NFC North: Daunte Culpepper

MINNEAPOLIS -- Since he was introduced as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings on Jan. 17, Mike Zimmer has preached open competition as one of his core beliefs, and he should. It's a way for the new coach to keep his players honing their games to a fine edge, at least in theory.

If the Vikings hadn't gone into their coaching search with an open mind, Zimmer might not have landed his first head-coaching job at age 57, to the delight of people around the league who believed the longtime defensive coordinator had to wait too long for his shot. So when Zimmer -- who turned 58 earlier this month -- talks about an open battle at the quarterback position, adding that the Vikings won't be afraid to play rookie Teddy Bridgewater if he's good enough to win the job, there's every reason to believe the coach. There's also every reason for Zimmer to make sure Bridgewater has to clear a high threshold if he wants to line up as the Vikings' starter in St. Louis on Sept. 7.

Bridgewater
Zimmer
Zimmer needs only to look at the situation that played a large part in his job becoming available last winter. In April 2011, four months after the Vikings removed the interim tag from coach Leslie Frazier's title, the team took Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick. Ponder had no offseason to learn the Vikings' playbook and no time to work with his new coaches because of a lockout that stretched until August. But after six mediocre performances from a 34-year-old Donovan McNabb (in what turned out to be the final six games of his career), the Vikings handed the job to Ponder and never looked back, putting two young quarterbacks behind him in 2012 and using several solid games during a playoff push at the end of that season -- a year in which Adrian Peterson ran for 2,097 yards -- as justification to declare Ponder the uncontested starter before 2013, despite the presence of Matt Cassel on the roster.

Would things have turned out differently if Ponder had been given more time to develop? Possibly not. But by putting him in the lineup as soon as they did, the Vikings were, in effect, making a statement that Ponder was ready to take the job for good and locking themselves into a long stretch with him. They didn't have to make that pronouncement as soon as they did, but if they'd waffled on it shortly thereafter, they would have invited scrutiny for their lack of direction at quarterback (as they did with their Ponder/Cassel/Josh Freeman carousel in 2013). Quarterback instability ultimately doomed Frazier, and in effect, it doomed his predecessor, Brad Childress. After feuding with Daunte Culpepper shortly after taking the job, Childress pushed for the Vikings to select Tarvaris Jackson in the second round of the 2006 draft and vacillated on Jackson until the team signed Brett Favre, whose stormy relationship with Childress ended with the coach's ouster 10 months after the Vikings nearly reached the Super Bowl.

The bet here is that Zimmer won't make a rash decision with Bridgewater, not when the Vikings are set up so well to avoid one. In Cassel, who's signed for the next two seasons, they've got the perfect custodian for Bridgewater: a veteran who's solid enough to handle the job in the short term, but not entrenched enough to step aside without a fuss. And even Ponder, who will be a free agent after the season, has some usefulness in 2014, as an emergency option in case Cassel gets hurt (or struggles early) and Bridgewater isn't ready. The Vikings have done everything they can to construct a healthy atmosphere for Bridgewater's growth. The key to the whole thing, though, is a coach who's patient enough to let it work. Zimmer might get only one shot as a head coach, and he's got something of a cushion this season, with the Vikings moving into a temporary home while trying to remodel their defense. One poor season won't cost the coach his job, but mismanagement of the quarterback situation ultimately could. Especially with offensive coordinator Norv Turner at his side, Zimmer should have the good sense to avoid the potholes his predecessors hit.

So how does this all play out? The 2012 Seattle Seahawks might provide a good blueprint. They signed Matt Flynn to a three-year deal worth just $9 million guaranteed, giving themselves a quarterback they could play if Russell Wilson wasn't ready to start. When Wilson ultimately won the competition, the Seahawks were free to trade Flynn a year later. Only time will tell if Bridgewater turns out to be as good as Wilson has been -- the Vikings QB has looked sharp to this point, albeit only against defenses prohibited from hitting him -- but if he can take advantage of the situation, Minnesota has the mechanisms in place to make it work, just as the Seahawks did.

For Bridgewater to get on the field in September, he should have to prove he's unequivocally the best man for the job. Otherwise, with the Vikings facing a nasty early schedule, a tie should go to the veteran. It's a good, sensible construct for the rookie coach and quarterback, and with so many recent cautionary tales about the costs of quarterback foul-ups, the Vikings would be wise to take advantage of it.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings have seen for far too long, and know far too well, what it's like not to have a franchise quarterback. They've had a quarterback start all 16 games just three times in the past 10 seasons -- or as many times as they've used three starting quarterbacks in a season -- and they're looking at starting over once again after shuttling through two first-round picks (Daunte Culpepper and Christian Ponder), a second-round pick (Tarvaris Jackson) and an expensive free-agent acquisition (Brett Favre), among others, during that time.

But as the Vikings prepare for the possibility of looking for another franchise quarterback in the 2014 draft, they're undoubtedly aware of how expensive it can be to get caught in the middle with one who only looks the part some of the time.
The Chicago Bears proved that again on Thursday when they announced a seven-year, $126 million extension for Jay Cutler. According to ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter, the deal has more than $50 million in guaranteed money. The total amount of the deal is interesting, though, because while the salary structure is obviously different, it's known as the Contract of Death in baseball.

Why? That deal has typically gone to players (Vernon Wells, Barry Zito, Jayson Werth) who are good, but not good enough to get the megadeals averaging more than $20 million a year. Those players have tended to fall short of expectations on their contracts, either through injuries or ineffectiveness, and though they're not getting absolutely top-shelf money, they're getting enough that they're expected to perform like franchise players, rather than just very good ones.

Baseball, of course, guarantees every dollar, but as the average annual value of NFL contracts continues to climb, the deals are starting to look more like baseball contracts, and Cutler's AAV of $18 million matches what the Dallas Cowboys gave Tony Romo. His guaranteed money puts him in an elite group, as well -- only seven quarterbacks are currently playing on deals that include at least $50 million in guarantees. Four of those (Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Joe Flacco) have Super Bowl rings, while two of the other three (Matt Ryan and Sam Bradford) were top draft picks before the NFL curtailed rookie spending.

