MANKATO, Minn. -- The question typically follows The Question. After Minnesotans ask, "Is Favre going to play?" they almost always follow with this one: "How does the rest of the team look?"
In a sign of what has been a wild summer already, the former is much easier to answer than the latter. Quarterback Brett Favre still seems likely to re-join the team later this month, but his once-and-future teammates missed so many training camp practices that it was nearly impossible to gauge the state of the team. Pro Bowl receiver Sidney Rice missed all 24 practices because of a mysterious hip injury. Receiver Percy Harvin (funeral/migraines) missed 21, tailback Adrian Peterson (hamstring) sat out 16, center John Sullivan (leg) was significantly limited in 20 and right guard Anthony Herrera (back) missed seven.
In all, more than half of the Vikings' offensive starters missed a majority of training camp. It might prove a manageable total for a team that has returned nearly intact from the one that advanced to the NFC Championship Game, but the injuries and indecision conspired to make for some nervous days at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
Coach Brad Childress did his best to weather what he termed a minor storm, but his skill for finding the bright side has surely been tested.
"People ask me if this is the most number of players that I can remember sitting out," Childress said. "No, it's not. I read the [news] clips. Philadelphia, they had 14 guys sitting out at one point. I guess [the media] is the one that has to determine whether it's the key guys or not. As the mother hen, I would like them here taking every turn and taking everything. The downside is they're not getting those turns. But the upside, and I have to look at the upside, is you have other players who are getting elevated reps."
Indeed, the Vikings will have the most well-trained junior varsity team in the NFC North. The state of their varsity team, however, remains unknown.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. To what extent did Favre's uncertainty impact the rest of the team's preparation? Most players experienced a similar drama last season, and it doesn't appear that many are fretting his ultimate decision or are distracted by the indecision. But that's largely because they all expect him to return, and it was telling when tight end Visanthe Shiancoe blurted that a surprise retirement "would be a blow to the team." Not coincidentally, a muzzled Shiancoe has hardly been heard from since.
Another respected veteran, cornerback Antoine Winfield, said: "We are all hopeful that he comes back. It would be nice to spend another season with him, but at this point we don't know. But either way, it's not going to make my job any easier or harder. I still have to go out there and perform and make as many plays as I can."
As far as on the field, history trumps intuition. It makes sense to suggest that an offense is behind for as long as its quarterback stays away. But Favre's remarkable mid-August adjustment last season makes it difficult to make that argument.
2. Have the Vikings done enough to fortify their secondary? Starting right cornerback Cedric Griffin is still recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and the Vikings have opened his job up to four players: Lito Sheppard, Asher Allen, Benny Sapp and rookie Chris Cook. Sheppard makes the most sense as a short-term starter, but Cook was impressive on every level in training camp.
Cook displayed sophisticated cover skills, enough speed to stay with most receivers and, at 6-foot-2, an imposing physical presence. Sheppard has held on to his first-team job, but it could be a matter of time before Cook displaces him.
Meanwhile, the Vikings have created a legitimate competition at strong safety between incumbent Tyrell Johnson and second-year player Jamarca Sanford. If all things are equal, I'm guessing the Vikings will favor Johnson, a high second-round draft pick in 2008. But Sanford is a live wire, a strong hitter and won't go quietly.
Coaches believe Johnson has responded well to the challenge, but they want to see it translate into more plays -- big tackles, interceptions, forced fumbles -- during preseason games.
3. Is there a connection between Favre's indecision and the lengthy absences of Rice, Harvin and Peterson? I can't tell you how often I've heard that question in the past week or so. It comes down to whether players resent the double standard Favre has enjoyed since the end of last season, and if some of his most prominent teammates are passively protesting. All I can say is that no overt evidence exists to support that charge.
I agree that it seemed suspicious when the Vikings' three top skill players all came up with reasons to miss most of training camp. Conspiracy theories are great, but in the end that's all they are -- theories. The most important fact is there is every reason to believe all three players will be ready to play when the regular season begins.
When middle linebacker E.J. Henderson first fractured his left femur last December, initial reports suggested he would need a year to recover. That timetable suggested that Henderson wouldn't return to the field, if at all, before the 2011 season. Given his age (30) and history of significant injuries, you wondered if his career was over. But Henderson has cut his recovery time in half and appears on his way to re-claiming the starting job in time for the Sept. 9 season opener at New Orleans. By the second week of camp, Henderson was taking all of the first-team repetitions while his understudy, Jasper Brinkley, was pushed back to the second team. Considering the titanium rod that holds Henderson's leg in place, such a quick return would be nothing short of a miracle.
Ever since the Vikings made him a second-round draft pick in April, Toby Gerhart has figured as the heir to Chester Taylor's vacated role as the No. 2 tailback. But when the Vikings broke camp Thursday, Albert Young was clearly ahead of Gerhart on the depth chart. There is plenty of time for that order to change, but however you look at it, Gerhart had a tough camp. He somehow incurred the wrath of a number of defensive veterans; nose tackle Pat Williams and defensive end Ray Edwards both took their shots at him during practice. Perhaps it was just a visible portion of the NFL toughening process, but there's no doubt Gerhart has some climbing to do before the season begins.
There is no doubt that Tarvaris Jackson, and not Sage Rosenfels, is the No. 2 quarterback and will be the starter if Favre ultimately decides not to play. Jackson has developed a realistic mentality after living through various incarnations of FavreWatch the past three years, and as he does every summer, he threw some tantalizing passes during individual camp drills. But there is a big difference between unleashing 60-yard ropes in practice and playing quarterback at an NFL level during games, and Jackson remains somewhere in the middle.
Rosenfels reportedly struggled during the early stages of camp, but he looked decent during the three days I watched practice. I once thought Rosenfels would be traded or released if Favre returned, but now I'm not so sure. To this point, there is no way the Vikings could choose rookie Joe Webb over Rosenfels for the No. 3 job -- and keep a straight face. Frankly, Webb flashed some athletic skills but otherwise looked overwhelmed during camp. There is no way he is ready to be on an NFL roster. One option: Keep two quarterbacks on the active roster and put Webb on the practice squad.
Although the Vikings are splitting kicking duties between Ryan Longwell and Rhys Lloyd in the preseason opener at St. Louis, it's hard to believe Longwell won't be the team's place-kicker this year. Lloyd will be a high-priced kickoff specialist. But in explaining the initial split, special teams coordinator Brian Murphy said: "There is no preconceived notion about how this roster will develop. We want to see everyone compete at their highest level. We want to see them put in every position possible. If we get that at every position, we will be a better football team."
Of all the veterans who missed significant camp time, Sullivan's absence might have been the most significant. He struggled at times during his first year as a starter and needed every practice repetition he could get. It's especially important to see if Sullivan has improved his core strength to stand up to NFL nose tackles.
After noting the Vikings' long list of camp absences, it's only fair to note that two of their biggest -- and older -- players participated in every practice. Pat Williams, 37, and left tackle Bryant McKinnie, 30, were on the field every day.
It appears as though Winfield has made it all the way back from a foot injury that made him a part-time player in 2009. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier admitted the team wasn't certain that would be the case when camp began, but Winfield experienced no setbacks after an offseason of rest and rehabilitation.
Childress has used a John Wooden maxim as one of his primary messages of training camp. "It's in all of their manuals and I'm talking to them about it," Childress said. "It's this: 'The main ingredient to stardom is the rest of the team.' It's a great statement. We'll find out how much guys can put their stuff away for the greater good."