<
>

Camp Confidential: Minnesota Vikings

MANKATO, Minn. -- The summer of 2011 is not the time for Nervous Nellies. After the NFL lockout wiped out five months of offseason work, there is a lot to do and (almost) no time to do it. If you freak out under stress, you aren't going to be much good to anyone this August.

Fortunately for the Minnesota Vikings, their new coach is probably the most serene leader in the NFL. Leslie Frazier makes Tony Dungy look like a spaz. No matter what curveball he has been dealt since accepting the Vikings' interim job last November, Frazier has projected a tranquility that should serve the team well during the hectic run-up to the 2011 season.

In the span of about six weeks, Frazier will oversee the installation of a new offense. He'll preside over the transition to quarterback Donovan McNabb, develop a new left tackle and do his best to instill a tone of professional confidence that reflects his own personality.

Three days at Minnesota State University, Mankato, revealed the Vikings are well on their way to adopting Frazier's style. Players and staff worked hard but with an emotional ease that belied the tense tenure of former coach Brad Childress. It's been a while since I've seen smiles during a full-contact Vikings practice, and I was amazed at how downright happy people were -- from the elite players on the roster to the lowest-level staffers. Even left guard Steve Hutchinson, whose next career is certain to include a role as Oscar the Grouch, chatted gregariously with reporters after last Wednesday's practice.

As a football team, the Vikings have a long way to go in terms of chemistry and scheme. But I can tell you this: No one seemed worried.

"I've been around enough successful teams," said Frazier, who won a Super Bowl as a player [the 1985 Chicago Bears] and assistant coach [the 2006 Indianapolis Colts]. "I think I have an idea of what it takes to win in this league. That's what I've tried to get across to the players over and over, and will continue to do that."

THREE BIG ISSUES

1. How quickly can the Vikings install Bill Musgrave's new offense? Players are learning different terminology and an entirely new scheme, one that will roughly resemble what the Atlanta Falcons run under coordinator Mike Mularkey. Rookie quarterback Christian Ponder received a partial playbook during the one-day lockout respite in April, and he helped distribute it to teammates by making copies himself.

Still, Musgrave freely admits there isn't enough time to install everything. He has cut back the volume of the playbook and won't have his full arsenal installed for some time, if at all, in 2011.

"We're in uncharted territory," he said. "We've never been through anything like this, whether as a coach or a player. We're trying to be smart in whittling down the volume that we present to the players. We want to be diverse and difficult to defend on offense, but at the same time, we want to know what the hell we're doing. We also want to get these guys back in football shape, so we don't want to work hard mindlessly. We want to work smart. We're balancing all those factors."

For now, at least, less will have to be more.

2. Cedric Griffin's quick recovery: I'm not sure if Griffin's story has gotten enough national attention, but it will be remarkable if it holds up. Griffin tore both anterior cruciate ligaments in a span of 10 months, starting with the right knee in January 2010 and then the left knee last October. But doctors cleared him for full participation when training camp began and he was working with the first team throughout my three days in Mankato.

Griffin was never the fastest cornerback in the NFL, and it's fair to wonder how two major knee surgeries will impact his ability to run downfield with receivers. But the Vikings appear to be counting on Griffin, who is backed up by a pair of young cornerbacks -- Chris Cook and Asher Allen -- who each struggled last season.

Griffin probably won't play in the preseason opener, but Frazier said he has every intent of starting him in the Sept. 11 season opener against the San Diego Chargers. Said Griffin: "Injuries are a part of this game. If you get hurt, you get back up and continue to work hard. That's what I do."

3. Replacing Sidney Rice: The reality is the Vikings weren't going to find a receiver who could duplicate Rice's ball skills and leaping ability. Instead, they signed Michael Jenkins to offer reliable hands and precise routes. They renegotiated the contract of receiver Bernard Berrian, who should be motivated to put aside two lost years caused by a poor connection with former quarterback Brett Favre.

Most of all, however, the Vikings have thrust their faith behind third-year pro Percy Harvin, whom they hope will be their pseduo-No. 1 receiver and the top playmaker in their passing game. At 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, Harvin doesn't have the prototypical size for that role. But he has already earned the respect of McNabb, for one.

"I have played with guys that play big, but are short in stature and have been so successful," McNabb said. "You talk about guys like DeSean Jackson and Santana Moss. There is no reason why Percy can't be a perennial Pro Bowler, as a starter at the receiver position with over 1,000 yards receiving, 90-100 catches."

BIGGEST SURPRISE

The release of left tackle Bryant McKinnie could qualify as both the biggest surprise and biggest disappointment of the Vikings' summer. We'll classify it as the former because no one, not even Frazier, saw these circumstances coming. Specimens like McKinnie, who is 6-foot-8 with a 94-inch wingspan, are rare and can take years to suitably replace.