Cutler, like Romo, has a history of wilting in big games, but his regular-season numbers have been even less impressive. He's only thrown for 4,000 yards once, has thrown at least 14 interceptions in a season five times and has never thrown more than 27 touchdown passes in a season. Flacco's put up plenty of pedestrian numbers, too, but he earned his deal after leading the Ravens to a championship last year. Cutler has only quarterbacked two postseason games, and before he got hurt in the 2011 NFC Championship Game at home against Green Bay, he had hit just 6 of 14 passes for 80 yards and an interception.

The deal the Bears gave him is an awful lot of money for a quarterback who remains an enigma at age 30, but after all the Bears gave up to get him, and all the time they'd invested in developing him, they might not have been able to risk starting over at the position. They're now essentially committed to Cutler for the rest of his prime, even if he has yet to reach an elite level, and he'll eat up a large chunk of their cap space during the deal. He'll have plenty of work to do to prove he's worth it.

On some level, the Vikings saw with Ponder what it's like to commit to a quarterback that's not providing commensurate returns, but their commitment to Ponder was a pittance compared to what the Bears have invested, and will continue to invest, in Cutler. They're spending premium dollars for a player who's yet to provide premium production, and they'll have spent a dozen years with Cutler by the time the deal runs out. If he only remains a quarterback who's just above average, the Bears will have wasted plenty of time.

The Cutler deal is an example of how high the stakes are at the quarterback position. The Vikings might not find a great QB in their next attempt, but if they make a Ponder-like mistake, their commitment is at least relatively short. It would be far worse for them to be where the Bears could find themselves at the end of Cutler's deal: having spent an astronomical amount of time and resources on a quarterback who never got past pretty good.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Nate Burleson will run out onto the Metrodome turf Sunday morning, look around for a minute and in those moments right there, the veteran wide receiver figures all of the emotions will come back to him.

He’ll look around at where he used to play, at the place he once called home and take everything in for a moment. He’ll chat with some fans and perhaps look out into the crowd to see if he sees any old No. 81 Burleson jerseys still lingering amongst the fans.

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Brad Mills/USA TODAY SportsLions receiver Nate Burleson will return to the Metrodome Sunday to face his former team.
Minnesota drafted him in the third round of the 2003 draft. He stepped on to a team with Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss and the two of them, combined with other Vikings, shaped the mindset of his entire career.

So there is symmetry here for the Detroit Lions veteran wide receiver.

“It hasn’t really hit me yet,” Burleson said. “I think once I go out and run on the field, that’s when it’s going to hit me. Probably fall on me like a ton of bricks. Might get emotional.

“Every time I go back, there’s still people that remember me and show me love. Occasionally I’ll see an old 81 jersey over there with my name on it. It’s a trip, man, to know that people still support you and love you and can appreciate you, even if you’re in a different jersey.”

There’s more than that. Sunday will be closing time for the Metrodome, the place Burleson broke into the league and learned so much of what he needed to know as a 21-year old rookie from Nevada.

And he knows there’s a chance Sunday might be more than closing time for the stadium he broke into the league in, the place he caught his first touchdown as a pro against San Francisco his rookie year, when he celebrated with a little shimmy dance.

He knows there’s a chance Sunday could be it for him, too. The Lions collapse at the end of the season means there could be change in the organization coming soon after the final game and he knows that could mean a change for him as well.

All season, he has said he wants Detroit to be the last place he plays. He doesn’t want to uproot his family again. Doesn’t want to start over again as a thirty-something on a new team (he’ll turn 33 during training camp next year), especially if it isn’t a contender.

Burleson is under contract for next season and has indicated he would restructure his deal if it meant he could stay in Detroit. But that isn’t a guarantee. So Sunday could be it for him, too.

“It’s a strong possibility, yeah, I’m not afraid to talk about it,” Burleson said. “It is a possibility. And it’s fitting that I would go back and play at the place where it all started.

“There’s always some type of story behind the football game, which makes it that much more interesting to play.”

And Sunday will be all about endings. The somewhat meaningless ending of a season for two teams not heading to the playoffs. The potential end of two head coaching tenures for both Minnesota's Leslie Frazier and Detroit's Jim Schwartz. The end of an era of Minnesota football with the shuttering of the Metrodome.

And possibly the end of some careers.

Understand, Burleson wants to return. He would like to play one more season with the Lions and feels he has enough left to be a contributor on a team that, talent-wise, should be among the better ones in the league.

But that isn’t entirely up to him.

So while he hasn’t thought too much about beginnings and endings this week, how the start of a career and the end of one could take place in the same place, he has his memories.

Like playing on the Metrodome turf and thinking it was so fast and “getting scraped up every single game,” but lined up next to Moss and Culpepper.

Like when professional wrestler Brock Lesnar showed up during Burleson’s second season in Minnesota and was “bodyslamming people in the midst of a brawl.” Or when his coach, Mike Tice, ran out on the field during a midseason practice.

“(Lesnar), that was my second year,” Burleson said. “He was bigger than life. It was just crazy, man, chaos.

“And Mike Tice running out with his pads on because he wanted to hype the team up in the middle of the season. Talk about let’s do hitting drills. It was a fun atmosphere, man. It was a fun atmosphere. I thoroughly enjoyed playing with the Minnesota Vikings.”

Burleson has enjoyed his entire career, from Minnesota to his hometown in Seattle and finally to Detroit, a city he has adopted as his own and a place he feels completely comfortable in.

So it’s been a fun ride for Burleson. Just one that has an uncertain future after Sunday.

“I wasn’t thinking about it but how it all worked out and not knowing where I’m going to be next year, you know, it’s exciting,” Burleson said. “I’m embracing the moment.”
LONDON -- It was just about eight years ago that Daunte Culpepper had his last great game with the Vikings, and one of his last great days in the NFL. Culpepper threw for 300 yards on Sept. 25, 2005, passing for three touchdowns in a 33-16 Vikings win over the New Orleans Saints. But Culpepper tore his ACL just over a month later, and only started 20 NFL games in his next four seasons before turning up in the United Football League on his way to retirement.

