Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.
Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.
Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.
Access Vikings will be doing Q & A sessions with the Vikings' new coaching staff periodically between now and the start of training camp. Batting leadoff this morning is a guy who will now get say he's the only guy in the history of the world to have coached Emmitt Smith and Adrian Peterson:
THE KIRBY WILSON FILE
Position: Vikings running backs coach.
Born: Aug. 24, 1961 (52) in Los Angeles.
High School: Played running back and was a member of the track team at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles.
College: Was a running back at Pasadena (Calif.) City College in 1979-80 and a receiver and kick returner at the University of Illinois from 1981-82.
Pro career: Played two seasons in the CFL as a defensive back and kick returner. Played for Winnipeg in 1983 and Toronto in 1984.
Coaching: Pasadena (Calif.) City College (WR) 1985; Los Angeles Southwest College (QB-WR) 1989-90; Southern Illinois (LB-DC) 1991-92; Wyoming (DC) 1993-94; Iowa State (RB) 1995-96; New England Patriots (RB) 1997-99; Washington Redskins (RB) 2000; Southern California (WR) 2001; Tampa Bay Buccaneers (RB) 2002-03; Arizona Cardinals (RB) 2004-06; Pittsburgh Steelers (RB) 2007-13; Vikings (RB) 2014-.
Jan. 6, 2012 was the day Kirby Wilson almost died.
At 3 a.m., two days before his Pittsburgh Steelers were to play the Broncos in Denver in an AFC Wild-Card game, a grease fire broke out in the kitchen of Wilson’s suburban Pittsburgh condo as Wilson slept on a nearby couch. Awakened and disoriented because of the smoke, Wilson fought for his life, stumbling at first into the fire before finally making his way down a flight of stairs and out of the building as burnt flesh fell from his body.
Wilson, the Steelers’ running backs coach at the time, was airlifted to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center with severe lung damage and second- and third-degree burns to nearly 50 percent of his body. Still awake as he was admitted, Wilson was immediately placed in a coma for several days.
After 45 days in intensive care, Wilson had to learn how to walk again. Much later, he would manage a smile while telling ESPN what he was thinking about during those first few steps.
“Man,” he said, “You walk like Herman Munster.”
Eight months later, Wilson was back coaching in training camp. He would coach for the Steelers through the 2012 and 2013 seasons before deciding to take the same position with the Vikings in February. James Saxon, the man he replaces, took Wilson's former job with the Steelers.
Wilson, who joins the Vikings after coaching NFL running backs for five teams over 16 seasons, took some time last month for a Q&A session with the Star Tribune. Here are the highlights:
Q: Did surviving the fire change you or give you, for lack of a better description, a new lease on life?
A: “No. I’ve always enjoyed life. I’ve always enjoyed what I do. I’ve always appreciated my life off the field and outside of football. So it just kind of reminded me that accidents happen. You fight through it and come back stronger than ever, mentally and physically, and then you move on with life. One day at a time. Enjoy them one day at a time. That’s what life is all about.”
Q: What’s going through your mind at the time? Do you remember at any point thinking, `My life is going to end right here’?
A: “No. By the time I woke up, I didn’t know what had happened. So it was all, `Hey, let’s start over.’ Once you understand what happened, you just move on. How can I fix this? How can I get better? How can I move on and get out of this predicament that I’m in? How can I get out of this hospital bed? How can I walk again, etc., etc.? I got through that process and you just overcome it. I’m no different than anybody else.
“People like to make that story about me, but it wasn’t. It was all those wonderful, great doctors and nurses and staff members in that hospital and that community that helped me and my family. My sisters and brothers helped me fight and get back. My children helped me fight to get to where I am too. So it’s about them, not about me. It’s about all those people and the sacrifices they made to help me.”
Q: Many have said you were in line to be promoted to offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh [Bruce Arians’ contract wasn’t renewed after the 2011 season] in 2012 and would be an offensive coordinator today if not for the fire. Do you think about that and wonder if you’ll ever get the opportunity to move up the coaching ladder [Wilson was one of the four leading candidates to replace Jim Caldwell as Ravens offensive coordinator in January]?
A: “In this business, if you’re driven and you’re self-motivated – and I am – then you’re always looking, planning and hoping that opportunity comes some day. But it comes from working hard. It comes from being prepared. So if you do all those things and you have some luck, maybe those opportunities will come. I’m no different than anybody else in any other profession. I would love that opportunity some day.”
