Commentary

Minnesota Vikings camp a crash course

Updated: August 12, 2011, 12:55 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

MANKATO, Minn. -- The hardest part of Camp Chaos is remembering names. There are 90 of them, many of whom once commanded large, superlative-laced bios in college media guides but have faded into a purple haze. On July 31, their first day together, they lined up for head shots, and each held a dry-erase board with his name and position so the photographer -- and the coaches -- could figure out who the heck these guys were. Donovan McNabb, one of the newest additions to the Minnesota Vikings, cut to the front of the line, because (A) if you don't know his name, you have no business being within 400 yards of this training camp, and (B) hasn't the old man waited long enough?

"All the vets keep cutting the rookies n line," tweeted Devon Torrence as he patiently inched his way to the front. Neither Torrence, the wide-eyed rookie, nor McNabb, the veteran quarterback, talked about what every coach in the NFL must have been frantically playing through his head when training camps recently started in 32 towns across the country. That six weeks before the 2011 season was set to kick off, playbooks hadn't been delivered, names hadn't been memorized and rookies hadn't figured out how to find the bathrooms.

Devon Torrence
Elizabeth Merrill/ESPN.comDevon Torrence, out of Ohio State, is trying to land a roster spot.

But this is life after the NFL lockout. This is Training Camp 2011. It's cramming five months of a lost offseason into two weeks and moving faster than any NFL players have ever gone.

Torrence was so eager to get started that in the dog days of the lockout he packed a bag full of T-shirts, socks and shorts just so when the call came, he'd be ready to fly anywhere to play football. The bag sat untouched for roughly a month. Torrence, a cornerback from Ohio State, was projected to possibly go in the middle of the draft in April, then three days came and went without a call and Torrence was stuck for three more months without a team. When the lockout ended and the Vikings called, he was in Minneapolis within 24 hours.

A bus took him and a few dozen other strangers through the lush, green Minnesota countryside to Minnesota State University, home of the Vikings' training camp. Torrence was assigned to a fifth-floor room at Gage Hall, an old, brick 13-story dorm with window air conditioners and cots on the floor. He wakes up every morning at 6:45, slams down breakfast and a variety of meetings, then drops to one knee before every practice. He just wants a chance to show what he can do. It's like finals week, except school has just started. He doesn't have much time.

"I can't control that there was a lockout," Torrence says. "I had nothing to do with the CBA, past players or whatever. I can only control things I can control, and that's showing up with a positive attitude, working hard and trying to do my best."

He clutched his pads and his No. 29 jersey after Wednesday's practice, the second-to-last one in Mankato. A little girl in a Brett Favre jersey -- a jersey that now seems way outdated -- walked up to Torrence asking for an autograph, reminding him how quickly the clock ticks in the NFL. And how it seems to move even faster today.

Some calm and cool

If a story was to be done about the Great Summer Panic of 2011, Vikings camp, in hindsight, probably wasn't the best locale. Yes, the team has all the elements for a chaotic training camp -- new quarterback, new coach, new offense, plus a search for a new left tackle after Bryant McKinnie showed up for camp reportedly hovering near 400 pounds.

But the Vikings are now led by Leslie Frazier, arguably the calmest, most mild-mannered coach in the NFL. Frazier is a football player's Valium. He does not panic. In the six weeks after he took the helm as Minnesota's interim head coach in late 2010 after the firing of Brad Childress -- a man whom many Vikings now reflect upon as the antithesis of Frazier -- anything that could have happened did. The roof collapsed on the Metrodome, Favre's 41-year-old body finally gave out, and Frazier's team was sent to Philadelphia for what was supposed to be a late-season drubbing that was delayed two days because of a blizzard. Frazier implored No. 3 quarterback Joe Webb, who was on the scout team for much of the year, to just play his game, and the Vikings somehow won that game. "You rarely see him riled up," Webb said.

Leslie Frazier
AP Photo/Jim MoneVikings coach Leslie Frazier says his team will be prepared for the regular season.

So Frazier is well-versed in crisis management, and he will not lean on excuses. Every team is dealt the same hand this summer, Frazier says, even though it's clear the Vikings are at more of a disadvantage because of all the personnel and coaching changes. Every man must be ready.

He sat in his office this spring and put together schedules and scenarios, then tweaked them as the lockout dragged on. And on.

"Finally, it was probably around June 3 or 4, I told myself, 'I've got to get these coaches out of the office,'" Frazier said. "We were all going crazy going through all these scenarios every other day."

One of the first things a new coach likes to do in the offseason is to set his own tone during workouts. But Frazier doesn't dwell upon the fact that the lockout prevented him from doing that. No, that was covered, at least in part, in those final weeks of 2010, when a beaten-down team kept fighting.

