NFC North: Alan Page
- In the team's final practice before Friday's preseason opener, coach Mike Zimmer let the Vikings work without pads, and the team finished about 45 minutes early. The afternoon session had the feel of a dress rehearsal, with no 7-on-7 periods and some extra full-team work. The Vikings' starters will likely play a few series on Friday night, and rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater could play as many as two quarters, with some of his work coming with the Vikings' first-team offense.
- Bridgewater was intercepted for the fourth time in training camp when he threw a high screen pass that bounced off the fingers of running back Dominique Williams and landed in the arms of cornerback Kendall James. Bridgewater finished the day 6-for-10 in full-team drills, and Matt Cassel was 5-for-6. Third-string quarterback Christian Ponder, who figures to get plenty of playing time once the starters are out on Friday night, had one of his busier days of camp, throwing a total of 13 passes and completing nine. Ponder waited a beat too long on a downfield throw to Erik Lora, but fared better against the Vikings' first-team defense than he did on Tuesday.
- Zimmer again spent plenty of time coaching cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who appeared out of position on a downfield pass. The coach said on Wednesday he's had to adjust his approach to Rhodes somewhat, trying to go a bit softer on him than he did early in practice. "That's about every player; you try to figure out what buttons to push," Zimmer said. "He's better when he's playing off (the receiver); that was one of his weaknesses early on. He's done that a lot better. He understands the coverages much better. He understands the alignments and where he's supposed to be. The press technique, we've still got some work to do, but he has great recovery speed. He's improved in about every area."
- Safety Jamarca Sanford and cornerback Marcus Sherels didn't practice Wednesday, in addition to injured safety Robert Blanton and tight end Chase Ford. Sherels watched practice next to Blanton from the sideline. Sanford wasn't seen on the field.
- The Vikings received a visit on Wednesday morning from Hall of Fame defensive end Alan Page, who addressed the team about what it takes to be great in the NFL. "He said he went to Notre Dame, and I was the only guy who clapped," said tight end -- and Notre Dame product -- Kyle Rudolph. "We've got to get these other guys up on their history." And in the afternoon, Minnesota Timberwolves president and coach Flip Saunders was on the sideline, chatting with general manager Rick Spielman. The Timberwolves have regularly held training camp at Minnesota State, where the basketball area is named after owner (and Minnesota State graduate) Glen Taylor. We know what you're thinking, and no, we didn't see Saunders on his phone, trying to complete a deal for Kevin Love.
Two NFL contract agreements Monday night had NFC North implications and are worth noting here on the blog.
First, the Indianapolis Colts announced a deal with free agent receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, who visited the Detroit Lions last month. The prospect of Heyward-Bey's speed in the Lions' offense was intriguing, but the team could also satisfy its need for additional depth at the position through the draft.
Meanwhile, the Washington Redskins re-signed cornerback DeAngelo Hall, making it fair to wonder if they are still in contention for veteran Antoine Winfield. The Redskins are tight against the salary cap, and the return of Hall could help the Minnesota Vikings' chances of luring Winfield back after they released him last month. Coach Leslie Frazier has made it clear he wants Winfield back.
Continuing around the division:
- The Vikings' deal with linebacker Marvin Mitchell is worth $765,000, leaving them about $5 million under the salary cap, according to Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com.
- Former Vikings defensive lineman Alan Page, now a state Supreme Court justice, has written a children's book about his misshapen pinky finger. The Associated Press, via the St. Paul Pioneer Press, has more.
- The Lions have only 13 returning starters under contract, notes Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. Last year, they returned 21 of 22.
- The structure of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers' next contract will be important, writes Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- Former NFL coach Jack Pardee, who coached the Chicago Bears from 1975-77, died at 76, according to the Associated Press.
- Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune on the possibility of the Bears ultimately re-signing linebacker Brian Urlacher, who hasn't signed elsewhere yet: "It's a real long shot, but not impossible."
The Minnesota Vikings, founded in 1961, are the relative expansion team of the NFC North. Their early history was marked by a golden age of four Super Bowl appearances, more than the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions over that span. More recently, they've offered an entertaining and drama-filled timeline of off-field shenanigans.
Behind coach Bud Grant, hired in 1967, the Vikings appeared in four Super Bowls in a seven-year span. General manager Jim Finks, who would later play a part in the Bears' renaissance, plucked Grant out of the Canadian Football League.
