Vikings

Revisiting the 2011 Vikings Debacle

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA Today Sports)

No matter what issues you believe are ailing the 2021 Minnesota Vikings, it’s unlikely they stack up with the calamities that plagued the team a decade ago.

The 2011 Vikings tied the 1984 team for the franchise’s worst winning percentage in the Super Bowl era with a 3-13 record. Despite having a popular new head coach, a franchise running back, a flashy receiver, and an eventual record-setter at defensive end, the Vikings of 10 years ago never got off the ground.

Let’s take a look back at the lowlights of that fateful season.

WHAT HAPPENED IN THE PREVIOUS SEASON?

The 2011 season often gets overshadowed by 2010, which was by far more disappointing, more cataclysmic, and more newsworthy. Brett Favre got investigated for unwanted sexting. Randy Moss returned and insulted a caterer. Brad Childress got fired, the Metrodome collapsed, and the Vikings played a home game in Detroit AND a Tuesday night game in Philadelphia. In theory, things couldn’t get worse in 2011. Surely, there was some football karma available for the Vikings to cash in after all they’d endured.

That wouldn’t be the case.

ILL-ADVISED VETERAN PICK-UP

It didn’t come until late July, but the Vikings made a move they would soon regret: trading a sixth-round pick for veteran Donovan McNabb. The year prior in Washington, McNabb had inked a six-year deal. To be traded one summer later was telling, considering he went 5-8, threw more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (14), and completed just 58% of his passes with his new team.

The Vikings hoped this was a Brett Favre situation: picking up an accomplished veteran after a misfit year in a new location. But instead of bouncing back to life, McNabb further regressed to the point of being unplayable. He debuted with 39 yards in a season-opening loss against the San Diego Chargers, regularly bounced passes to receivers, and got yanked midway through the sixth game of the year, never to throw an NFL pass again. McNabb was waived before the season ended.

COMPLICATING FACTOR

Why was McNabb necessary?

A lockout.

Remember, the 2011 season was jeopardized by a standoff between the league and the NFLPA. The work stoppage that effectively lasted from early March to late July took the offseason away from rookie quarterback Christian Ponder. The Vikings, who have never been eager to embrace rebuilding years, went after McNabb as a stopgap to mitigate Ponder’s rookie growing pains once the lockout ended.

Knowing what we know now about Ponder’s career, an extra summer of team work probably wouldn’t have upped his potential, but the shortened training camp made it necessary for the Vikings to break in a new quarterback fast. That isn’t easy, whether it’s a veteran or a rookie. In addition to all that, Minnesota was working with a new coaching staff with Bill Musgrave as the offensive coordinator. There was no continuity for the quarterback-to-be to fall back on. The Vikings started 0-4, averaging less than 20 points per game.

BACK-BREAKING INJURY

Star cornerback Antoine Winfield was the rock of the Vikings secondary, but he managed to play only five games in the 2011 season. Starting in Week 5, he missed four games with a neck injury, then tried to return on a Monday night against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau. He wound up breaking his clavicle in a 45-7 blowout loss, landing him on injured reserve.

Without Winfield, Minnesota gave up the most passing touchdowns in football and the 26th-most yards.

FLEETING MOMENT OF OPTIMISM

For an extremely brief moment of time, Vikings fans probably thought they were Super Bowl-bound. Electrifying kick returner Percy Harvin took the season’s opening kickoff back 103 yards and staked the Vikings to a 7-0 lead. The defense even followed it up with a three-and-out.

But on Minnesota’s first offensive play of the game, McNabb threw the ball to defensive lineman Shaun Phillips inside the Vikings’ own 10-yard line. The Chargers promptly scored to tie the game and later rattled off 17-straight points in the second half to send Minnesota to 0-1.

CLOSE GAME KRYPTONITE

The 2011 Vikings went 2-9 in one-possession games with some epic collapses. Their second-half meltdown at San Diego was tame compared to the next two weeks when they lost a 17-0 lead to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a 20-0 lead to the Detroit Lions. They were outscored 67-6 in the second half over the first three games of the season.

Ponder also served up a game-losing interception against the Denver Broncos that teed them up for a game-winning field goal, and one week later backup quarterback Joe Webb fumbled with the Vikings going for the win at Detroit’s 1-yard line. Even with Adrian Peterson and Harvin on the field, Minnesota’s lack of competency at quarterback dissolved their chances late in games.

Early leads and late collapses were par for the course as Leslie Frazier‘s defense allowed the second-most points in the NFL to contribute to the woes. It was a multi-phase failure.

ONE LAST GUT PUNCH

It wouldn’t be a 3-13 season without one final blow to leave the fanbase distraught heading into the offseason. Cue Week 16 at Washington, where Peterson tore his ACL on a running play in the third quarter. Fans exited that game thinking they’d lost their franchise running back for a year or more (we now know of Peterson’s epic return). To make matters worse, the Vikings won the game 33-26, costing them a shot at the No. 1 draft pick, Andrew Luck.

THE RANDOM COOL THING THAT HAPPENED

Jared Allen put together one of the great pass-rushing seasons in league history, capped by a 3.5-sack performance in the season finale vs. the Chicago Bears to break the Vikings record with 22. He needed one more sack to break Michael Strahan‘s NFL record but was stymied by double- and triple-teams in the second half. Leave it to Allen to liven up a thoroughly meaningless Week 17 game.

BOTTOM LINE

The rookie quarterback and the first-year coach were short-lived. Despite the optimism about the Frazier-Ponder pairing, it didn’t mesh, and both were out of their roles by 2014. Add in the bizarre McNabb cameo and half a dozen fourth quarter blowups, and 2011 was truly a season to forget.

In some ways, it feels like more than 10 years ago.

Sam Ekstrom covers the Vikings with colleague Matthew Coller at Purple Insider. Check out the Purple Insider Podcast here and consider subscribing to the Purple Insider newsletter for daily Vikings news from credentialed reporters. 

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