EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The post-practice fare is Chinese food, spread over a long table covered with a red-and-white picnic cloth. At the end sits a lonely metal bowl full of fortune cookies, the only food that has gone relatively untouched. Maybe the Minnesota Vikings can't bear it, a glance into the future, because the present is convoluted enough. But it seems so simplistic, so harmonious, 53 men breaking bread -- or slurping lo-mein -- in their locker room. At their feet, on the carpet, is a giant Viking head; on the top of the doorway outside is a sign. It says, US-WE-TEAM. Inside, they are one. Outside, a storm is brewing.
There was a happier time, just last year, when the Minnesota Vikings started 6-0 and ate Popeyes chicken for six straight weeks until they finally lost. Now, in the drama capital of the NFL, even the weekly team meal is controversial. Three weeks ago, newly acquired receiver Randy Moss voiced his displeasure over the catering in such an off-putting matter that it drew the ire of coach Brad Childress. Now Moss is gone and dining in Tennessee.
Every week, it seems there's something new. There's the story about unnamed players who want Childress fired, the saga over Brett Favre and Jenn Sterger and some racy text messages, and drama over migraines and MRIs and a practice altercation.
"All My Childress." That's what the local sports-radio station calls this 2010 football season that has made Minnesota the most fascinating, frustrating and dysfunctional team in the NFL. But are the Vikings dysfunctional because they're losing, or are they losing because they're dysfunctional?
"Some of this stuff," kicker Ryan Longwell said, "you literally cannot make up. It's so out of left field. I mean, it's been a circus. It's been crazy. It's a credit to our guys that we've been resilient and keep fighting for each other.
"We've had seasons, obviously, where you had a lot of attention because of your success. But not this kind of random, issue-of-the-day type of things every day. We joke about it. Just when you think you've seen everything, there's tomorrow."
The man in the middle
So here's your proverbial ringleader: He's 6 feet tall and 54 years old, majored in psychology and, when dressed in an overcoat and tie for road trips, looks a lot like the guy who just did your taxes.
Brad Childress was once so averse to conflict that, as a teenager, he left the home of his bickering parents, on the verge of a divorce, and moved in with his high school football coach in Aurora, Ill. The Vikings hired him in 2006 to move the franchise past the Love Boat scandal and into smoother waters. Childress has said it a hundred times, that he wants to build his teams around good football players who are also good men.
So how did they get here, where "US" and "WE" splintered to "he"?
Here's what we know: The Vikings, preseason picks to contend for the Super Bowl, are 3-6. The relationship between Favre and Childress has been strained since last season, when Childress tried to pull Favre from the Carolina game. Childress recently got into a heated argument with receiver Percy Harvin in practice. And on Nov. 1, Childress told his team that the Vikings were cutting Moss, only Childress did it before he informed his owner, Zygi Wilf, of the move.
Childress said he has few regrets, and doesn't second-guess his decision to dump Moss, who, according to one NFL source, had openly questioned the Vikings' game plan during meetings. But he does wish he would've handled the Wilf situation differently.
"What I wanted to do is paint the landscape for the team as they left here [that] Monday," Childress said. "That was my intention. Could I have handled it different? Yeah. But if we can agree on what needed to happen, then we need to get by the how it happened. You can't put this genie back in [the] bottle.
"Hey, we all put our hands up for Randy Moss. I mean, that's what a leader has to do when you look at something at its face and you say, 'You know what? It's a good idea.' And three weeks later you go, 'You know what? I can't stand [it]. It's not how we built this; how we structured it. [He's] gotta go.'"
On Thursday, a few days from a pivotal game at Chicago, Childress stood alone in the Vikings' indoor practice facility, clutching a folded piece of paper -- a printout of a story from The Minneapolis Star Tribune. It quoted veteran defensive tackle Pat Williams, who was defending Childress.
His supporters, at least on the surface, appear to be dwindling. Two weeks ago, the Metrodome was peppered with signs that said, FIRE CHILLY. In an effort to curb the ugliness, the team decided not to announce Childress' name during pregame introductions. It didn't stop the boos.