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Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY Sports Daunte Culpepper still holds the Vikings record for TD passes in a season with 39.
Culpepper's exit from Minnesota was punctuated by a lengthy dispute with coach Brad Childress over how the quarterback would rehab his knee injury, and his last game with the Vikings came in a season tainted by the Vikings' now-famous "Love Boat" scandal during their bye week. But Culpepper, now 36, said he has fond memories and no regrets about his time in Minnesota.

"All good memories," Culpepper said after the NFL International Series Fan Forum on Saturday. "I would have loved to stay there my whole career. That's just how it happens in the business sometimes. People move on. But my memories of Minnesota were excellent -- every game was sold out. We had some games I wish we could have won, but overall, it was a positive experience for me. The fans were absolutely wonderful."

Culpepper reportedly lost his 10,000-square foot home in South Florida to foreclosure last summer, and opened a restaurant near his alma mater (Central Florida) soon after. The restaurant -- a sports bar named Culpepper's -- was a nine-month project before it opened, the quarterback said, and he's spending the rest of his time with his wife and children in Florida.

He threw 39 touchdowns -- still a Vikings single-season record -- the year before he injured his knee, and finished as MVP runner-up to Peyton Manning, forming one of the league's most dangerous deep-ball combinations with Randy Moss. Even on Saturday, Culpepper said he had chills recalling his favorite moments in the NFL: watching fans stand up in their seats while one of his 60-yard passes to Moss sailed through the air.

But Culpepper said he doesn't think back much to what happened after that 2004 season, when Moss was traded to Oakland and the quarterback injured his knee. Nor does he wonder what might have been had he stayed healthy.

He was even a good sport about the last question of the event, when a British fan in a Steelers jersey asked Culpepper if he'd be bringing any of his "friends" out for a cruise on the Thames River; Culpepper posed for a picture with the fan and his son afterward.

"I played the game the same way the whole time," he said. "I played to win. Whatever I had to do to try and win, I was going to do it. Every game I always wanted to be able to look myself in the mirror and say, 'Hey, I put everything out there.' I don’t regret anything about how I played the game."
Mike Tice Jerry Lai/US PresswireMike Tice may have more of a role as an offensive "manager" than that of a traditional coordinator.

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- It shouldn't be this difficult. Finding Mike Tice on a football field should be easy. Just look up and listen.

Tice stands 6-foot-8 and has a deep voice he employs liberally during practices. It's hard to miss. So on the opening day of the Chicago Bears' training camp, I looked over to the spot where you normally find an NFL offensive coordinator. But as the Bears' quarterbacks warmed up, there was no Mike Tice.

I checked the receiver group. Couldn't see or hear him. Tight ends? Nope.

It wasn't until I located the offensive line that I caught a glimpse of him, my first clue that the Bears have crafted a unique -- but, I think, appropriate -- arrangement to operate their offense this season.

More than ever, NFL offensive coordinators rise from a quarterback background, developed as a player or an assistant coach or both. In the NFC North, for example, we have the Detroit Lions' Scott Linehan (college quarterback, quarterbacks coach) and the Minnesota Vikings' Bill Musgrave (NFL quarterback and quarterbacks coach). It's not a requirement for the job, but consider it a nod toward the increased importance of quarterbacks at this level.

Tice, on the other hand, will run the Bears' offense through the line -- a dream of many offensive line coaches that rarely comes to fruition. The idea, after the Bears spent two years struggling to meld their scheme with personnel, is to build an offense around quarterback Jay Cutler but operate it within the context of what the offensive line can handle.

It was an idea that initially sounded unappealing to Tice, who settled into a position coach's life over the past seven years after a rocky end to his tenure as the Minnesota Vikings' head coach. But given the opportunity to fashion the job to his strengths and expertise, Tice reconsidered.

"The more I thought about it," he said, "I thought, 'Who knows the offense we have better than I do? Who knows the line? Who knows how to protect the line better than I do? Who knows how to hide their flaws better than I do?' I've got a great relationship with the quarterback, [Devin] Hester, the tight ends, Why not?"

Based on Thursday's initial practice, and a subsequent interview, it's safe to assume Tice will spend a majority of his time with the offensive line. During practice, he'll break away only for seven-on-seven drills, leaving offensive line coach Tim Holt to run one-on-one blocking drills, and he'll spend about half of his total meeting time in the line's room. Meanwhile, newcomer Jeremy Bates will be Cutler's position coach and a key conduit of the passing game.

It would be easy to conclude, as I was prepared to, that in reality Tice is the Bears' blocking and running coordinator while Bates is the passing game coordinator. Tice, however, insisted that will not happen and said it is important "to be involved in the passing game and all facets and not just have a situation where I handle the runs and protection and someone else handles the passing game."

So how will it all work?

From what I can gather, Tice has crafted an offense that blends the power running game he learned from longtime NFL coach Joe Gibbs, elements of the West Coast passing game culled from Bates' career path and a downfield portion Tice used with the Vikings. Tice will call plays from the sideline, but he'll leave an important segment to Cutler -- who will get a pass-run option based on defensive alignments. (Tice once famously dubbed this element his "Duh offense" because it asks quarterbacks to audible to a pass when defenses are aligned against the run and vice versa.)

"We want to be able to do everything," Tice said. "We want to be able to catch and run. We want to be able to throw it deep. We want to be able to play-action, we want to be able to move the pocket. We want to be able to run the ball explosively. It's really not that different than what we did in Minnesota.

"I think Jeremy Bates has done a nice job of putting in his version of the West Coast scheme, which is nice. We melded that with the long stuff that we used to do in Minnesota and we kept our run game intact. Now we have the run game that you'll recognize. The quarterback has a lot to manage on the line of scrimmage, just like [Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper]. And we'll see what happens."

Without knowing the details, it's reasonable to be skeptical of an arrangement that shifts a longtime offensive line coach to the coordinator's role. But in this instance, I think it can work, especially if you consider Tice in the role of offensive "manager" rather than a traditional coordinator.

He'll make liberal use of Bates, an intense film rat who is best suited in a role of scheming by candlelight in his office. He'll rely heavily on Cutler, a veteran with strong opinions on what best suits his skills. And Tice will most assuredly do one thing that hasn't happened for at least two years in Chicago: He'll take into account the strengths and weaknesses of the offensive line when developing a game plan.

