When Neil Armstrong first landed on the moon in 1969, few Americans understood the complete depth of the accomplishment.
There was reason to be excited, sure, but until subsequent exploratory research missions yielded scientific incentive to forge forward with a billion-dollar space program, it was difficult to grasp the paradigm.
Which is exactly how Vikings fans have felt for the last decade, give or take a few seasons. Left for years wondering what in the name of Keith Millard it would take to field a reasonably effective defense to complement one of the leagueÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s most accomplished offenses, the paradigm shift finally was set in motion with the dismissal Ã¢â‚¬â€ for official NFL bookkeeping purposes, you can call it a trade Ã¢â‚¬â€ of All-Pro WR Randy Moss March 4.
Moss heading to Oakland didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t free cap space or permit the Vikings to pursue five new defensive starters. MossÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ lack of leadership and his unbearable locker room undertow forced the Vikings to make dramatic changes. Head coach Mike Tice told coaches and personnel in an early February meeting that the team would be hard-pressed to advance or improve beyond the status quo Ã¢â‚¬â€ challenging for the division, not the Super Bowl Ã¢â‚¬â€ without altering its leadership structure and chemistry. Moss, who the Vikings strongly considered trading in March 2004, was the teamÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s most talented player and also its most significant roadblock.
Jettisoning Moss will deflate the offense in some ways. But Tice is willing to give something up to get defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell one thing: balance. More than $23 million in salary-cap space later, the Vikings have assembled the personnel to build a top-10 defense.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We saw a couple of things,Ã¢â‚¬? Cottrell said of a potential defensive resurrection in Minnesota, speaking from his office before joining his family for Good Friday festivities. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Leadership of the defense was lacking, especially veteran leadership. And we wanted to become more consistent at the positions we targeted Ã¢â‚¬â€ tackle alongside Kevin Williams, at middle linebacker and at corner and free safety.Ã¢â‚¬?
Two years ago, the Vikings entered free agency with some trepidation. One offensive lineman and a lot of defense topped the shopping list. The Vikings lured ORT Mike Rosenthal from the Giants and then surveyed the free-agent landscape. Tice and the scouting staff agreed then-Raiders CB Tory James should be the top target. Passively, they welcomed a series of cornerbacks to their Eden Prairie facility before the Bengals snuck under the radar and beat the VikingsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ offer to James by less than $1.77 million over four years. Minnesota ended up signing, out of need, Denard Walker, and the defense remained rotten without a No. 1 cornerback. James has played at a high level for two years, going to the Pro Bowl in 2004, while Walker was cut and signed as a third corner last season with Oakland.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We talked about it, but we knew we wanted to be in it early in the free-agency signing period,Ã¢â‚¬? Cottrell said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“We wanted to answer the questions. Take care of the problems.Ã¢â‚¬?
Former Redskins MLB Antonio Pierce was the only free agent the Vikings entertained this offseason who chose a destination other than Minnesota. Pierce opted to sign a $26 million contract with the Giants after meeting with the Vikings on the first day of free agency.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The guys we targeted are the guys we went after and got them,Ã¢â‚¬? Cottrell said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“We got our top choices at all of those (positions).Ã¢â‚¬?
Cottrell had plenty of sway in the VikingsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ pursuit of three of his former pupils. Last season, Minnesota stole Antoine Winfield from the Jets during a wine-and-dine visit. Winfield played for Cottrell in Buffalo and voiced his support when Cottrell suggested NT Pat Williams could be one of the first targets targeted. Adams, 32, signed 12 hours after free agency opened. Then Cottrell helped bring in LB Sam Cowart, another former Bill, in a trade with the Jets. In between, CB Fred Smoot and FS Darren Sharper had signed on and joined SLB Napoleon Harris, part of the Moss trade, to give Minnesota five new starters on defense Ã¢â‚¬â€ and more firepower than Vikings fans have seen since the first lunar landing in 1969. Oh, Bud Grant coached that team to a 12-2 record and a trip to the Super Bowl by giving up 14 points or less in 13 straight games.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t say that will be our identity,Ã¢â‚¬? Cottrell said of the new-look defense. Ã¢â‚¬Å“But weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re going to be much better. People are going to have to work to find holes, to find a way to attack against us.Ã¢â‚¬?
The LB corps was a glaring weakness a year ago. Chris Claiborne had a second uneven season and left for St. Louis in free agency while the Vikings held the door open for his departure. Claiborne brought some versatility, playing all three LB spots in his two years with the team, but he was injury-prone and disrupted the continuity of the defense. MLB E.J. Henderson, a second-round pick in 2003, replaced Greg Biekert inside and was as lost as he looked. Cottrell rolled back the complexity of the scheme but it didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t prevent Henderson from blowing assignments and missing tackles. Henderson, who turns 25 in August, isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t a lost cause. But he will open training camp behind second-year LB Dontarrious Thomas, Harris and Cowart on the depth chart.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re still looking at a couple of players at Ã¢â‚¬Å“WillÃ¢â‚¬? linebacker,Ã¢â‚¬? Cottrell said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“But with the two we added, and we still think we can bring Keith Newman back at the strong side, we are greatly improved.Ã¢â‚¬?
The core of the defense was the emphasis for Cottrell, harping on Tice and management that the team needed more bulk inside and to get better up the middle. Fred Robbins (2003), Chris Hovan and Spencer Johnson (2004) all had tried and failed to complement the closest thing the Vikings had to a blue-chip defensive tackle, Kevin Williams. Adding Pat Williams, who Cottrell believes will draw two blockers on 70 percent of the snaps he plays, was a major boon. Stealing Cowart and Sharper, released by the rival Packers and signed two days later, gives the Vikings six defensive players who have been to the Pro Bowl.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t want people running the ball down our throats,Ã¢â‚¬? Cottrell said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“We like our speed on the outside, our corners can tackle, but we needed to be more stout inside. Part of that is Pat, but you have to be solid all the way through to your (safety).Ã¢â‚¬?
SS Corey Chavous returns from an elbow injury and will be Ã¢â‚¬Å“completely interchangeableÃ¢â‚¬? with Sharper, according to Cottrell. The Vikings were prone to big plays because of a lack of depth at cornerback and range at safety, but that problem would appear to be solved as well. The Vikings had no intention of signing Smoot and had focused on other cornerbacks on the market in anticipation of Smoot re-signing with the Redskins. But upon further investigation, Smoot made perfect sense. Like Sharper, he more or less fell into the lap of the Vikings.
Cottrell said he isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t sure that Minnesota has stowed away its checkbook with free agency dialing down to second-tier and complementary players. The Vikings are looking for bargains now, with their focus on the draft, but plan to keep shopping.
Tice has told anyone who will listen that the Vikings arenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t locked into any one position (a wide receiver perhaps?) with the seventh overall pick in the draft. For what itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s worth, Cottrell said he could see the Vikings finding another playmaker on defense in the first round, be it with the No. 7 pick or the 18th.
And what seemed like one small step Ã¢â‚¬â€ dealing Moss Ã¢â‚¬â€ may lead to a giant leap in Minnesota.