Vikings New look looks good
Posted on Sun, Sep. 10, 2006
[size=13pt]New look looks good[/size]
Vikings praise acquisitions, Childress' leadership
BY DON SEEHOLZER
For most of the past four seasons under Mike Tice, the Vikings were viewed as a talented but underachieving team that was perhaps just a brainy, discipline-oriented head coach away from being a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
So why, with cerebral and Ã¼ber-organized Brad Childress now firmly at the helm, is everyone so leery about making a prediction?
From Childress to his players, no one is stepping forward and forecasting an NFC North championship or playoff appearance for this season.
Not even outspoken cornerback Fred Smoot, who never has been shy about voicing his opinion.
"We're not going to predict," he said. "We're going to take it one play at a time, one game at a time and see where we end up."
One play and one game at a time?
Just don't take the Vikings' humble act for a lack of confidence.
Just because they're not talking big doesn't mean they're thinking small. Deep down, they believe they're a pretty good team.
"Without a doubt," cornerback Antoine Winfield said. "I think we can go to the Super Bowl and win it. That's our goal. It's all about the details and getting everything down. If we play team football, who knows?"
Outside the locker room, Childress consistently has declined to discuss his expectations for this team or whether it can do better than last year's 9-7 edition.
National observers have portrayed the Vikings as everything from a bona fide playoff contender to a team in transition, and Childress said he doesn't mind that they've flown mostly under the radar.
"I like right where we're at right now, radar or not," he said. "I'm just anxious to get the season going. We'll learn and grow as we start that first game in the regular season. We are where we are."
So, are the Vikings a better team than they were a year ago? And why?
According to the players, the answer to the first is "yes."
As for the second, opinions vary.
Smoot can sum up the biggest difference in this year's Vikings in two words.
"Better coaching," he said. "Better coaching, better preparation, better everything. We've got a lot of the same players, but when it comes down to the bottom line, it's preparation for the game. I think Zygi Wilf did a wonderful job of picking the coaches for this team."
Since the offseason minicamps, Smoot has made no secret of his feelings about Tice, with whom he now claims he never saw eye to eye, and his admiration for Childress and his straight-talking style.
"It's leadership, man," Smoot said. "I'm one of those players, this is my sixth year and my fifth head coach, so I've been coached by a lot of different coaches. The man demands respect, and we give it to him. He's that kind of guy, and I love playing for him."
Ditto for defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin, whose youthful energy and enthusiasm have had an energizing effect on that entire unit.
Quarterback Brad Johnson said there is a different feeling on the practice field with the new coaching staff, which ran a fast-paced and physical training camp, but that's only one piece of the big puzzle.
"It's definitely a change," Johnson said. "It's a new era right now. The big thing is just buying into the system â€” offensively, defensively and special teams â€” and letting it work for you. These coaches have proven track records, but it comes down to players making plays in the end. I think we've got the system and the players to do that."
The Vikings had a busy offseason on the personnel front, adding six new starters via free agency or trade, including running back Chester Taylor, fullback Tony Richardson, right guard Artis Hicks, linebacker Ben Leber and safety Dwight Smith.
By far the biggest acquisition, though, was all-pro guard Steve Hutchinson, who was enticed away from Seattle with a seven-year, $49 million contract.
With Hutchinson at left guard and a healthy Matt Birk at center, the Vikings' offensive line instantly shot from weak spot to apparent team strength, and the entire offense suddenly looked a lot better.
"It's huge," Johnson said. "Last year we went back and forth with the line the whole season long. I don't know if there was really any continuity from Game 1 to Game 16, who was starting from week to week. You're dealing with some proven players now who don't panic in pressure situations and know how to play. Who just know how to handle players and handle situations. Obviously, they're great players."
Heading into the start of the regular season, the offensive line still is a work in progress, but the Vikings' defense had a strong exhibition season, finishing with 12 sacks and an equal number of takeaways (eight interceptions, four fumble recoveries).
Exhibition statistics can be as misleading as those TV weight-loss commercials, but the Vikings think this could be their best defense in years.
"Those guys are flying around," tight end Jermaine Wiggins said. "Coach Tomlin and the other coaches are doing a great job. They're making plays, stripping the ball, getting turnovers for us. That's all you can ask for."
Childress might not want to get into the whole better-team question, but his line situation on both sides of the ball admittedly gives him some comfort.
"I just don't think you go very far unless you take care of those things in the fronts," he said. "It starts there, so reason for optimism? Yeah. No group has to play as much together as those guys."
The Vikings suffered a couple of key losses during training camp, losing safety Tank Williams and rookie linebacker Chad Greenway to season-ending knee injuries.
They also had to deal with one major off-the-field distraction: Koren Robinson's Aug. 15 DWI arrest that led to his release 11 days later and cost the team its No. 1 receiver.
The same day Robinson was released, safety Dwight Smith was charged with indecent conduct, but the players insist those incidents haven't carried over to the practice field, where they say it has been business as usual.
"I think it's been all football," Johnson said. "Individuals have choices to make, and you've got to live with those consequences. From a team standpoint, I don't think really things could have gone much better from training camp to where we are now."
Childress said his players have done a good job of putting last season in the rearview mirror and focusing on the task in front of them.
"I like the way they're going about their business," he said. "I like their mentality; I like their work ethic. They haven't turned any work down. They haven't backed up at all. I think they want to be good. I think they want to put all things in the past in the past. That's refreshing. Nobody's stuck somewhere back behind."
The one exception to that rule is last season's 7-2 finish, which is something the players say they can build on to give them a running start heading into the 2006 schedule.
"We want to carry that finish that we had into this year," safety Darren Sharper said. "Brad was our quarterback, and he's back. I know that will be a key factor in us hopefully starting off fast. If we could have won two more games early on last season, we're in the playoffs. Finishing the way we did definitely was a positive."
Johnson sees it the same way.
"I think we finished on a strong note," he said. "It was great for those guys who were here to do the little things: fundamentals, taking care of the ball, scoring early in games. It created that winning atmosphere again. Obviously, there is a new regime, new systems and schemes, and we brought in quite a few players. I just think our nucleus is very strong. We buy into the system; we believe in the system. I think that can take us a long way."
How far, the Vikings aren't willing to say â€” at least not publicly â€” but they believe they're a better team even if no one else does.
"We are better," Smoot said, "but until we go out there and prove it, it's just pillow talk. We're more of a show-me team right now. People underestimate us, but we don't care. We just want to win."
Don Seeholzer can be reached at [email protected]
Re: Vikings New look looks good
I have to assume one of two things happened here:
Seahawkser....errr.....Seeholzer interviewed the players PRIOR to releasing his grades for the team.
He stole the article from an AP reporter.