Is it unconventional? Sure. Does it have risks? Of course. But for this team at this time, it makes sense.

BBAO: Let's do some bloggin'

July, 2, 2012
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We're Black and Blue All Over:

Well hello again. I hope everyone had a great final week of June, which means it's now July, which means we won't have to turn the calendar again before all four NFC North training camps open. If that doesn't get your Monday juices flowing, I don't know what will.

We'll be going strong here on the blog for the next two weeks before taking one final sojourn the week of July 16. (That's a schedule change from my previous plan, but such is life.) My training camp tour will commence on or about July 26, in an NFC North locale to be determined, and we'll take it from there.

But first, let's catch up on a few weekend stories -- most notably the late-Friday contract extension of Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz. I'll add a few thoughts of my own a bit later Monday.
  • Tim Twentyman of the Lions' web site writes that it "always seemed like it was just a matter of time" before the team and Schwartz agreed to a deal.
  • Anwar S. Richardson of Mlive.com wonders if any of the NFC North's receivers can hang with the Lions' Calvin Johnson.
  • Former Green Bay Packers coach Mike Sherman believes the team and Brett Favre will ultimately reconcile, according to Greg A. Bedard of the Boston Globe. Sherman: "I know there's some hard feelings, maybe on both sides, but at the same time I think with time that all dissipates and he’ll be welcomed back with open arms. The dust just has to settle a little bit and the pain of his exit has to heal a little bit and I think he’ll be what he was. He was an icon. I know he loved his time in Green Bay and has phenomenal memories. I know that he cherishes every single Sunday that he went out that tunnel to the cheers of those fans. I think eventually that will heal up and be put in the past."
  • The Packers are confident their defense can recover from last season's performance, notes Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com thinks the Packers will keep six receivers on their final roster.
  • Chicago Bears tailback Matt Forte believes he is in the best shape of his professional career, writes Jon Greenberg of ESPNChicago.com.
  • Yikes. Former Bears safety Danieal Manning took a huge loss on his Libertyville, Ill., home. Here's more from Bob Goldsborough of the Chicago Tribune.
  • The Minnesota Vikings will simulcast their television and radio preseason broadcasts, notes the team web site.
  • The NFL career of former Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper appears over, suggests Craig Castille of the Orlando Sentinel.

Judgment Day coming for the Vikings

October, 25, 2011
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PonderBruce Kluckhohn/US PresswireChristian Ponder, the Vikings' 2011 first-round pick, made his first start this week.
Two ingredients are mandatory for the success of an NFL franchise.

You need a quarterback to win games and a modern stadium to make money.

And at this moment, it's uncertain whether the Minnesota Vikings have either.

So pardon the dramatics, if you will, but I truly believe the Vikings are entering the most critical time period in their 51-year existence.

During the month, they will find out whether the state of Minnesota will finance a new stadium or risk losing them to another market. And by the end of 2011, the Vikings should have a decent idea whether rookie Christian Ponder is a true franchise quarterback or just the next in a long line of short-term starters.

Check out the chart to your right. Since their inception in 1961, the Vikings have had only three quarterbacks I would consider long-term starters. Fran Tarkenton (13 seasons), Tommy Kramer (seven) and Daunte Culpepper (five) are the only quarterbacks to have been the Vikings' primary starter for more than three seasons.

The Vikings have filled the other 26 years with a mishmash of journeymen (Gary Cuozzo, Wade Wilson and Rich Gannon) and big-time veterans at the end of their careers (Warren Moon, Brett Favre, Randall Cunningham and Jim McMahon). Their hope is that Ponder, 23, will put an end to their annual search for a Band-Aid solution.

If first impressions mean anything, Sunday's debut performance against the Green Bay Packers was encouraging. Ponder threw aggressively downfield; seven of his 13 completions went for at least 15 yards. He was mobile, routinely buying extra time outside the pocket and gaining 31 yards on four scrambles. And he without question brought an energy and confidence to an offense that seemed to be treading water for the season's first six games.

"He took charge with confidence," tailback Adrian Peterson said. "He never seemed rattled. Just very comfortable, which is something I am very excited about. He bounced back from two interceptions and continued to go strong, which says a lot about him as a leader."

Peterson said the difference was "definitely very noticeable" and, as someone who just signed a seven-year contract extension, seemed optimistic about the franchise's future.

Smart Vikings observers know not to overreact to the emotional debut of a quarterback candidate, and there are plenty of unanswered questions about Ponder's long-term viability. After watching him float a few passes to the Packers' secondary, I would rank arm strength atop that list. But the next nine games should give us a good sense of where his career is headed.

If all goes well, Ponder will be the Vikings' quarterback when they open their next stadium. Where that facility will be located, of course, remains a topic of fierce debate both in Minnesota and in the NFL offices.

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Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesThe Vikings' lease at the Metrodome, their home since 1982, expires in less than four months.
The Vikings' lease at the Metrodome expires in less than four months -- on Feb. 1, 2012. A top league official has already acknowledged the Vikings would be free to pursue relocation options at that point, and owner Zygi Wilf has said he won't sign a short-term lease extension at the Metrodome without financing approval for a new stadium.

Without a deal in place by Feb. 1, the Vikings could technically move to Los Angeles or another market in time for the 2012 season, provided NFL owners grant approval. That timetable has finally moved a decade-long conundrum to the front burner of Minnesota politics, putting enormous pressure on a resolution -- one way or the other -- before Thanksgiving.

Gov. Mark Dayton has set a Nov. 7 deadline for settling on a project site and plan. Wilf prefers a suburban site for a project that would cost $1.1 billion, but powerful members of the business community are pushing for a site in Minneapolis. After making his recommendation, Dayton will oversee two weeks of debate and public hearings prior to a proposed Nov. 21 special session of the state legislature to vote on the final package.

Anything short of approval at that point almost certainly would push the next round of debate past the expiration of the Vikings' lease.

Would Wilf commence relocation efforts in February? Last week, NFL executive vice president Eric Grubman told 1500ESPN.com: "[T]hey are free to explore their options and from all I know they already could be exploring their options. They do not need clearance from us."

