One for all, all for (tbd)
[size=10pt]One for all, all for (tbd)[/size]
At the Garden Homes office in New Jersey, decisions come nearly by telepathy. Members of the Wilf family -- Joseph, Zygi, Mark, Leonard and others -- have spent decades hashing out their principles and opinions, forming a business approach they all can agree on.
"After many years," Zygi Wilf said, "we understand each other. We understand what the right decision would be. We rarely get into situations where we disagree on major points. That's pretty much the way I see our football organization running: with everyone on the same page. We believe in the ultimate team approach, everyone with equal footing. It's what will be required to make this organization and this team successful.
"You need a team framework with high character on the field, and you need a team framework with high character off it."
There seems no better way to illustrate the Vikings' transition during the first year of Wilf's ownership. His family has further flattened the team's committee-style front office, putting four men on equal ground for football decisions and splitting organizationwide authority among eight people.
That group hired a first-time head coach in Brad Childress, one who prefers to stay out of the public eye. The Vikings then jettisoned their star quarterback, made a left guard the centerpiece of their roster, chose another team's backup as their new tailback and switched to an offensive system that de-emphasizes the exciting but risky vertical passing game.
Even the Metrodome's once-raucous pregame introductions have been eliminated, all in hopes of building a team that will draw attention simply for winning rather than spectacular individual play or public controversies.
Star power has fueled the Vikings for much of their history, from Fran Tarkenton to Chuck Foreman to Cris Carter to Randy Moss to Daunte Culpepper. As the new season opens Monday night at Washington, the Vikings' best player is left guard Steve Hutchinson, and their featured runner is former Baltimore backup Chester Taylor.
"For a while around here, the only thing you heard was about Daunte and Randy," cornerback Antoine Winfield said. "Now, I think everyone is saying around the league that we have a bunch of no-names. But I think that's a good thing. We work well together. We're working well as a team."
The approach is not without its risks. Superstars -- coaches, players or administrators -- are defined by their unparalleled abilities.
They also can earn their owners millions of dollars. Perhaps coincidentally, the Vikings' once-raging ticket sales have slowed measurably this summer. And despite a uniform redesign that typically sparks heavy merchandise sales, jersey revenues have dropped into the middle third of NFL teams.
Wilf, for one, is willing to make the tradeoff.
"What's most important is to put a winning team on the field," he said. "That's what all of our fans and everyone involved with the Vikings wants. This organization has gone through its years of 'splash.' ... I don't think our fans want to see splash. They want to see wins. They want to see division titles. They want to see championships. And that's what I want, too."
The right kind of talent
You are never too old to learn. So when Childress heard defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin talking about "being good at things that take no talent," he took on the slogan as a primary building block of his first season.
"It just made so much sense," Childress said. "We want guys to be good at three things that take no talent. It takes no talent to be in shape, to be in great condition. It takes no talent to know your assignment. No talent. Zero talent level.
"And it takes no talent to hustle to the football. If you do those three things, you have a chance to win a lot of football games."
Almost as an afterthought, Childress added, "And if you add a little talent among those three things, you've probably got a real good football team."
If anyone knows the dark side of superstar talent, it's Childress. As Philadelphia's offensive coordinator, he watched as the Eagles' seasonlong drama with receiver Terrell Owens contributed heavily to a disastrous 2005.
"I learned that it is about the team, the team, the team, the team, the team," Childress said. "And we learned painfully."
As he assembled and then pared down his first Vikings roster, Childress valued the so-called "no talent" attributes as much as he did athletic ability and skills. Hutchinson is among the NFL's most talented and athletic linemen, but Childress pursued him more for his aggressive approach to the game and his spotless record as a teammate in Seattle.
"It's not a real sexy position," Childress said. "But he's got a little bit of nasty to him. You want a tough, hard-nosed, physical football team. You cannot compromise that. Does that mean you don't want skill guys? No, of course not. But the guys on the front are doing the heavy lifting. You always read about the skill guys. But you don't do anything at those skill positions without those other guys."
Childress equates his priorities to the singles scene.
"What gets your attention," he said, "is not the girl's mind or the guy's mind. You're not like, 'Wow, she's smart.' Or, 'Wow, he's smart.' Talent is what peaks your interest. But then you do all the rest: 'How smart is the player? What's his work ethic? What are his work habits like?' You have to fill in those blanks."
Most coaches preach the same values, but Childress clearly followed through in Minnesota. The hard-nosed Taylor is his top tailback, rather than the exciting but injury-prone Mewelde Moore or the all-or-nothing Michael Bennett. He tapped Brad Johnson at quarterback in place of Culpepper and has collected a group of unheralded receivers to grab the torch from Moss, Carter, Jake Reed and Anthony Carter.
"We still have some great players here," Johnson said. "It's not like they're bringing in your local schoolboys. You need great players that can push but also play within a system. You need a little bit of both. That's when you can talk about winning Super Bowls. That's what it takes. You've got to have the right players, but the right players that can play your system of ball."
The seduction of flawed superstars
Zygi Wilf spent most of his life rooting for the New York Giants and thinking about football as most fans would: wanting to win and hoping to be entertained by spectacular plays -- and not always in that order. As an owner, he said, he has developed a substantially more global view.
"As a fan, being detached and looking for star players," Wilf said, "I didn't really think that the character of your people would have a direct impact on winning. But as I've gotten into football, I believe it's pretty much the most important fiber you need to be successful. You need to gain respect from your teammates.
"Some sports require an individual performance. But in football, I don't think you can get there just with stars. You need hard-working players and people who respect each other and pull for each other."
Childress has joined Wilf in a strong push to upgrade the franchise's character level. Like a university hoping for a top-20 ranking, the Vikings have raised their standards for admission and tried to weed out troublemakers and low achievers.
Two of the four players initially charged in last year's sex party scandal have left the team. A third, left tackle Bryant McKinnie, is a pending free agent but pointedly has not been offered a contract extension. Safety Willie Offord, arrested for drunken driving in the spring, was released last week. Receiver Koren Robinson met the same fate, 10 days after his arrest for drunken driving and fleeing police.
Limiting their tolerance to criminal behavior represents only part of the Vikings' new approach, however. The decision to trade Culpepper to the Miami Dolphins, for example, was made less for his role in the boat scandal than it was for his refusal to rehabilitate his injured knee in the Twin Cities and unenthusiastic response to Childress' arrival.
"To me, if you've got good people who are good players," Childress said, "you can win a lot of games. You can't get seduced by somebody's athleticism and then find they've got a character flaw or a behavioral problem or something like that. I think that's so important.
"If you know what you're going to get from them, and you're not going to get any aberrant behavior, I think that's key."
It is an approach Wilf was still mulling last week when he met one of his football heroes. Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, who led the Giants to both of their Super Bowl victories, was on the field at Texas Stadium when Wilf arrived for the Vikings' preseason finale.
Accompanied by limited partners Mark Wilf and Richard Mandelbaum, Wilf spent 10 minutes exchanging stories and ideas for running a successful franchise.
"He told me that if he had any word of advice," Wilf said, "it was that the most important thing about building your team is bringing in players of character. It was good to hear that from him, Coach Parcells, somebody who has brought me so much joy in football.
"It was good to hear that what we're doing is taking us on the right track. I really cherished that moment out there with him.
"And I feel great about what we're doing."