Finks and Grant assembled a defensive line that changed the game and served as the franchise's anchor. Two of its members, Alan Page and Carl Eller, are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A third, Jim Marshall, played in a then-record 270 consecutive games.
The decision to draft receiver Randy Moss in 1998 was transformative, elevating the Vikings from a team that couldn't sell out the Metrodome to one that has sold out every game since. Ultimately, however, the Vikings failed in their efforts to build a championship team around him.
Finally, the Vikings' humiliating performance in the 2000 NFC Championship Game -- they appeared to give up at halftime of a 41-0 loss to the New York Giants -- sparked a downswing that lasted for most of the decade. It took eight seasons to win another division championship and 10 seasons to return to the NFC Championship Game.
Use the module in this post to cast your vote. If you vote Other, give us your suggestion in the comments area below.
Chicago Bears: Brian Urlacher, middle linebacker
Claim to fame: Since joining the Bears in 2000, Urlacher has made six Pro Bowl teams and been named an All-Pro four times. He was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2000 and Defensive Player of the Year in 2005.
In that role, Urlacher has been an athletic playmaker unmatched in his prime, notching 17 interceptions and 37.5 sacks, while getting downfield faster than any linebacker in the game.
Case against enshrinement: Injuries have slowed Urlacher in the past three seasons and he might not have compiled enough Canton-caliber seasons before that point. Detractors also could suggest he benefited disproportionately from the play of defensive tackles Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson, who kept blockers away from Urlacher more often than not. Hall Of Fame voters haven’t been kind to even the best of Bears defenders. Mike Singletary and Dan Hampton are the only Chicago defensive stars from the 1985 Super Bowl team in Canton. Their teammate Richard Dent is now a six-time finalist for Hall of Fame induction but still is waiting for his official invite.
Parting shot: As we noted last fall, Urlacher might not stand as the best linebacker of his era. Ray Lewis, Junior Seau and Derrick Brooks might have something to say about that.
Detroit Lions: Billy Sims, running back
Claim to fame: He was a dominant runner during the early 1980s. Sims became the Lions’ all-time leading rusher even though a knee injury ended his career after 4 1/2 years. (Barry Sanders later overtook him.) Sims was a three-time Pro Bowl player, still ranks as the Lions’ No. 2 rusher, and has the second-most rushing touchdowns in team history.
Case for enshrinement: It’s obviously a long shot, but it’s important to remember how brightly Sims’ star shined during his brief career. He rushed for 153 yards in his first NFL game, led the league with 16 touchdowns as a rookie and finished his career with 5,106 yards in 60 career games.
His career ended midway through the 1984 season, at a time when he was averaging a career-high 5.3 yards per rush. There is precedent for acknowledging Hall-worthy careers cut short by injuries. Did you know that Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers, forced to retire at age 28, gained fewer career rushing yards (4,956) than Sims in more games (68)?
Case against enshrinement: Sayers was a special case who was also a dangerous return man. In reality, it’s difficult for voters to consider a running back who ranks No. 106 on the NFL’s all-time rushing list. But Sims was one of the NFL’s top players during the time he spent in the game.
Parting shot: Sims’ impact on the team also should be considered. The Lions were 2-14 the year before he was drafted. In 1980, they improved to 9-7. By 1983, they were division champions.
Green Bay Packers: Jerry Kramer, guard
Case for enshrinement: As with most successful offensive linemen, most of Kramer’s contributions came in a team context.
During his tenure, the Packers rushed for 21,637 yards -- the second-highest total among all NFL teams over that period. Kramer’s blocking was one of the reasons fullback Jim Taylor posted five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Over that stretch, Taylor rushed for more yards than anyone but Cleveland’s Jim Brown. Overall, the Packers made the playoffs eight times in Kramer’s career and won three NFL Championships and two Super Bowls.
Case against enshrinement: Guard isn't usually a highly valued position. In the history of the game, only 11 players who were primarily guards have made the Hall of Fame.
Voters could also be split on the source of the Packers’ running success, from Vince Lombardi’s coaching to the individual talents of Taylor and running back Paul Hornung.
Parting shot: Kramer made one of the most famous blocks in history, clearing the way for Bart Starr’s quarterback sneak to win the 1967 “Ice Bowl” game.
Minnesota Vikings: Jim Marshall, defensive end
Claim to fame: Marshall set a then-NFL record by playing in 282 consecutive games, of which he started 270. He played in two Pro Bowls, four Super Bowls and recovered an NFL-record 29 fumbles.
