MANKATO, Minn. -- Could this be the beginning of the end?
Vikings players and coaches are approaching this season as the best, and maybe last, shot this particular team has to win a Super Bowl. Publicly they're not going to say it because it undermines the younger talent pool and puts even more pressure on this season's team -- if there isn't enough already. Privately, though, it is no secret that if Minnesota doesn't get to the Super Bowl this season, the Vikings, as we know them, could be deconstructed to where the next few years will be spent trying to get back this point.
"Things will change," a team source told me.
Of course, everything starts with quarterback Brett Favre. Although the 40-year-old-training-camp-avoider hasn't decided to officially honor the final year of a two-year contract that will pay him $13 million in 2010, no one here doubts that he is coming back to play. There's no beefing about him skipping the grind of two-a-days because players and coaches saw last season he doesn't need much time to get in tune with everyone else and raise the team's level of play.
That optimism probably won't be the same this time next year. Favre's contract is up and his potential foray into retirement will seem more real than ever -- Super Bowl or not. If the Vikings don't reach the Super Bowl, they might not want him back, having given it two tries. Favre wouldn't be alone.
Key players like DT Pat Williams, DE Ray Edwards, LB Ben Leber and WR Sidney Rice have expiring deals. Others, like RB Adrian Peterson, DT Kevin Williams, S Madieu Williams and WR Bernard Berrian are owed the types of sizeable salary bumps in 2011 that either lead to contract extensions or players getting cut.
Oh, add the guy who could step in for Favre, Tarvaris Jackson, to the list of players whose contracts expire after the season. Quarterback Sage Rosenfels will be the only veteran currently under contract whose deal goes through 2011.
The sense of urgency is pretty intense. Players are disgusted at the way their 2009 season ended, with the overtime loss to New Orleans in the NFC championship. And no one is hiding from the likely breaking up of this team if things don't end with a championship.
As for Favre, Vikings' players are totally sold on him. Every player says he has faith in Jackson and Rosenfels, but the team won't be as confident in its chances to get to the Super Bowl if Favre surprisingly retires.
"I'd be a liar if I sat here and told you he didn't help us get there," mullet-less defensive end Jared Allen said. "I mean, it's Brett Favre. He's phenomenal. If he shows up when we get done in a couple weeks with camp, or if he shows up whenever, great. We welcome him. He absolutely helps us get there. But our goals will never changeâ¦We expect to be back in the championship game, except this time playing for a Super Bowl ring."
Look for a big season out of Peterson. Although he is one of the more humble stars of the NFL, he clearly is agitated about the offseason talk of him having a down season (and Chris Johnson maybe being the best RB in the league), his bout with fumble-itis and the minor flare-up he had with coach Brad Childress about missing minicamp because of a parade in his hometown in Texas.
I've been around A.P. enough to know that he is out to show everyone that he is The Don of all NFL running backs. And, did I mention that he's playing for a new contract? Peterson said he's not upset that there hasn't been a more serious push toward a long-term deal. He also knows that if he has a big year when the stakes are this high, he'll make the Vikings pay -- literally.
As for him working on his fumbling issues, Peterson said he is aware of the problem and he's been working on protecting the ball better. When he did encounter traffic in practice, he covered the ball with both hands and was highly attentive to not put it on the ground. That did not happen during the first practice of training camp.
"The ball's covered up nice," a fan yelled during one of Peterson's runs in a non-contact session. Though Rice, a Pro Bowler himself, is on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list with a lingering hip injury, there is little concern that he won't be ready for the season opener. Rice worked on a side field doing some straight line running, which is part of a gradual rehab to get him back to practicing. I wouldn't be shocked to see Rice's progression into serious football work coincide with Favre's return to the team in mid-August.
With Rice out, Percy Harvin worked with Bernard Berrian as the starting wideouts and Greg Lewis was the No. 3 receiver. Harvin told me he liked the opportunity to spend more time training as an outside wide receiver instead of working primarily out of the slot. A day later, Harvin was carted off the field during morning practice with an undisclosed injury, but ultimately returned for the evening session. Side note: Harvin's put on a few pounds. He told me he came in around 205 and hopes to be closer to 200 by the time the season starts.
With CB Cedric Griffin on the PUP list while he recovers from a torn ACL, former Eagle and Jet Lito Sheppard is working as the starting right cornerback. The Vikings also are working Sheppard on the left side, clearly so he can be the swing corner if needed. Asher Allen also is cross-training at both cornerback spots. Both look good in coverage; the big question with Sheppard is whether he will be physical enough.
That's not a question for CB Antoine Winfield, who is healed from the foot injury that sidetracked him last season. Winfield looked very good in non-contact drills. No need to worry about him when it comes to contact as he's arguably one of the most physical and ambitious hitters at the position.
No one expected MLB E.J. Henderson to be on the field anytime after breaking his femur against Arizona late last season, but he is working with the first unit. His contact will be limited throughout the preseason but he figures to be the opening-day starter, pending a setback. Henderson was not on the field when Minnesota lost to New Orleans -- the season-opening opponent -- in the NFC championship gameâ¦If Henderson has any problems, Jasper Brinkley is an adequate fill-in.
CB Chris Cook, the Vikings' top pick, is working with the second and third units at left cornerback. Cook -- all 6-foot-2, 212 pounds of him -- is the type of player who will look much better when the pads come on because he is physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage. He might not ever be a great cover corner but he should be solid in run support and work his way into some nickel packages.
RB Toby Gerhart had just signed his four-year, $3.8 million contract and seemed a little heavy-legged. He has very little shake in his running style and he could take some heavy licks as a result. Even in drills where he has to make quick cuts, Gerhart didn't create as much space as he might need to avoid some big shots.
QB Joe Webb spent the first part of practice doing special teams drills while Jackson and Rosenfels went through quarterback drills. That has practice squad written all over it. One team source told me that Webb is going to get a serious look over time because he is such a special athlete, maybe one of the best athletes on the team.
Every time Peterson touched the ball, whether on a run or swing pass, he took it to the house. A lot of players do that in the NFL but he ran the ball to the end zone with a purpose. There was no let up and the fans loved it. His passion is unquestioned and, again, unless he gets hurt, count on him having a big season.
"I've been in the huddle before, I've been the starter before. I feel, honestly, like the guys believe in me. I'm just trying to get more comfortable being in that role, being a starter, week in and week out."
-- Jackson, on holding down the starting QB job, (temporarily -- maybe).
Players said they've done their best to put the overtime NFC championship game loss behind them, but they have not erased any memories of their opponent in the game: New Orleans. The Vikings felt they were the better team and are plenty eager to prove as much when they open the season with the Saints Sept. 9. "I know we have some preseason games but I'm pretty sure everybody is very aware that's who we're playing Week One," center John Sullivan said. ... The Vikings have had one of the best defenses in the NFL for years, which is one of the reasons why defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier is expected to get a head coaching job sooner rather than later. He is respected by his players because he's willing to take advice from them and adjust. DT Kevin Williams told me that because of the Pro Bowl talent on defense, Frazier is willing to allow them to use different techniques and alignments based on opposing personnel. Williams said players feel comfortable telling Frazier when things aren't working and they appreciate him listening, even if he doesn't accommodate their suggestions. ... Speaking of accommodations, team personnel has been moved to new dorms at Minnesota State that have central air conditioning. The team had been staying in dorms that were more than 40 years old and not entirely climate controlled.