NEW ORLEANS -- For followers of the Minnesota Vikings, Thursday night was a litmus test. Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Do you see potential and get excited? Or do you see too many loose ends and wonder if the magic is gone?
That's the fence I'm sitting on after the Vikings' 14-9 loss to the New Orleans Saints. Being the cynic I like to be, much of me wants to spew what seems to be obvious: The Vikings' once-explosive offense appeared neutered and in many ways out of synch in what turned out to be a highly winnable game at the Superdome.
After all, before Thursday night, the Saints had never scored so few points in a victory under coach Sean Payton. The output was testament to what was a powerful and inspiring performance by the Vikings' defense. Had the Vikings approached anything close to their 2009 offensive production, they could have won Thursday night in a rout. But what we saw should be concerning to anyone who fears a season-crushing slow start by an offense that spent the summer in flux.
Quarterback Brett Favre uncharacteristically missed open receivers Greg Lewis and Percy Harvin on key third-down plays in the second half. Erstwhile No. 1 receiver Bernard Berrian appeared blanketed by a surprise Cover 2 scheme and finished with a single 3-yard catch. Tailback Adrian Peterson ran for 87 bruising yards but never busted anything longer than 14.
In all, the Vikings went three-and-out on five of their 10 possessions. They managed only three plays of longer than 15 yards. Their 253 yards and 12 first downs would have qualified as their second-worst outing last season.
Favre insisted the offense "can be really good this year," but he didn't dispute my primary point. While they offered some glimpses of elite play, the Vikings aren't yet good enough to face a schedule that includes matchups against the Saints, Miami Dolphins, Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets before the middle of October.
"I can't say we're hitting on all cylinders like we did in the NFC Championship Game," Favre said. "I'd be lying if I said that. People can attribute that to whatever they want. They can call it rusty. People are going to have their own opinions. I know we're better than what we showed. ... If we were not any good, it would be obvious."
I don't dispute the Vikings can be better than they were Thursday night. But if you're a pessimist, this was your fear all along. You wondered if Favre's late arrival, combined with Harvin's bout with migraines and Sidney Rice's hip surgery, would conspire to stymie the offense. A few more outings like Thursday night's could bury this team before the NFC North race even starts.
I didn't see an incompetent offense Thursday night, but it was definitely still under construction. The Vikings got away with a transition phase in 2009, taking care of inferior opponents in Cleveland and Detroit. But this year, they might not have that luxury.
"I missed on some of those throws," said Favre, who completed 15 of 27 passes for 171 yards. "Everything felt fine, but I just threw it a little bit behind a couple of times. The reads that I made or didn't make, you can say in a couple of weeks that will come back or whatever. But this first game means a lot. You have to be ready for the first game. I came in as prepared as I could be. It's obvious we can get a lot better. It's obvious."
On top of their own struggles, the Vikings seemed thrown for a loop by the Saints' decision to limit their normal pressure packages and play a zone Cover 2 defense. Favre estimated the Saints used their maximum blitz package on "two or three plays, tops" and Berrian said the zone defense appeared "way more than anticipated."
"Their defense disrupted our timing a little bit," Berrian said. "I just think the looks that they gave us, we really couldn't adjust to them. I thought they would definitely blitz a lot more in this game."
Said coach Brad Childress: "I have to take my hat off to them. It was set up as a big blitz game. The blitz was very, very infrequent. So they did a nice job with that. There were not a lot of throws to be made far down the field."
Remember, the Vikings morphed into a passing offense last season because teams were ganging up on Peterson and the running game. That means they should have been able to run the ball more effectively and explosively Thursday night. But in a close game, the Vikings still threw more times (27) than they ran (23).
"Probably in some instances we can be a little bit more patient," Childress said. "We like to be able to run the ball."
More than anything, the Vikings don't look like they know what they want to be offensively. Peterson was a workhorse Thursday night, but he really didn't impact the game despite some favorable defensive fronts. Ultimately, I think the Vikings must find some combination in the passing game to find their explosive offensive plays. Thursday night, Favre found tight end Visanthe Shiancoe for consecutive passes of 33 and 20 yards to take a 9-7 halftime lead, but Shiancoe had only two passes thrown his way thereafter and didn't catch a pass in the second half.
Childress suggested that Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma was holding Shiancoe for much of the game -- "When he didn't maul him, [Shiancoe] ran down the middle for a touchdown," Childress said -- but more generally, what I saw was an offense still finding its way.
That's how the Vikings' offensive development played out after Favre's late 2009 arrival, and it wasn't unexpected this season. But I'm not sure if the Vikings can get away with it for a second consecutive year.
"This is nothing we're going to panic on or get distraught on," Shiancoe said.
I would agree -- if the Vikings had more margin for error. This year, they might not have it.