Q: After spending two years as a defensive back and kick returner in the CFL in 1983 and 1984, you went right into coaching receivers at one of your alma maters, Pasadena City College. Why?
A: “I’ve always believed in myself as a teacher and a leader. I’m a guy who has always been in the front. I’ve always been a captain. I’ve always been a leader in everything I’ve been involved with. I first was attracted to being able to teach. From that it was on to coaching and teaching and mentoring young players in junior college, major college and on to the National Football League. So it’s a lifelong passion of mine, teaching and coaching. I’m extremely fortunate to be able to do that at the highest level right now.”
Q: What’s your career highlight as a player?
A: “Wow. You know, just being part of really, really good football teams. I think that’s been the biggest highlight. At [Dorsey High School in Los Angeles], going from a winless season to a championship season from my junior to senior year. And in junior college, being part of a really dynamic, special group of people, a great program at Pasadena City College. And then going to Illinois and going from a perennial basement team to a bowl-caliber team year in and year out.”
Q: You were a receiver and kick returner at Illinois in 1981-82. Why switch to defensive back and punt returner in the CFL?
A: “I had never played DB before. Didn’t play it in high school, didn’t play it in college. Bill Polian – the Bill Polian -- was the general manager of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. I was so bad as a receiver when I was trying out that he told me to switch over to defense and guard the other receivers. And I did a fair enough job that they liked what they say and signed me. I ended up starting a bunch of games my rookie season. That was a lot of fun.”
Q: You had 34 career catches for 437 yards and one touchdown at Illinois (1981-82). How did you end up at receiver after leaving Pasadena as a running back?
A: “Yes, I was switched from running back to wide receiver and enjoyed it. I had a great experience. I had great teachers there. [Then-head coach] Mike White and [assistants] Chip Myers and Brad Childress. Some really, really good coaches. [Myers, who died in 1999, was a former Vikings assistant coach. Childress, of course, was Vikings head coach from 2006 through the 10th game of the 2010 season].
Q: What’s your career highlight as a coach?
A: “Being a part of championships. No question. Winning two Super Bowls in the two conferences. One in Tampa Bay [Super Bowl XXXVII] in the NFC and one in Pittsburgh [XLIII] in the AFC. It doesn’t get any better than that. That’s one thing I want to help bring here to Minnesota. That’s the goal.”
Q: To the people who don’t know, describe the feeling of celebrating a Super Bowl win. What are you thinking as the confetti is coming down?
A: “Just all the hard work paying off and how happy you are for the players, the coaches, the fans, the families of those involved. You’ve done it. It’s something you’ve worked extremely hard for and had a lot of luck and hard work that paid off. To experience that, it’s something you’ll never forget. And once you taste it, you will always want more.”
Q: You started coaching at Pasadena City College in 1985. Tell us how far the NFL is 2014 is from Pasadena City College in 1985.
A: “I was just a raw rookie trying to learn. To the point where I am today, I’ve seen a lot and been around a lot of great players. I’ve learned from a lot of great players and hopefully I’ve played at least a small part in helping them develop as players and achieving their goals. From back in 1985 to today is night and day.”
Q: Did you have to line the fields or take out the trash or anything like that back in 1985?
A: “We didn’t have to line the fields, but it was close to that. Just doing a lot of odd jobs. Running a lot of errands. Making calls in recruiting, supervising the weight room. There’s class checks, calling around trying to find jobs for current players. There’s a lot of ins and outs that you do.”
Q: Finish this sentence: “In high school, I wanted to be …”
A: “I wanted to be an NFL star.”
Q: And when that didn’t happen, how did you accept it?
A: “It was no problem for me. I got older and adjusted my dreams and goals. I realized I wasn’t going to be an NFL star because I wasn’t good enough. No. 1. No. 2, I wanted to play professionally and get paid to prove I could do it, show that I had some type of ability to play. And I did that. But I was a realist and knew that I had hit the limit and that it was all going to be downhill from there. From there, I went to the next step and became a football coach, whether it was high school, college or wherever.”
Q: Best player you ever coached and why?
A: “Wow. You can’t answer that in one player, but if you just go by record, you’d have to say Emmitt Smith [with the Cardinals in 2004] because he’s the all-time NFL leader in rushing.”