Case for enshrinement: If “answering the bell” is one of the main prerequisites for NFL players, then Jim Marshall is one of the greatest of all time. Although some of the stories have been embellished a bit over time, suffice it to say that Marshall battled through enormous pain and legitimate injuries to play for so long and at such a high level.
A punter (Jeff Feagles) and a quarterback (Brett Favre) have since surpassed his record, but it’s doubtful a defensive lineman ever will approach it. It would take 17 seasons of starting 16 games to do it. (Or 15 years if the NFL moves to an 18-game season.)
The longevity mark sometimes overshadows Marshall’s skills as a pass-rusher. Although sacks weren’t an official statistic then, the Vikings credit him with 127 -- only three fewer than teammate and Hall of Fame tackle Alan Page and 13 more than newly elected tackle John Randle.
Case against enshrinement: Like it or not, one of those 29 fumble recoveries always will haunt Marshall’s candidacy. In 1964, he picked up a fumble against San Francisco and ran 66 yards in the wrong direction for what was ruled a safety.
Parting shot: Another factor that might not be fair but is worth considering: Two members of the Purple People Eaters, Page and Eller, are already in the Hall of Fame. Would voters agree that 75 percent of one defensive line should be enshrined?
NFL Films recently produced a series naming the 1969 Vikings one of the five best teams in league history that didn’t win the Super Bowl. The 1998 Vikings were also on that list, but the ’69 team was more balanced. Its offense scored at least 50 points in three different games, while the defense allowed the fewest points, yardage and first downs in the NFL while ranking second in takeaways. The 12-game winning streak was the longest in a 35-year span of the league.
The team’s two losses that season came by one point at the New York Giants in the season opener and by a touchdown in the season finale at Atlanta. Both defeats came with starting quarterback Joe Kapp sidelined and backup Gary Cuozzo taking most of the snaps. Despite the presence of three future Hall of Famers (Eller, Page and Krause), Kapp was named MVP for the way he inspired a team-oriented concept throughout the year.
In a legendary gesture, Kapp turned down the award and reiterated the team’s battle cry that season: “40 for 60” -- 40 players committed for 60 minutes of football. Players were so confident in the sum total of their talent that they often laughed at opponents when they celebrated touchdowns.
Speaking in the NFL Films piece, Marshall said opponents would ask why they were laughing when they had just given up a touchdown. “Yeah,” Marshall said, “but you’re not going to win the game. We are.”
There was a sense of destiny for this team, and its 23-7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl IV was stunning. But when you consider the four Vikings teams that went to the Super Bowl, as well as the 1998 team that just missed it, you have to consider the 1969 group as the most dominant.
Most impressive victory: Tie for the team’s collective work against the 10-3 Cleveland Browns. The Vikings took two games against the Browns by a combined score of 78-10, including a 51-3 romp in the regular season and a 27-7 victory in the NFL Championship Game.
Did you know? The 1969 Vikings won the last NFL Championship in history. The NFL and AFL merged the year afterward, creating conference championships that fed into the Super Bowl.
1998: Finished a franchise-best 15-1, set the NFL record (since broken) with 556 points scored and made it to NFC Championship Game.
1973: Advanced to Super Bowl VIII with a 12-2 record and a resounding victory at Dallas in the NFC Championship Game.
1976: This team’s two losses came by a total of five points. It breezed through the playoffs before a 32-14 loss to Oakland in Super Bowl XI.
If you share an interest in quantitative analysis, this latest effort from ESPN Stats & Information is worth your time.
The research staff ranked more than 13,000 draft choices to identify the best draft class in the history of each NFL franchise, dating to the start of the modern draft in 1967. Each team has been seeded 1-32, and a "tournament" will ensue to determine the best draft class of all time. Fans can begin voting Thursday.
The rankings are based on the following criteria: Hall of Fame, MVP awards, first- and second-team All-Pro selections, Pro Bowls, offensive and defensive player of the year, rookie of the year awards, and participation in the Super Bowl.
You need an Insider subscription to view the entire project, but I can give you the results for each NFC North team:
Chicago: 1981. Includes offensive lineman Keith Van Horne (Round 1) and linebacker Mike Singletary (Round 2).
Detroit: 1989. Includes running back Barry Sanders (Round 1) and cornerback Ray Crockett (Round 4).
Green Bay: 1990. Includes safety LeRoy Butler (Round 2) and linebacker Bryce Paup (Round 6).
Minnesota: 1967. Includes defensive lineman Alan Page (Round 1) and defensive back Bob Bryant (Round 7).