Last week, I suggested McKinnie's departure was a warning shot to a roster that might have underestimated Frazier's demeanor. But I really don't think Frazier arrived at training camp intending to make that kind of splash, a belief Frazier reinforced during an interview.

"It really wasn't intended to send a message to our team," he said. "I had not planned in this offseason to have a new left tackle. That was not the plan. It was just a matter to do what's best for our team and our organization. If there is anything from them to get from this, it's that. That's why I did what I did it. Every decision I make is going to be what's best to bring a championship to Minnesota. No hidden agenda. No personal agenda, that was it."

Indeed, Frazier could have chosen a less crucial position if he was just looking to make a point. No, Frazier arrived in Mankato to find he had an unexpected crisis on his hands: a key player who was in no condition to play anytime soon. The Vikings planned for uncertainty at quarterback. They orchestrated intentional changes at receiver and defensive line. All the while, they were counting on McKinnie as their left tackle. His condition stunned and angered them and will leave them weakened for some time.

MOST DELICATE JOB

The Vikings acquired McNabb for the shortest of short-term jobs: To help them win until Ponder is ready to start. In order to give McNabb a fair chance to do that, Frazier and Musgrave must give him unconditional support. But they'll have to do it while keeping one eye on Ponder's development as well.

The first week of training camp suggested the Vikings aren't close to having a quarterback controversy on their hands. McNabb authoritatively took control of the offense, working with several veterans at a local high school until he was eligible to practice, and then learning enough of the playbook to effect a smooth transition on his first day as the starter.

Ponder, on the other hand, looked like a rookie in his first week of professional practices. He displayed a quick release and an obvious ability to throw on the run, but his inexperience manifested itself in poor downfield accuracy and some bad interceptions.

McNabb's one-year, $5.05 million contract doesn't suggest he is in the team's long-term plans. But Frazier said he hasn't given much thought to the eventual quarterback succession, and I for one believe him.

"I really haven't thought that far ahead," Frazier said. "From time to time I'll look a little bit ahead, but there is so much to get done right now. It's all-encompassing. So to start saying right now what we're going to do a year from now or two years from now, that we're going to do this or that in certain positions. ... With all the changes we're having in 2011, you better get your focus on right now or you'll look back and regret certain things."

OBSERVATION DECK

  • After spending four seasons in a West Coast, zone-blocking scheme, tailback Adrian Peterson appears invigorated by the potential of Musgrave's offense. "The running back is definitely asked to do a lot more," Peterson said. "I'm excited about it. [There are] different formations, different looks that a running back has outside of the box. I'm excited to get this installed in my mind, this playbook, and get out there on Sunday to showcase the new Vikings offense." If all goes as planned, Peterson will play a much bigger role in the Vikings' downfield passing game than in previous years.

  • Peterson wants to be on the field for every play, but obviously the Vikings will need to establish both a backup and some potential relief on third down as well. Conventional wisdom suggests it will be Toby Gerhart, a second-round pick in 2010 who ran for 322 yards in limited service as last season. But I wouldn't rule out fourth-year pro Lorenzo Booker, a late addition last season who could also return kickoffs. During full-padded goal-line drills, Booker hit the holes quicker and more decisively than Gerhart, who seems to need time to gather a head of steam.

  • The Vikings' left tackle transition has attracted national attention, but it's not the only offensive line position in flux. Right guard Anthony Herrera is still recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered last November and has not yet returned to practice. His status for the start of the regular season is uncertain at best. The Vikings are using second-year player Chris DeGeare in his spot, but they also re-signed veteran Ryan Cook as a possible alternative. From what I saw, neither player can match Herrera's aggressive play. On the plus side, Hutchinson and right tackle Phil Loadholt both reported to camp in the best shape of their Vikings careers.

  • While the offense is under significant schematic renovation, the defense doesn't appear much different under new coordinator Fred Pagac. That's no surprise. Pagac was the Vikings' linebackers coach for five years, including four under Frazier, and will run a similar hybrid form of the so-called "Tampa-2" scheme. Pagac implied that his game-day calls might be more aggressive than Frazier's, and there was plenty of blitzing during the team drills I saw. "The calls might be a little different according to the different situations but that's just a difference in philosophy," Pagac said. "Our defense is going to be the Viking defense that you've seen here for the last five years except again, we're going to push running to the football, playing with our hair on fire and having fun. We're going to get after it."

  • Fourth-year pro Erin Henderson is working with the first team at outside linebacker, the position vacated by the unsigned Ben Leber. It's not clear if Henderson is merely the first of a rotation of players who will get an opportunity or if the Vikings intend for him to be their starter. Henderson has been a good special-teams player but hasn't previously done much to distinguish himself on defense. Another candidate, Kenny Onatolu, is recovering from a stress fracture in his foot.