Q: What made Emmitt, Emmitt?
A: “A special guy, in terms of his preparation. He was special in his attention to details. He was driven, he was self-motivated. He had all the things you have to have to say you’re going to be good at running the ball in the National Football League: Vision, instincts, change of direction.”
Q: At this point, what do you know about Adrian Peterson besides the obvious that we all know?
A: “Nothing. That’s what I’m looking forward to, working with him and the other running backs. He is a special player. You know that from the first moment you watch him play. He’s a special talent, and with that, you know that he must be a special worker. So I would imagine that he’s no different from the other great players that I’ve coached and been around. They work extremely hard and they put in the time.”
Q: Knowing that you weren’t good enough to be an NFL star, is it harder to coach an Emmitt Smith or an Adrian Peterson, guys who were or are superstars in the league?
A: “No. It isn’t. What you try to get them to see is you’re never going to ask one to do something that you didn’t ask the other. I’ve coached 95 different running backs in the National Football League, whether it be in meetings, practices or game day. That’s 95 running backs who have sat in a room with me. I’ve never asked one of them to do something that I didn’t ask No. 95 to do. It’s all the same. It’s about the fundamentals, attention to details and the preparation.”
Q: You really had to pay your dues in coaching. From Pasadena City College to two years at Los Angeles Southwest College to Southern Illinois, Wyoming and Iowa State before getting your first NFL job. Did you ever consider quitting?
A: “Never. I love what I do and I always love where I’m doing it.”
Q: If you hadn’t become a coach, what would you be doing?
A: “I would be a teacher. Most likely at the high school level. Or at some point an instructor at a community college.”
Q: You’ve coached multiple positions and at one point were a defensive coordinator in college. How did you end up settling in as a running backs coach once you got to the NFL?
A: “It started at Iowa State back in 1995. The head coach, Dan McCarney, asked me to change positions from defensive backs. I agreed. It was a move up in terms of the level of coaching. I was coaching at the University of Wyoming. Going to Iowa State was a move up. We weren’t very good, but that was the spark for me changing over from defense to offense. Once I got in that position, I enjoyed it and poured everything I had into it. It’s been great for my career.”
Q: Why leave Pittsburgh, one of the league’s elite franchises, for the same position in Minnesota?
A: “At some point, you’re always looking to explore and see what else is out there. It was just time for something different. I spent seven years in Pittsburgh with the organization, the players and the community. I was looking to do something a little different so that’s why I’m here.”
Q: Describe your relationship with Norv Turner.
A: “I was his running backs coach with the Washington Redskins . It was an awesome experience. I was coming to work Norv late in the spring when I got there. It was a similar system to what we had in New England with Ernie Zampese, so there was a level of understanding of what he wanted. I just had to learn the players and his terminology. It was a great fit and I really enjoyed my time working with him in Washington and look forward to working with him here. Norv is the same. He’s a great people person. He’s obviously got a great background working with high level offenses, so I think it’s going to be exciting.”
Q: What is your strength and what would you say is your ultimate career goal?
A: “My attention to detail, my preparation, are my stengths. My ultimate goal is to climb as high as I can in this profession and see where that takes me. I have no idea where that will be or where it will lead to, other than the next step is coordinator or head coach. But for right now, my goal is to work hard, prepare hard and coach the running backs to the best of my ability, go to the Super Bowl, win it and then see what happens.”
Q: It would seem that the only coaching a guy like Adrian would need is someone to hand him the ball and step aside. How do you coach an Adrian Peterson?
A: “I think you coach him the say way you coach Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees. The coaches and men who work with those players recognize that No. 1, their talents, their greatness, their attention to details. You as a coach, you are their eyes. It’s about preparation. It’s about planning. It’s about relationships. You work on that. That’s how you work with those players. You teach them the gameplan and then great players do what they do best, which is make great plays. You try not to over-coach them. They’re all veterans, they’ve all had levels of success. There’s a certain point where you have to step back and let these players do what they do best. Coaching them is no different than coaching most great players. You prepare him, you teach and then you step back. You just kind of point him in the right direction.
So how in the world do we make assumptions about an NFL team's schedule in April? Heck, even the NFL draft isn't in April anymore.
Teams aren't fully assembled, practices haven't been held and nary a bone has broken nor ligament torn.