He wants the rest of the league to know that the Vikings are a well-disciplined team that is smart, physical and mentally tough. He knows this team will be prepared.

He put together plans for two training camps, one in Winter Park if the lockout dragged on until the end of July and the other for Mankato. Frazier really wanted his team in Mankato. It's where the Vikings have camped for more than four decades, and it's far enough away from the distractions of the big city but close enough to call home. In Mankato, beefy linemen pedal around on bicycles, high-fiving fans as they ride off to the dorms. And numbers on a roster become friends.

The Vikings pushed the deadline for the Mankato decision back while the collective bargaining agreement was being hammered out, and a town waited and sweated out the final days of the lockout right along with them. When the labor deal was finally reached, mattresses, bottled water and gear were rushed onto campus to prepare for the team's arrival.

"Being down here has solidified in my mind that we did the right thing by being patient and waiting," Frazier says. "It's good for our players to be in that dorm together, having curfew, sitting in the cafeteria together. For us to be away, to develop that bonding, I think that's necessary. Chemistry is so important to winning a championship.

"I thought if we could get to our fans and get to Mankato, that was going to be the best thing for our team."

Studying for the big test

The Vikings' 2011 offensive playbook is three inches thick and somewhere close to 400 pages. It's a lot to digest, says Christian Ponder, and he should know. In late April, hours after the Vikings drafted him with their No. 12 overall pick, the rookie quarterback was allowed to fly to Minnesota, talk to the coaches and do the rounds with the media. In that brief window of communication that lasted just a few hours, Ponder was able to acquire a playbook from the coaching staff. He took it back home with him to Florida and texted some teammates. If you want a copy, Ponder said, I'll make one and send it out. A couple of players took advantage of that.

"I definitely didn't do it at Kinko's," said Ponder, who fretted over the possibility of the pages winding up in the wrong hands, so he made copies of them at a training facility in Florida.

"I think they were close to charging me paper and ink at the end of it."

The lockout produced a few bizarre scenes. And when training camp started, there were a few more. McNabb and 16 other Vikings couldn't practice at the start of camp because they either had signed or restructured their contracts and couldn't play until the CBA was ratified. So McNabb grabbed a handful of veterans and practiced at a high school in Mankato while his teammates toiled away nearby.

On Aug. 4, an hour into the first padded practice, Rick Spielman, Minnesota's director of player personnel, was on his cellphone when he raised his arm and yelled, "Donovan!" It meant the deal was official, and McNabb grabbed his helmet and the crowd in Mankato erupted in applause. According to one local newspaper account, it was the loudest Mankato had cheered for a Vikings quarterback in years.

It's sort of surreal for even some of the most hardened veterans. Football players are creatures of habit. In most years, linebacker Heath Farwell said, the Vikings have detailed schedules for training camp five months in advance. This summer, Farwell hesitated to stray too far from his home in the Twin Cities in case the lockout ended and he'd need to report.

[+] EnlargeDonovan McNabb
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesQuarterback Donovan McNabb already is settling in with the Vikings.

Only a few weeks ago McNabb, once a longtime fixture in Philadelphia, was sitting in his home in Arizona, wondering where he'd be living this fall. He spent 11 seasons in Philly, and one long year in Washington. The 2010 season in Washington was a humbling one for McNabb, as he was benched twice and clashed with coach Mike Shanahan and Shanahan's son, Kyle.

Minnesota is a chance for McNabb to right many wrongs, though he might not have much time. The 34-year-old is viewed as a short-term solution while Ponder is being groomed for the future. But McNabb knows Frazier from their days in Philadelphia together, and, in many ways, sounds just like the coach. On Saturday, he'll be the starter in the Vikings' preseason opener at Tennessee. And he'll play with just a week and a half of practice under his belt.

"It hasn't been crazy at all," McNabb said. "It's really been exciting because we're pushing and challenging each other.

"I've known Leslie for 13 years, and it's been enjoyable. I know what he expects of me, and I look forward to giving him what he wants."

McNabb will say that he's up until after midnight each night studying his playbook. Meetings wrap up at 9 p.m., then McNabb retreats to his room with a snack and his playbook. Because of the great volume of things to be learned, the Vikings have much more classroom time than in years past.

But McNabb says it has allowed the Vikings to pick up Bill Musgrave's offense extremely quickly. He says he's hungry after what happened last year in Washington. But more important, he just wants to football to be fun again, and, oddly enough, it has been in the chaos of this thrown-together camp.

"He's exactly what we needed," Vikings receiver Greg Camarillo said. "For a team in this type of situation, you need a veteran quarterback who understands offensive concepts, understands defenses and, most important, has a lot of poise.

