one of two ways. The Vikings would either do very well, thanks to the presence of several savvy veterans taking one last shot at success, or they would do very poorly, thanks to the presence of several older veterans making their final gasp.
As it turned out, McNabb simply couldn't get it done, and the season went downhill fast. While many of the Vikings' failures stemmed from shaky offensive line play and a lack of receiving threats, McNabb did little to inspire others and did less once the games began. The lack of production and an inability to get teammates to buy in did not help a team that had seen Favre fail in a similar way in 2010.
A lack of depth and a failure to procure young talent over the past few seasons also caught up to the Vikings. The secondary continued to be a hot mess and the offensive line and receiving corps didn't do much to insulate Ponder once he took over for McNabb.
Speaking of Ponder, the jury is still out. He very much looked like a rookie who was thrown onto the field with a bad team and no time to prepare. Ponder will have an entire offseason to regroup and a creative and attentive coordinator in Bill Musgrave shaping a scheme to fit his specific skills. That should help, but we'll see.
Offseason Crystal Ball: There is little reason to think Minnesota isn't in the midst of a long-term rebuilding period. Sure, it's possible for teams to turn things around quickly, but this roster is too old at too many spots. Significant turnover is needed, and finding adequate replacements could be the hard part.
2012's notable free agents
Adding a low-risk, low-cost veteran running back in free agency, like Clinton Portis, would make sense. The Vikings can't rush Peterson's rehab, and in the meantime they must find someone who knows the game and can help Ponder in pass protection.
Team Needs and Draft: There really isn't a unit on this roster that doesn't need to be upgraded. The offensive line has to be the top priority. The Vikings have the third overall pick in the draft and selecting USC left tackle Matt Kalil would seem prudent. Minnesota has to solidify its guard situation, too, whether Hutchinson opts to retire or not. A play for rugged Saints guard Carl Nicks could be in the offing. While the Vikings like Ponder and also really like backup Joe Webb, they also need a veteran quarterback who can help in the meeting room.
Frazier, whose specialty is the defense and the secondary, has to find a way to stop the bleeding on the back end. Winfield has been wonderful, but he's injury-prone, while cornerback Chris Cook has off-field issues. The safeties, meanwhile, have been problematic for years. Fixing those spots through free agency and the draft would make sense.
Of course, even if they fix those trouble spots, the defensive interior and linebacking corps have to be upgraded, as does the wide receiver group. Whatever they do, the Vikings have so many needs that they might not be able to fill them all, even with 10 picks in April's draft.