In case we, the media, haven't beaten it into you by now, it's a violent game that's unfit for the human body. Therefore, a game on paper in the spring tends to look a tad different in reality in the fall. For example, a can't-win road game against the Packers and Aaron Rodgers on paper is but one broken collarbone from becoming a blown-opportunity tie against the Packers and Scott Tolzien.
But we are allowed to have initial thoughts, so here's the primary one that jumped out at me after the Vikings schedule was released Wednesday night:
If Mike Zimmer really is the self-proclaimed `fixer,' he better be a quick fixer.
The toughest part of the schedule -- ON PAPER -- comes in the first five weeks.
A season-opener on the road, even if it is St. Louis, is never good (see: at Detroit, 2013). And then things get really tough.
Until the Vikings prove they have a quarterback and can stop the other team's quarterback, a good place to start evaluating their schedule is at the quarterback position. And Weeks 2-5 features Brady followed by Brees on the road; followed by Matt Ryan and a presumably healthy set of giant, skilled receivers; followed by Rodgers on the road on a short week (Thursday night).
If Zimmer's defense isn't fixed by the time the Vikings return from St. Louis, it may be broken beyond repair by the time Week 6 rolls around.
Your author has never been known to run around flapping his arms in giddy anticipation of the NFL releasing its schedule. Your author has often wondered, "Hmm, these people already know who and where their teams are playing. And chances are they're not sports writers praying for a MSP-to-MIA flight in DEC. So what gives? Other than the inherent irrational behavior defined in the term fan, why are these people so impatient over and excited about WHEN these games will be played?"
The NFL apparently will make its grand announcement at some point this week. So time is running out for your author to find a reason for his heart to skip a beat while anticipating the schedule release.
Desperate for an angle, he thought of a personal worst-case scenario: Vikings at Miami in September. Talk about, "Noooooooo!"
Plus, if you're a Vikings fan, you don't want the Purple heading to South Beach to bake in the September heat, do you?
Well, upon further review, we discovered the Dolphins' once-dominant home-field advantage in that September heat melted away eight years ago.
The media in South Florida claim it started to fade when then-coach Nick Saban had a climate-controlld practice bubble built in 2006. Don Shula getting older and retiring might deserve some recognition up high somewhere.
Anyway, BB -- Before the Bubble -- the Dolphins were 44-9 at home in September from 1970 to 2006. AB -- After the Bubble -- they are 2-8 (although they were 1-0 last September). This 10-game flop at home in favorable elements includes:
. An 18-point loss to the Raiders.
. A loss to Brett Favre and the Jets during the 11-5 2008 season.
. A home-opening loss in 2010 after a 2-0 start on the road.
. A loss to the Patriots, who rolled up 622 yards in a prime-time blowout. Cornerback Benny Sapp was so bad in that game, he was released the next day. Weeks later, he ended up back in Minnesota for his second stint with the Vikings.
So maybe it really doesn't matter when the Vikings play the Dolphins. Uh, oh. Now what? Anybody know Tampa Bay's home record in September?
As teams starting anew at head coach, the Vikings, Lions, Browns, Buccaneers, Texans, Titans and Redskins were given a two-week head start on their offseason conditioning programs. That head start is coming to an end this week, so we talked with Vikings linebacker Audie Cole about the importance of being allowed to get a jump on most of the league.
“Right now, I don’t think any of us is an expert on what’s going on defensively,” Cole said. “We’re still learning what the coaches want us to do because it’s different than what we’ve done. We need to pick it up as fast as we can, and to have two [more] weeks helps.”
No position on any of the teams mentioned above better illustrates the need for a head start than the Vikings’ linebackers. The Vikings have played the same defense with essentially the same linebacker responsibilities since 2006. So that means even 31-year-old Chad Greenway has never played in any other defense than the Cover-2-oriented system that came to town with Brad Childress and then-first-year defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin eight years ago.
Until April 7, the new coaching staff and its players weren’t allowed to even talk football. If they passed in the hallways at Winter Park, they could say “hello,” “how’s it goin’,” “boy, some weather we’re having, eh?” But they couldn’t talk football, per rules of the Collective Bargaining Agreement established in 2011.
“It was a little strange,” tight end Kyle Rudolph admitted this week.