And then came the report from The Chicago Sun-Times with the six anonymous players, including an especially angry one who said he hates Childress. Who were they? Why did they pick then, when the team was coming off an emotional overtime win against Arizona, to air their dirty laundry?
Childress said he doesn't need his players to love him. But it's clear, by the way he clutched Williams' words during a rare one-on-one conversation, that he cares what they think.
"Does it hurt?" Childress said, his eyes fixed away. "It's not my first choice.
"It's like I tell my children, 'I'm your dad. Now, if it's a byproduct that when you get to be 25, 28, 30, that we're friends and I'm still your dad. I'm always going to be your dad.' But it's not winning friends and influencing people. It's 'What have we got to get done?'"
'People want more drama'
Where do we begin? With Percy Harvin collapsing on the sideline in August, his body buckling under the pressure of a migraine? With a helicopter hovering over a warm summer day, capturing the mundane but somehow riveting pictures of Favre arriving in Minneapolis? With Chilly and Percy in an argument so heated a couple of weeks ago that they reportedly had to be separated?
Receiver Greg Camarillo, one of the newest additions to the team, has a theory about why a struggling team in one of the league's smaller markets has somehow managed to stay atop the news cycle for four solid months. He points to the team's cast of big-name characters, most notably Favre, a future Hall of Famer who is the league's ultimate ratings grab.
Then came Moss.
"And as soon as you start getting some drama," Camarillo said, "people want more drama. Like this week. Randy's come and gone, Brett's problem came and went, but it's like, everybody expects, 'What's next for the Vikings?'"
Childress, obviously, isn't amused. Most years, he said, a coach can count on having two or three unexpected crises pop up. In 2010, the Vikings occasionally have that many in a week.
"You're just sitting there," Childress said, "going, 'Are you kidding me?'"
At the mall
There is no way, really, to get an honest gauge on how this circus has affected the psyche of the Minnesota Vikings. The anonymous have spoken, spilled their guts in 12-point type, leaving 47 others very guarded with their words. Last week, when the team was 3-5 and still within realistic striking distance of the NFC North, there was hope mixed with tension. There was sort of an US versus THEM mentality.
When Jared Allen arrived at the Mall of America a few minutes late Thursday night because he'd been stuck in traffic, his audience didn't seem to care. He is wildly popular in Minnesota because he plays hard, laughs loud and doesn't take himself too seriously. Allen wore a mullet during the '09 season, a hairdo that suddenly became hip when Allen had 14½ sacks during the Vikings' run to the NFC Championship Game.
Most times on his Thursday night radio show, fans wait to hear the defensive end offer up some kind of pulse of the state's most beloved football team. Thursday, he was all over the place, talking about Adam Sandler and mustaches and traffic -- anything to avoid talking about the latest scandal du jour. Allen believed that the Vikings would turn the season around. This was a team built for February, complete with a $150 million payroll. Nearly half of the starting roster received invitations to the 2009 Pro Bowl.
And when Favre decided to postpone retirement and rejoin them in August, expectations soared as high as a January snowdrift.
But it became clear, by September, that this was not the charmed season of 2009. The schedule was far less favorable, loading up on the AFC and NFC East teams, and Favre, still recovering from an ankle injury suffered in the NFC championship, wasn't in '09 form.
Favre has broken two bones in his foot, battles tendinitis in his elbow, and, in the latest list of aches, is now dealing with a sore shoulder. His career-low seven interceptions in 2009 has flipped to 18 turnovers in nine games this season. His favorite receiver, Sidney Rice, has been out all season with a hip injury.
And there are other glaring issues. The defensive front hasn't come close to displaying the dominance of '09. The offensive line is banged up and showing signs of deterioration. Allen himself is having an atypical season with just 4½ sacks.
But Allen told the folks in Bloomington that the team is fine and that this latest drama is concocted, really, by the media. His teammates agree.
"Controversy sells, and that's really what it's about," Vikings guard Anthony Herrera said. "But for us, we don't care about that. Because none of the news reporters, none of them are coming out on the field with us.
"We're not dumb; we're not blind. You know what's going [on] around you. Even though you hear it and talk about it, at the end of the day, it doesn't affect you."