It's more likely that Wilf would put the franchise up for sale under that scenario. Presumably, the new buyer would pursue relocation. In either event, we'll know in a matter of weeks whether that possibility will even exist. Barring an extension of Dayton's pre-holiday deadline, Judgment Day is coming for the Vikings -- both on and off the field.
There has been considerable debate this week about whether the Minnesota Vikings could have, or should have, waited to find a less formidable opponent than the defending Super Bowl champions for rookie quarterback Christian Ponder's first NFL start.

My take: Ponder was the No. 12 overall pick of the draft and a player the Vikings are counting on to lead them for a decade or longer. There should be no concern about protecting him from fierce opponents, now or ever. If they were afraid to play Ponder against the archrival Green Bay Packers, I would be concerned for both his and their future.

With that said, it's fair to point out that only five rookie quarterbacks in NFL history have made their first start against the defending NFL champion. As the chart below shows, the Arizona Cardinals' Max Hall was the only such rookie to win that start.

It's interesting to note that former Vikings quarterback Tommy Kramer is on the list as well. Kramer and Ponder are two of only three quarterbacks the Vikings have drafted in the first round. (Daunte Culpepper in 1999 was the other.) That two of them will have made their first start against the defending champions is interesting to me, if not to anyone else.

Regardless, Ponder will step on the field Sunday in front of a fan base that couldn't have higher expectations for him. Nothing like starting off in the pressure cooker, huh?

"I don't think anyone's expectations have been higher than what I put on myself," he said. "I have high expectations for myself, and I prepare myself for success. When things don't go my way, I make sure that they do. I am a perfectionist, and I am going to do everything I can and reach my expectations."

StaffordJason Miller/Getty ImagesLions quarterback Matthew Stafford has looked poised for a breakthrough year this preseason.
The Fever is at its pitch. The Detroit Lions are 3-0 this preseason and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has bulled into the head (sometimes literally) of every quarterback he has faced. But for now, at least, I suggest you put Suh's newfound celebrity aside and consider the most important development for the Lions this summer.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford has arrived.

(Cue the "It's preseason for cripes-sakes, you hyperbolic two-bit blogger" response.)

I fully recognize Stafford hasn't done anything that counts in 2011. And yes, there is great danger in drawing dramatic conclusions from 31 preseason passes. But if you've watched those throws, and if you've seen Stafford running the offense in training camp, it's reasonable to consider him in a new light.

Does this mean Stafford will rank among the NFL's top 10 quarterbacks this season? You know how irrelevant I think such rankings are. To me, the important point is that Stafford can be the difference this season between an entertaining Lions team and a winning one.

With all due respect to Suh, only a quarterback can singularly impact a team's winning percentage. Some quarterbacks aren't up to it. This summer, Stafford has shown us he can be.

"It's hard because he's missed a lot of time on the field [in his first two seasons]," Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. "But you can see the ownership he's taken in this offense. ... It's not just me talking in the meeting rooms anymore. He's spot-on. He's going to have a great career, I really think."

Now in his third season with Stafford, Linehan should know. At every NFL stop, Linehan and his staff have coaxed substantial improvement even from established veterans. In his third year with the Minnesota Vikings, Linehan presided over quarterback Daunte Culpepper's 4,717-yard, 39-touchdown season in 2004. The following year, he resurrected veteran Gus Frerotte's career with the Miami Dolphins.

Now, Linehan appears to be putting the final touches on Stafford, whose development has been overshadowed by two well-chronicled years in injury rehabilitation. In both the preseason and in the training camp practices I covered, Stafford displayed a level of accuracy and confidence that comes only with multiple years in a good system.

That development has manifested during the games in this way: 24 completions in 31 attempts for 356 yards and five touchdowns. Stafford hasn't been intercepted and has a near-perfect 154.0 passer rating. He has looked as comfortable throwing touch passes into the back of the end zone, especially to receiver Nate Burleson, as he has in launching ropes to tight ends in the seam or aiming back-shoulder passes to receiver Calvin Johnson.


I've tried to provide some context for that preseason performance in the chart. It's important that you note I am not suggesting Stafford has risen into the stratosphere occupied by Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. What I do want to note is that Rodgers annually has put up some inflated preseason numbers that have drawn attention and suggested he was on the cusp of greatness.

Rodgers, however, has never had a preseason as efficient as what Stafford has produced through three games.

"The only thing that has set Matthew back before this have been [the injuries]," Linehan said. "He's had his share of bad luck early on, and he needs to put that all behind him and not even think about it."

I'm guessing Stafford reached that point Saturday night, when the New England Patriots sacked him once and hit him on two other occasions. Most notably, Stafford absorbed a crushing hit from free-blitzing linebacker Jerod Mayo, resulting in a rare underthrow. But Johnson quickly adjusted to haul in a 30-yard reception.

Linehan said Stafford is a "really smart guy, even though he isn't one to tell you that." More than anything, when I sat with Stafford for a few minutes in training camp, I got a sense that Stafford has fully bought in to how successful he can be in this scheme with the skill players the Lions have surrounded him with. When he gets hit and can't follow through on a throw, for example, he knows he has players like Johnson who can make the adjustment.

"I love playing in this offense," Stafford said. "I'm a big fan. You've got answers versus everything, and [Linehan] gives a lot of control to the quarterback, which is fun for me and good for me. I know when I'm protected, I know when I'm hot, that kind of stuff. But we have the personnel to be really good. We've got three really good tight ends, four or five really good receivers. We have a lot of special talent."

Public discussion about Stafford naturally has centered on his injuries, mostly in the absence of any new developments on the field. I think we've seen enough this summer to move the conversation forward. It's time to start discussing Matthew Stafford in the context of his skills and performance. He has taken that step, and Lions are poised to follow him.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Good early morning. Since our Tuesday-night signoff, the Donovan McNabb-Minnesota Vikings reports have strengthened. ESPN's John Clayton reported a trade is contingent on McNabb restructuring his contract, a move he would be wise to accept if he truly wants to play for the Vikings in 2011.

