There are plenty of reasons that the Vikings have started off this season a surprising 4-1. But if the 2012 Minnesota Vikings are for real, a team with legitimate playoff aspirations and not rebuilding or an also-ran, it is not because of their quarterback. It is not because of their veteran defensive stalwarts (Jared Allen and the renaissance of Antonio Winfield) or hot newcomers (see this clip of Harrison Smith dislodging a touchdown pass from Calvin Johnson, a physical play against the most physically imposing receiver in the game. Vikings fans haven’t had this kind of difference-making safety to cheer for since Joey Browner). It is not because of the return to health and real leadership by example of their best player, Adrian Peterson (which stands in stark contrast to Chris Johnson’s tippy-toe performances for the Titans since he got his big contract.) Peterson blew out a knee and returned ahead of schedule to fulfill his obligations to his team. But that alone won’t get the Vikings to the playoffs.
No, the true indicator of whether or not the Vikings unexpected early-season success will continue is a 5’9” receiver out of Florida. Percy Harvin is in his 4th season in the league, and has grown from a gadget player and 3rd receiver to full-time impact guy. The “X-factor” phenomenon is more common in the NBA than the NFL, simply because fewer guys play in a given NBA game. In the NFL it’s harder to spot the players whose performance (beyond the expected level) lead to team success.
But for the Vikings this year, Harvin is clearly that X-factor. The Vikings have a formula in their wins so far this year: steady production and game management from Christian Ponder, hard-nosed and opportunistic defense, and a steady (but not spectacular) running game lead by Peterson. They are playing the kind of football best embodied by the 85 Bears, not coincidentally a team head coach Leslie Frasier played on: run, defend, don’t turn it over, and you’ll win more than you lose.
But nowhere in that long-established and even clichéd formula do you find a scatback who can go downfield, or a receiver who will take snaps as a tailback. And that’s the difference Harvin makes, kids: the NFC North features three of the best ten quarterbacks in the game in Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler. There are going to be points scored in the Divisional games later this year (Bears/Packers score), regardless of how well the defenses play.
And that’s why Harvin is the guy who will determine the Vikings’ fate. He’s the player who can take bubble screens and two yard passes from Ponder and make real gains out of them. He’s the guy who can take the top off of defenses designed to stop a game, but not-quite-as-explosive-as-he-was-before-he-was-injured Peterson. He can win games by himself on special teams . If you want to know the fate of the Vikings this year, look to the shoulders of Percy Harvin. There it rests.
Mike Lipetzky is immersed in this sporting life. He’s a regular contributor at NoCoastBias. Find him on Facebook and Twitter