"You can get really frazzled back there with 11 guys that aren't necessarily on the same page. But he's that cohesive glue that brings us together."

Learning the newbies

Sometime around midnight on July 31, Vikings public relations assistant Jon Ekstrom slid a printout of 90 mug shots under Mike Priefer's dorm-room door. Priefer grabbed them because he was, of course, still awake. As the Vikings' new special-teams coach, Priefer will deal with the largest volume of newbies. He stayed up late for at least three nights trying to memorize all the names that went with the pictures. He still flubs a few sometimes during practice, and the players laugh.

They've got it easy, Priefer jokes. All they have to remember is to call him Coach. Before he mentored punters and wedge busters, he flew helicopters in the Navy. His commanding officer used to tell him that flexibility is the key to operational success. "So if you have a plan and it changes," Priefer said, "you've got to be flexible."

Vikings
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesThe Vikings opened training camp July 31.

But 2011 has been wacky enough to test even the steadiest of pilots. In their first team meetings, the coaching staff told the offensive players that they were going to throw everything at them and find out what they did well. Priefer's philosophy has been a little different. He wants his youngsters to focus on fundamentals and worry about schemes later so they can react instead of think.

Priefer runs through everything fast, but he always does that. He's the caffeine-hopped complement to Frazier's easy demeanor. While Frazier will smile and say everything is fine, Priefer will be a little more revealing. As training camp winds down, Priefer has one fear. It's that the next diamond in the rough, like a Danny Woodhead or a Heath Farwell, might slip through the cracks because the coaches couldn't get enough looks at him.

"Obviously [in a normal year], you can figure all that out," Priefer said. "The rookies come in and they get to at least try to assert themselves in the spring so by camp you have a good idea of what they can do. I've told them, and I really mean this, that I don't care if they're drafted. I don't care if they're a college free agent, I don't care if they're a one-year free agent we got from another team who's been on a practice squad all year.

"It doesn't matter to me. Whoever shows up and shines the earliest will get more opportunities. And if they don't do well, I'll find somebody else that can. That's the National Football League."

Tough on the rookies

Problem is, many of those fresh-faced rookies who stepped off the charter bus on July 31 won't get many chances. Practice snaps must go to the veterans. Coaches must plan for today, not three months from now.

"The people you should have the most sympathy for right now are the coaching staffs," said longtime NFL agent Joe Linta. "You take an offensive line coach from a team with a new coach, and they've got to be in need of a psychiatrist. Because you can't assume that even the old guys know your system."

The offseason was no doubt the hardest on the undrafted rookies. In any other year, the sting of not being drafted was quickly soothed in the couple of hours after the last name was called, when the late-night cattle call landed the undrafted with their teams. This year, the NFL did not allow that signing period after the draft.

So Torrence and hundreds of others were left in an odd limbo. They had to keep working out, but they didn't know for whom. Or whether they'd get picked at all.

But Torrence wasn't one of those rookies who needed a big pep talk. He has believed, since he was a kid growing up in Ohio, that he belonged in the NFL. If the scouts didn't see it, maybe because he juggled football and baseball for a while and that scared them, Torrence was going to prove it. He bypassed going home to Canton over the summer. He didn't want any distractions from his workouts.

Minnesota seemed to be the perfect fit. It runs a Tampa-2 hybrid similar to his college scheme, and his college buddy, linebacker Ross Homan, was picked by the Vikings in the sixth round. Torrence and Homan sat together on the bus ride to Mankato.

"For some reason, I just don't get the vibe of being nervous here," Torrence said. "I really don't know what it is. I'm really comfortable here. I was expecting to be nervous. You see these guys who are in the NFL like Donovan McNabb, but he's a jokester and just a regular guy. That's what doesn't make me nervous. Everybody is human like me."

Torrence has plenty of mentors who are hoping he'll succeed. He has Antoine Winfield, a veteran cornerback from Ohio State whose dorm-room door is always open when Torrence has a question. He has Farwell, who came here six years ago as an undrafted rookie and eventually made it to the Pro Bowl.

Farwell tells the rookies they have to be first in line and stay ready at all times. And then maybe they can survive this odd summer, which Farwell calls "the weirdest offseason I've ever been involved in."

When they got here for this abbreviated training camp just two weeks ago, there were players who hadn't seen each other in six months uncharacteristically hugging, and young men getting lost.

But Torrence has always seemed to know exactly where he's going. In his last day of lockout limbo, he spent the day with his family at Cedar Point, an amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio. He rode the Top Thrill Dragster, a roller coaster that is touted as one of the fastest and tallest in the world. Then his cellphone rang and his agent told him he was a Minnesota Viking. And then the ride really began.

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.