It seems we'll get resolution one way or the other on Wednesday. If the deal isn't going to work out, the Vikings will need to move on in order to grab another veteran quarterback before they are all signed elsewhere.

On Tuesday, I suggested McNabb would be an acceptable backup for the Vikings but questioned whether bringing him in as a short-term starter was the smartest move. I'm still working to get my head around this one. From what I can see via Twitter and the mailbag, you appear to be split in your views. Some of you don't want to see another in a series of Band-Aid moves the Vikings have employed, really, since Daunte Culpepper's 2005 knee injury. Others believe having McNabb is better than not having him.

At this point, all that matters is what the Vikings think. And it appears they want him and aren't enthused about the idea of starting rookie quarterback Christian Ponder in Week 1.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • McNabb would have to accept a mentorship role to Ponder in order for this deal to work, writes Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune.
  • Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com: "If completed, the deal would send a strong message to a veteran-laden locker room and several key free agents the Vikings intend to be contenders now, rather than suffering through growing pains with a young quarterback."
  • Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "Despite drafting quarterback Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick, the Vikings apparently find themselves in 2009 mode all over again, searching for an aging quarterback to provide a short-term solution."
  • Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo faces pressure this week, writes David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune.
  • Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times: "There's plenty working in the Bears' favor. They have salary-cap space, they're the defending NFC North champs and they have a coaching staff and a roster that are largely unchanged."
  • The Bears remain in close contact with free-agent linebacker Justin Durant, according to Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune.
  • The Detroit Lions will re-sign place-kicker Dave Rayner to compete with veteran Jason Hanson, writes Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
  • The Lions believe they are a playoff team, writes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
  • Iowa punter Ryan Donahue signed with the Lions and will give incumbent Nick Harris a strong training camp battle, according to Chris McCosky of the Detroit News.
  • Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley: "He has the potential to become the finest player at his position in the National Football League. He also has the potential to become a divisive force if his desire for the ball and a lucrative new contract clash with team goals."
  • The Packers are unlikely to be able to trade linebacker Nick Barnett and ultimately will release him, writes Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • Free-agent place-kicker Mason Crosby didn't hear from the Packers on Tuesday but isn't concerned, according to the Press-Gazette.

Fear of the 'Madden Curse'

March, 28, 2011
3/28/11
5:50
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I've always been the first to admit that I've never paid much attention to "Madden" or any other video game, but I've been surprised at how passionate many of you are about NOT wanting Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers or Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson to win ESPN.com's bracket-style competition for the cover of "Madden 12." Both players have advanced to the second round of the event.

"The Curse" is in your head.

Nevertheless, wrote @TeeJayV via Twitter, "Just no reason to chance it. Keep @AaronRodgers12 off of it!"

Rodgers, for his part, tweeted last week that it is "hard not to want" the Madden cover.

I suppose this will become a bigger issue for us if Rodgers and/or Peterson advance to the finals next month. But courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information, via NFC South colleague Pat Yasinskas, here are the basics of the so-called "Madden Curse."
  • Madden 11: Drew Brees: Threw for 4,620 yards but also set a career high with 22 interceptions. Started 16 games despite persistent reports of a knee injury.
  • Madden 10: Troy Polamalu/Larry Fitzgerald: Polamalu only played five games because of knee injuries, Steelers missed playoffs; Fitzgerald wasn’t affected much (97 receptions, 1,092 yards, 13 TDs, Pro Bowl).
  • Madden 9: Brett Favre: Feuded with Packers, traded to Jets, horrible down the stretch (lost 4 of last 5).
  • Madden 8: Vince Young: Missed 1 game with quad injury; led Titans to first playoff appearance in four years.
  • Madden 7: Shaun Alexander: Fractured foot, missed six games; fewer yards and TDs in '06 AND '07 than in '04 OR '05.
  • Madden 6: Donovan McNabb: Sports hernia in first game, missed seven games; feuded with Terrell Owens all year; had been to five straight Pro Bowls, hasn't been since.
  • Madden 5: Ray Lewis: Broke wrist, missed one game; first season without interception; missed 10 games next year with thigh injury.
  • Madden 4: Michael Vick: Fractured fibula one day after video game was released, missed 11 games; Pro Bowl next 2 seasons; obvious issues since then.
  • Madden 3: Marshall Faulk: Ankle injury, missed two games, never rushed for 1,000 yards.
  • Madden 2: Daunte Culpepper: 4-7 record before season-ending knee injury.
  • Madden 2001: Eddie George: Career season, but fumbled in playoffs as top-seeded Titans lost first game to Ravens.
  • Madden 2000: Barry Sanders: Retired one week before training camp.
Cameron Newton/Jake Locker/Blaine GabbertUS Presswire/Icon SMIWill the Minnesota Vikings position themselves to draft Auburn's Cam Newton, left, Washington's Jake Locker, center, or Missouri's Blaine Gabbert?
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings arrived at this week's scouting combine carrying the most intense personnel burden a team can face: They have no starting quarterback and no clear path for finding an obvious answer in the draft.

You've heard of the Scarlet Letter? In the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, Hester Prynne is forced to wear an "A" on her chest to signify a moral crime. So let's assign our own Scarlet Letter to the Vikings for putting themselves in this position. We'll slap them with a "B." Their cupboard is Barren at the most important position in professional sports, a hole that will swallow up their new coaching staff unless it is filled quickly and creatively this offseason.

"We're going to look at all avenues at the quarterback [position]," vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman said at the NFL scouting combine, which he and his scouts are scouring for quarterback options. "... But you're hoping that by the time all the dust settles and we're getting ready to go into the season that we have that position pretty much resolved."

We've seen this act before, of course. Consider the first chart: The Vikings have been patching together this position for an extended period of their history, spanning multiple ownership regimes, personnel executives and coaching staffs.

In the 21 years since Tommy Kramer's final season, the Vikings have used 10 different primary starters. Most recently, they set themselves back with an indefensible plan to develop Tarvaris Jackson as their long-term answer. Jackson is a pending free agent and, with the departure of coach/benefactor Brad Childress, seems unlikely to return.

That leaves the Vikings with second-year player Joe Webb as the only returning player who has taken a snap with the team. Spielman said "we're very excited about what Joe Webb brings to the table," but it's hard to believe that new coach Leslie Frazier will open his first full season with a player as raw as Webb as his starter.

