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TJ Melcher column: Vikings are searching for an identity

The Minnesota Vikings kicked off the National Football League regular season Thursday night in the same place last year ended, in the Superdome against the defending champion New Orleans Saints.

When the purple walked off the field last year, their heads hung low, shamed with missed opportunities, turnovers and mental mistakes. Brett Favre was to be the game manager, an on-field coach who could guide the team to victory.

Adrian Peterson was to be the rock; instead it was his inability to hold on to the ball that handcuffed the offense and reduced Favre to a punching bag for "Who Dat" nation.

Yet with their roles reversed, the Vikings were in position to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1976 season.

On a night in which the Saints raised their first-ever Super Bowl Banner, the Vikings looked to exorcize those demons, but the voodoo remained. New Orleans needed only five plays to move 77 yards to remind the purple faithful that things may not be as magical as they were last year. Drew Brees shredded the defense in the first quarter going 11 of 14 for 128 yards.

The Vikings entered the season returning all 22 starters, but injuries have driven down that number on both sides of the ball. Last year's leading receiver, Sidney Rice, had hip surgery two weeks ago and cornerback Cedric Griffen was deactivated before the game; he has yet to play this season after being injured in the NFC Championship game. Center John Sullivan, who missed the entire preseason with a hip injury, was able to see his first action of the year.

Short on health, the Vikings lined up with only three healthy cornerbacks and four wide receivers. New Orleans exposed that fact in those opening minutes, throwing on four of their first five plays. Cornerback Asher Allen, starting in place of free agent Lito Sheppard, slipped as he turned to cover Saints receiver Devery Henderson up the sideline and Brees connected for the early touchdown.

Favre, still hobbling from that January loss, played only three quarters during the entire preseason, accordingly the offense stayed conservative on its first drive, electing to keep the ball on the ground. Peterson gained only seven yards on three tries and Minnesota punted without gaining a first down. On their next possession the Vikings' offense started to gain momentum, but like the 12th man in the huddle, penalties killed their drive.

Even with 20 years in the league, an offense needs time to gel. By allowing a gunslinger to again hold his team hostage, Coach Brad Childress killed any chance of getting off to a fast start. Unlike last year, the team doesn't have the luxury of wandering through the early stretch of the season.

Chilly has three weeks to find an identity for his team with home games against the Dolphins and Lions along with an early week-four bye, before embarking on a two-month journey against legitimate playoff contenders.

Childress has improved on his record each year as head coach of the team. That won't likely happen this year as 12-4 is not possible. In order to make a wild card appearance in the playoffs he'll need his Iron Man quarterback to be just that, of course he'll need the rest of the team to stand solid too.