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Vikings finally start to rebuild

In historical terms, it was a disastrous 2011 season for the Minnesota Vikings.

Two years ago, the Vikings' ownership sold out their future to go for a final push for the Super Bowl by coaxing Brett Favre out of retirement for a second time in as many years.

They stockpiled their roster with old, veteran players, ready to win now.

Needless to say, that experiment failed miserably as the Vikes missed the playoffs, thus hamstringing the 2011 squad for a season of ineptitude in the terms of wins.

Three, to be exact, was the number of wins the Vikings collected, thus tying the worst mark in franchise history of 3-13 when Les Steckel made his infamous one-year stint as head coach in 1984.

The 2011 campaign was head coach Leslie Frazier's first year as head coach, but unlike Steckel, he was able to make it to his second year in that capacity.

The Vikings foolishly tried to believe they still could be reasonably competitive with their aging lineup, even trading for broken down Donovan McNabb to start at quarterback.

That decision delayed an entire season of rebuilding, as the Vikes faltered to 3-13.

But Minnesota still has something to roll over from 2011 to 2012.

Even though a loss is still a loss, the team set another new record in terms of wins and losses, by losing nine games by seven points or less -- with eight of those being by six points or less.

That was the most losses by seven points or less by any team since the 16-game schedule started in 1978.

The Vikings had held halftime leads of 20-points or more in their first four games, but squandered every one of them in the second half.

So, in essence, there still is something to work with for 2012, despite the heavy turnover in the roster, going from one of the oldest teams in the league to one of the youngest.

Only eight players on the roster are of 30 years of age or older. But of those, four will be depended on as main contributors, including DE Jared Allen (31 years old), WR Michael Jenkins (31), DT Kevin Williams (32) and CB Antoine Winfield (35).

Punter Chris Kluwe (31), long snapper Cullen Loeffler (31), backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels (34) and backup center Joe Berger (30) are the other "gray hairs" remaining on the roster.

Finally, the Vikings are trying to develop a high draft pick at the quarterback position in Christian Ponder, something the franchise has done rarely in its history.

Ponder follows only Fran Tarkenton, Tommy Kramer and Daunte Culpepper as high draft picks who the Vikings tried to develop at the quarterback position.

After replacing McNabb as the starter midway through the season, Ponder finished with a mixed bag of results.

There were other considerations to include before judging Ponder's first-year leading the offense, such as playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL and throwing to one of the most average corp. of wide receivers in the league, as well.

The most obvious point for the Vikings to improve this year will hinge on Ponder's play. The offensive line has improved with the drafting of USC left tackle Matt Kalil at No. 4, while shuffling Marcus Johnson to where he belongs, at left guard.

Fifth-year center John Sullivan also proved to be one of the more reliable centers in the league, while the right side of the line could also progress with second-year hard-nosed Brandon Fusco winning the job at right guard.

Fourth-year right tackle Phil Loadholt established himself as a road-grader in the rushing game, but needs improvement with his pass protection to step up on the next level.

If the Vikings can establish their rushing attack with a healthy Adrian Peterson -- with more of a mix-in by backup Toby Gerhart -- that takes pressure off of Ponder to make throws.

But with how many one-score losses the Vikings suffered last year, Ponder needs to become more like John Elway, than a lost second-year quarterback.

Ponder will be asked to direct late-game drives resulting in game-winning scores, not debilitating game-ending turnovers.

Having a solid offensive line will help.

But a sure sign the Vikings are in the midst of a rebuilding project, the team doesn't quite yet have those consistent playmakers on offense to take over games or make that heroic game-winning catch.

Beside wide receiver Percy Harvin, the wide receiver group doesn't strike any fear into any defensive unit.

Jerome Simpson could potentially make an impact, once he is back from his three-game suspension, but other than him, no other receiver will demand double coverage.

Second-year tight end Kyle Rudolph could become a go-to man with his 6-6 frame and huge mitts which literally engulf a football, making him a dangerous red zone threat.

But again, the Vikings are pinning their hopes on youthful question marks.

The same goes for the defense.

The much-needed overhaul in the secondary was finally taken, with the drafting of safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Josh Robinson.

The defense became faster with both, including cornerback Robert Blanton. Team speed increased, which was needed in an offensive-heavy NFC North.

The defense does have its veterans to rely on, in Allen, Williams, Winfield, CB Chris Cook and OLB Chad Greenway.

The defensive line still should be a top 10 unit, while the linebackers are a huge question mark. Greenway is the only reliable option, while OLB Erin Henderson and MLB Jasper Brinkley are not proven and have struggled in pass defense.

Youth will again be key on special teams, as the Vikes cut longtime kicker Ryan Longwell, while going with the rookie out of Georgia Blair Walsh.

His strong leg is a positive, which should consistently pin opponents on their own 20-yard-line.

His accuracy will be in question, but thus far in preseason, he is 8-for-10 (three games), not bad considering that could be his weakness.

Again, the team's success will be dependent on the young, inexperienced players. But the overhaul was desperately needed and one which can already pay dividends off this season.

The watershed mark the Vikings should be shooting for is eight -- as in eight wins.

If this team can put together a .500 season with this much youth on the roster, the rebuilding will quickly turn into contending in the near future.

Plenty to consider and be patient with, but if those one-score losses can be turned into wins, the construction of the Vikings is as positive as the soon-to-be new stadium, which in the end, was the team's and fans' biggest victory in a long time.

Brian Wierima
Detroit Lakes Newspapers Sports Editor for the last 15 years. St. Cloud State University graduate, who hails from Deer Creek, MN.