History has showed the Vikings can find a temporary solution. This year, it could be Donovan McNabb, Kyle Orton, Vince Young or some other passer whose previous team is willing to part ways. But more important to me is whether the Vikings will make the long-overdue plunge into planning their future at the position.

In their 50-year history, the Vikings have drafted only two quarterbacks in the first round: Kramer in 1977 and Daunte Culpepper in 1999. It only takes a look around the NFC North to realize that finding a long-term starter in the modern-day NFL usually requires a first-round commitment. That's how the Detroit Lions got Matthew Stafford (No. 1 overall). It's how the Chicago Bears acquired Jay Cutler (two first-round picks in a trade) and it's how the Green Bay Packers secured Aaron Rodgers (No. 24 overall).

Can the Vikings make a similar grab at No. 12 overall this year? Will they move up to ensure they can draft Auburn's Cam Newton or Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, both of whom will likely be off the board at No. 12? Would Washington's Jake Locker make sense at that spot? Or would the Vikings identify a second-level prospect, perhaps Florida State's Christian Ponder, and maneuver to draft him in the second or third round?

That approach is how the Vikings landed Jackson in 2006, and Childress' insistence that Jackson would develop into a permanent starter held back the team from planning for the eventual retirement of Brett Favre. My understanding is that even last year, Childress' vision was for Jackson to take over whenever Favre retired.

That position caused considerable consternation within the Vikings' front office, which under Spielman had taken a proactive approach to planning for other veteran departures. Center John Sullivan, for example, was drafted in 2008 with the intent of replacing Matt Birk. The same was true for safety Tyrell Johnson, who took over for Darren Sharper in 2009.

[+] EnlargeJoe Webb
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesQuarterback Joe Webb is the only returning player who has taken a snap with the Vikings.
Never in his career had Jackson demonstrated the aptitude to be a long-term starter. So why didn't the Vikings seek a successor to Favre as they had with Birk, Sharper and others? I asked Spielman that question Thursday, fully expecting to get the answer he provided.

"We're excited to move forward on everything," Spielman said through gritted teeth.

The real answer, of course, is that Childress had amassed enough internal power to serve as the Vikings' general manager when it came to quarterbacks. He plainly disapproved of Spielman's decision to acquire Sage Rosenfels two years ago and summarily buried him on the bench. And in the previous three years, the only quarterback the Vikings drafted was USC's John David Booty, a project who didn't make it past his rookie year.

Vikings fans should feel optimistic that Frazier agrees with Spielman on the state of the position. And in truth, the first offseason of a coaching regime can and should be a seminal moment at the quarterback position.

On Thursday, I sought out Lions coach Jim Schwartz to talk about the similar position he found himself in two years ago. The Lions had the No. 1 pick, of course, but Schwartz knew he wanted to build his program around the identity of his quarterback.

"[Drafting Stafford] allowed us to select personnel," Schwartz said. "You're not spinning your wheels. If you don't have a quarterback, you're drafting maybe a different kind of running back, maybe a different kind of offensive lineman, than if you have somebody. We had Calvin Johnson. But our ability to get Jahvid Best, Nate Burleson in free agency, to draft Brandon Pettigrew. Those pieces were because of the quarterback that we have. You're probably not going to run the ball 45 times per game when you have a quarterback that you want the ball in his hands.

"So in order to make progress, in order to fit guys to where they're going to be, in order to fit guys to a job description, you need to know what that job description is going to be. Having a quarterback settles a lot of that, knowing what that quarterback can do, knowing his ability to make throws, knowing his ability to process things, those kinds of things, it's all very important.

"The quarterback is the most important position on the team, and if you're strong at that position, you can overcome weaknesses at other positions."

Injuries have prevented Stafford from establishing himself as a franchise anchor, but the point is the Lions have built their team with a clear vision based on his presence. That's something the Vikings have done only rarely in their history.

As the second chart shows, they haven't had many opportunities. The Vikings' prospects for drafting a blue-chip passer at No. 12 overall are murky at best, but years of neglect and poor evaluations have left the Vikings in an unenviable spot.

No one wants their hand forced in a draft, but the Vikings are as close as they can be to that ultimatum. We've seen how far the Band-Aid solution can take them. They won't win a championship with someone else's quarterback. Even they now realize it's time to find one of their own.

Free Head Exam: Minnesota Vikings*

January, 3, 2011
1/03/11
12:15
PM ET
After the Minnesota Vikings' 20-13 loss to the Detroit Lions, here are three issues that merit further examination:
Head Exam
Kevin SeifertFollowing their loss to the Lions, the Vikings make their stop in the examination room.

  1. There are many who believe this season's collapse illustrated the Vikings' need for a single football authority, be it a general manager or a head coach with those responsibilities. But the apparent decision to elevate Leslie Frazier to the permanent coaching job means one of two things: Owner Zygi Wilf has either decided not to streamline his leadership or it has already happened. It wouldn't make sense to hire a general manager with final authority after promoting Frazier. So the only other possibility is that Wilf has already promoted either Rick Spielman (vice president of player personnel) or Rob Brzezinski (vice president of football operations) and not announced it. If I had to guess, however, I would say Wilf will retain the current committee-style leadership structure he has in place, regardless of title.
  2. The Vikings will be in rebuilding mode until they identify and develop a new starting quarterback. They've used the Band-Aid approach since Daunte Culpepper's career-changing knee injury in 2005, and perhaps that will continue in 2011. But none of the three quarterbacks who were active for Sunday's game -- Joe Webb, Patrick Ramsey and Rhett Bomar -- should be candidates for the No. 1 job next season. The Vikings had the NFL's third-worst team passer rating this season (67.7), and they'll have to start from scratch.
  3. With the season finally complete and Frazier's ascendance reported to be near complete, expect to hear a lot about the Vikings' stadium situation for the next few months. Repairs to the Metrodome roof aren't expected to be complete until March, and the team has already expressed concerns about playing there in 2011. They could move to TCF Bank Stadium as part of a larger plan to replace the Metrodome, but that would require Minnesota legislators to act on the team's long-ignored plea for some $700 million in public financing.
*Truncated offseason version

Vikings face Bizarro World upon return

December, 14, 2010
12/14/10
5:40
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Let us quickly summarize where the Minnesota Vikings stand with three long, and potentially torturous, weeks remaining in their season.