But eventually, the questions and the attention have to take a toll. Especially when a team is losing. Camarillo was watching a basketball game the other night when he saw the crawl about the anonymous Vikings wanting Childress canned.
"Obviously," Camarillo said, "you can't avoid it."
He knows how losing can tear a team apart, rip a whole locker room apart. He was part of the Miami Dolphins squad that flirted with 0-16 in 2007. Eventually, there was finger-pointing and fighting that intensified with each loss.
He said this team doesn't have any of that inner strife. This team, he said, is held together by strong veteran leaders and guys who genuinely like each other.
It's kind of strange, that the perfect blend of personalities that Childress tried to strike may ultimately be the group that turns against him.
On the record, the Vikings have been tight-lipped when asked about any dissatisfaction with Childress. It is known that some players have long questioned his game management, a knock that was intensified in January during the NFC championship, when the Vikings had 12 men in the huddle in the final seconds of a tie game with the Saints. It knocked them out of field-goal range, and eventually led to overtime and a crushing 31-28 defeat.
Childress says every team has a few players who aren't happy about long practices or heavy criticism.
But it goes beyond that. It's clear the coach's comments, public and private, have irked various members of the team. Like when he ripped Favre after last month's loss at Green Bay. Or when he reportedly clashed with Harvin over effort.
"Whenever you have a winning team," cornerback Lito Sheppard said, "everybody gets along good. It's when you start losing [that] you see a little dysfunction within the team, which is the case this year. The coaches get a little harder, and try to make things a little different. And that's when things start to collide."
The Purple Friday party is held at a wing joint south of town. It starts in the morning, which isn't exactly the best time to be shoveling down spicy chicken and beer. Yet by 11 a.m., the Buffalo Wild Wings in Apple Valley is hopping, full of Viking hope.
A guy from Burnsville named Tim says he has a brother-in-law who could pass for Childress' twin. His brother will walk into restaurants, and fans will yell, "You guys really stunk that one up last week!" Sure, Childress has won two division championships and compiled a 25-16 record over the past three seasons. But Minnesotans have never warmed to him.
They say he's robotic, boring and unimaginative. They collectively groaned last fall when Wilf gave him a contract extension that locked him up through the 2013 season. The Vikings were 7-1 at the time.
"Minnesota's a different place," Childress said. "A different part of the world. You know what I mean? The 'Minnesota nice' thing is real. But there's a steely veneer that's the backside.
"If you move here, you're a short-timer. I'm a short-timer. I'm not a Minnesotan. [But] I love it here. It's a great place. A Minnesotan will give you directions everywhere. Except to his house."
A pilot comes over the speakers of the Vikings' charter flight Saturday afternoon, a day before their huge game in Chicago. Nine inches of snow have fallen -- the first big winter storm of the season -- and the team flight is delayed. They sit on the runway for roughly 90 minutes while a Bill Murray movie plays on the video screens. Some players doze off to sleep. The trip is about to get considerably worse.
During the game, the Vikings turn the ball over four times, give up a couple of huge kickoff returns and lose 27-13. Their postseason hopes, at 3-6, are seemingly dashed. As the team slumps off the field, Bears fans pound on the top of the roof to the tunnel to the visitors locker room and yell their farewells.
"It's over! Go home!"
"You're fired, Childress!"
Childress rubs his bald head and unzips his warm-up; Wilf manages a solemn wave as his family piles into a black van that heads up a long ramp. Maybe the season, and the drama, is finally over.
'It's tough being 3-6'
The locker room opened Monday, and 30 reporters converged on an empty room. There was a meeting, and Childress told the team to get ready for the Packers. But they were nowhere near ready for another day of questions and cameras. Some lingered in a back room, getting trainers to grab the keys and coats from their lockers.
Allen walked to his locker, then retreated from the crush. He told them he has nothing else to say.
"It's kind of mellow," cornerback Chris Cook said. "Nobody's really talking today. I don't know what's going through their heads. It's tough being 3-6. I really [don't] know what to say."
The open-locker session ends, and the reporters file out the building. There's nothing left to see here.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.