Vikings: Tice shakes up staff, tailbacks
Kevin Seifert, Star Tribune
March 23, 2005 VIKE0323
KAPALUA, HAWAII -- Mike Tice never has turned down a chance to laugh at himself; recently, of course, he's had no shortage of opportunities. So in between fielding questions about scalping Super Bowl tickets -- "No comment," he has answered repeatedly here at the NFL's annual meetings -- the Vikings coach has provided daily updates on his latest misstep.
Lounging on a beach Saturday, Tice fell fast asleep. He awoke three hours later to find his stomach, chest and neck singed a deep shade of red. The burn slowly has faded (as Tice demonstrated by pulling up his Tommy Bahama shirt in the quiet hallways of the Ritz-Carlton), an appropriate metaphor as Tice returns his attention to the 2005 season.
Tice again declined comment on the league's continuing ticket investigation Tuesday. But in an otherwise wide-ranging interview, Tice revealed he has reconfigured his defensive coaching staff and declared an open competition for the Vikings' starting tailback job. He suggested the team has transformed from an explosive and young group to a more mature and tougher personality, predicting that his defense finally is ready to carry its share of the load.
"We evaluated our team early this offseason," Tice said, "and quite frankly, I was very tired of our defense being known as the stepchild of our football team. I was sick and tired of sitting home late in the playoffs, sick and tired of having leads that we can't hold. So we needed to have a different personality. If we buy into the things that we're going to preach, we'll be a tougher football team. And we need to be a tougher football team. I don't know that we always were."
To that end, the Vikings have added five new starters on defense: nose tackle Pat Williams, linebackers Sam Cowart and Napoleon Harris, cornerback Fred Smoot and safety Darren Sharper. They have a combined 27 years of NFL experience. The combined guaranteed dollars in their contracts, $26.2 million, is nearly four times what the traded Randy Moss was scheduled to receive in 2005.
"We needed to have a more mature football team," Tice said, "to teach some of our young stallions how to be pros. And we got that. And that will help us have more confidence on defense, not only with players but with coaches."
Indeed, the Vikings' defensive personnel is not the only group to undergo an offseason overhaul. Tice said Tuesday that secondary coach Chuck Knox Jr. has been elevated to coverage coordinator, with defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell taking on the additional title of assistant head coach. While stressing that Cottrell retains final say over the defense, Tice said Knox will organize all coverage schemes for defensive backs and linebackers.
The genesis of the move, Tice said, was repeated instances last season of blown coverages caused by confusion between positions.
"We weren't always on the same page with our linebackers and defensive backs as it pertains to coverage," Tice said. "We've got to get that tightened up. The way to tighten that up is to have one guy in charge of coverages. ... Chuck is going to have more say in game planning. That will give him what I think he needs, which is to have tremendous input into the game plan during the week and how we're going to play certain coverages."
With Knox coordinating coverages and Pete Bercich taking over as linebackers coach, Cottrell will focus more on big-picture defensive strategies and philosophies. Cottrell will retain authority over game plans, subject to Tice's approval, and will make all game-day defensive decisions.
"At this stage," Tice said, "I feel that one of Ted Cottrell's best attributes is calling a game on Sunday. I think he calls a great game. Having him coach a position ... detracts him from being able to implement his defense through the course of the week."
Other coaching changes include a new title for Jim Panagos, who will split time as an assistant defensive line coach/assistant special teams coach. Panagos will share duties with Rusty Tillman, whom Tice has named special teams coordinator.
Meanwhile, Tice downplayed the possibility that one of his top three running backs -- Michael Bennett, Onterrio Smith and Mewelde Moore -- will be traded before training camp. As a result, all three will compete for the starting job. Tice said he is "praying" that Bennett stays healthy to give him a fair chance to win the job but otherwise said there is no early favorite.
"I think it makes a lot of sense to put it out there between three young men and see who wants to step up and be the guy," Tice said. "I certainly know they all want to do it. One guy is going to be the king, and another guy is going to be spell guy. The third? He's going to be the ticked-off guy. That's just the way life has to be sometimes. We'll see who does what in training camp."
Just tell them to watch out for that Mankato sun. It's not as bright as Maui, but it can still burn.
Kevin Seifert is at [email protected]