They literally have no healthy quarterbacks.

They have no idea where they are playing their next home game, scheduled for six days from now. We'll call it "Location TBA Stadium."

Any other questions?

OK, let's expand.

First, interim coach Leslie Frazier said Tuesday that presumptive starter Tarvaris Jackson has a turf toe injury that will "put his availability in jeopardy" for Monday night's game against the Chicago Bears at Location TBA Stadium. Jackson's long history of minor injuries and long recovery periods suggests he won't be ready for this game.

Surprisingly, Frazier suggested that Brett Favre -- who seemed headed into retirement as recently as Monday night -- could be de-mothballed and potentially rolled out as the Vikings' starter. Favre said Monday night that he wouldn't consider playing until the numbness in his right hand subsides, but Frazier suggested that process has begun and said an ultrasound performed Tuesday was "negative" for nerve damage.

"We're hoping to get him back," Frazier said.

For now, we'll file that under the category of a snowball's chance of flying deep below the earth's surface.

I asked Frazier what information he had that would suggest Favre will be ready to take the Location TBA field for this game. His response: "The fact that the ultrasound came back negative helps you be somewhat optimistic. There's no nerve damage, so you feel positive in that regard. Now it's just a matter of the time frame, how long will it take for the numbness to go away. Brett, he's an unusual healer. He comes back a lot sooner than others from most injuries. We'll just have to wait and see."

In the meantime, however, that brings us to rookie Joe Webb, whom Frazier called the "healthiest" of his quarterbacks and one who might well end up taking the first-team repetitions when practice resumes Thursday. (Webb himself was questionable last week because of a hamstring injury.) The Vikings were in the process of moving Webb to receiver as recently as two weeks ago, however, and Frazier acknowledged that trotting him out for the first play at Location TBA "wouldn't be the ideal situation."

For that reason, the Vikings had compiled a list of available veteran quarterbacks, including veteran Patrick Ramsey, and were preparing to sign one of them within the next day or so. (Frazier said former Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper was not one of them.) When asked if he was looking for a veteran who could start Monday, or one to back up Webb, Frazier said it "probably depends on that guy's awareness of what we do."

So when they gather Monday night at Location TBA, it seems the Vikings' most likely starter is Webb. Their second option likely isn't on the roster as of this posting. The Vikings' hopes for Favre rest solely on that -- hope -- and not on significant physical progress in the past 24 hours.

And when might Location TBA be revealed? As of Tuesday evening, the Vikings would say only that they are getting TCF Bank Stadium ready to host the game if emergency construction crews aren't able to repair the Metrodome's collapsed and torn roof in time.

How long they will wait before making a decision is unknown. If they shift the venue, one of the many issues that would have to be resolved is ticket conversion and how they would pare down distribution by about 12,000. My guess is they will find 12,000 volunteers to not sit outside on what is forecast to be a night of single-digit temperatures, but we'll find out soon enough.

Or will we??????????
MANKATO, Minn. -- Let's get to some first-day impressions of the Minnesota Vikings, now that I've mopped off after a few hours on a steamy practice field where the heat index surpassed 100 degrees Monday afternoon:

  • When team drills began during the morning practice, these players were part of the first-team offense: Receiver Greg Lewis, center Jon Cooper, guard Chris DeGeare, tight end Jim Kleinsasser and quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. I wouldn't expect any of those five players to be in the starting lineup in the season-opening game Sept. 9 at New Orleans. Injuries, family death and indecision are all to blame.
  • [+] EnlargeHenderson
    AP Photo/Andy KingE.J. Henderson has made strides in his recovery from a fractured femur.
    Nose tackle Pat Williams, 37, and linebacker E.J. Henderson, who has a titanium rod in his leg, have each participated in more practices than receiver Sidney Rice, receiver Percy Harvin, center John Sullivan and quarterback Brett Favre combined. Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe has been added to the injury list with what coach Brad Childress called a strain, and he missed both of Monday's practices.
  • I plan to write more about Henderson soon, but for now you should know that Monday was the best day yet in his recovery from a fractured femur. For the first time, Henderson participated in all of the defensive repetitions for his group in the morning practice (first team) and afternoon practice (second team). "It felt good," Henderson said. "No pain. No worries. Ready to keep it moving."
  • DeGeare, a fifth-round draft pick in April, was filing in for injured right guard Anthony Herrera and appears on his way to winning a roster spot as a backup who can play both guard spots and perhaps tackle in a pinch. With DeGeare and Cooper on the roster, you wonder if the end is near for center/tackle Ryan Cook -- the player drafted in 2006 with the choice acquired from Miami in the Daunte Culpepper trade.
  • I thought the Vikings looked pretty sharp defensively. The best play I saw was linebacker Chad Greenway's diving tip of a pass intended for Kleinsasser.
  • Count me in agreement among those who have already observed that rookie quarterback Joe Webb is struggling. I counted three ducks on basic go routes and got the sense he has hit the rookie wall of training camp. Even offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell admitted that Webb's head is "swimming" with terminology and added: "There's been times out here where he's flashed some great plays, but there's been times where he's flashing that he's definitely a rookie."
  • Here's an interesting wrinkle to the Harvin situation we discussed earlier: Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune reports that in addition to dealing with the death of his grandmother, Harvin might be suffering from the migraine headaches that plagued him for parts of last season. Childress reiterated Monday afternoon that he isn't certain when Harvin will rejoin the team. "I'm kind of flying in the dark a little bit," Childress said.
  • The Vikings have a full-pads practice scheduled for Tuesday morning. It will include some live scrimmaging and probably be their last real contact until Saturday's preseason game at St. Louis.
  • I made it almost a full day without addressing the elephant next door. Childress said he texted with Favre as recently as Monday morning but had no information on Favre's scheduled visit this week with Dr. James Andrews, who performed the routine surgery on Favre's ankle.

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