The Vikings' coaches, led by new head coach Mike Zimmer, went about their business. Zimmer had a new team-meeting area with theater-like seating built in the corner of the indoor practice facility. He overhauled the strength and conditioning program, and made changes to the nutrition program.
Then, on April 7, Zimmer and his coaches were allowed to teach football, at least off the field. They could meet with players and discuss actual football. Go through the playbook. Those kinds of things. But as far as on the field, only strength and conditioning activities are allowed at this point.
The Vikings, however, will get an extra voluntary veteran minicamp, which also should help. Especially at linebacker, where the Vikings have eight players, several potential answers and only one confirmed starter in Greenway. But even Greenway’s role is uncertain.
“We’re still learning what the plays are called and how the coaches want us to play,” Cole said. “It’s not that big a deal. I mean there’s only so many things you can do. Maybe, I don’t know, we won’t be as much of a Cover 2 team as we used to be. But we’re finding all of that out now.”
If one were to pencil in – lightly – a prospective depth chart at linebacker, it might look something like this:
MLB: Jasper Brinkley, Cole, Simoni Lawrence.
WLB: Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti, Terrell Manning.
SLB: Greenway, Larry Dean.
Brinkley was the starter in the middle two years ago, but was allowed to leave via free agency to Arizona. It didn’t work out for him there and now he’s back with a tentative sliver of a lead on Cole. Hodges, a second-year player now, is highly-regarded, but wasn’t able to seize the weak-side job against weak competition a year ago.
Of course, because of the new defense, there’s potentially some new position flexibility that the coaches will explore during the minicamps. Even Greenway, who has been a strong-side backer his entire career, might move around.
“I think I could play any of the three positions,” Cole said. “I think the way we’re doing it, anybody could play any of the positions. That’s a good thing to have. You can always have people to fit into the puzzle. We’ve only scratched the surface on what we’re going to do, so it’s going to take us a while to figure this out.
“But I think if you talk to any of the linebackers, they’d say we have the guys we need on the roster. We all think each one of us can play.”
That may be true, but it’s highly unlikely that the Vikings will come out of next month’s draft without at least one more linebacker in the mix. And depending on how the first round shakes out, that new face may come in as the top dog at one of the three starting positions.
If there is one peer that Adrian Peterson considers his closest rival and the guy he really, really, REALLY wants to top, it would no doubt be Chris Johnson.
Peterson has never come out and said that. But anyone who has interviewed him since 2009 knows this to be the case.
When the 2009 season began, Peterson was, well, Peterson. In the eighth game of his 2007 rookie season, he ran for a league-record 296 yards. In his second season, he ran for a Vikings franchise-record 1,760 yards.
Johnson, who joined the league a year later than Peterson, was a 1,200-yard rusher as a 2008 rookie. Good, but no Peterson.
In 2009, however, things began to change, at least temporarily. For the first time in his three seasons, Peterson was being asked to name the best running back in the league.
It’s a setup question when tossed out to someone of Peterson’s abilities. Naturally, Peterson bristled at the notion that Johnson was better than him.
But Johnson kept piling up the yards before reaching the exclusive 2,000-yard club (2,006). Meanwhile, the same question kept being lobbed at Peterson and Johnson just to see what they’d say.
Johnson wasn’t shy about declaring himself the best running back in the league. Meanwhile, Peterson’s initial reaction usually was to answer the question with a question: “Who do you think is the best?” Then he’d smile and keep the conversation professional, but assert his competitive side.
In 2011, Johnson was a training camp holdout. It took the Titans coughing up $54 million over four years to get him back to work. Peterson congratulated him. Weeks later, Peterson topped him with a seven-year deal worth up to $100 million.
In 2012, Peterson joined Johnson in the 2,000-yard club, rushing for 2,097 in the season that immediately followed a knee reconstruction.
Now, two seasons later, Johnson has been released by the Titans as the age of the devalued running back position marches on. Tennessee chose a $4 million salary cap hit and no Johnson over a $10 million cap hit and Johnson. And while Johnson didn’t have the greatest season a year ago, he’s still a durable and productive back under the age of 30 (29 on Sept. 23).
Johnson has missed only one game in his career and is one of only six running backs to rush for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first six season. Four of them are in the Hall of Fame.
But a career-low 3.9-yard average per carry was lackluster enough for the Titans to dump him.
On a conference call last week, Peterson was asked about a trend that’s seen a pass-oriented league devalue running backs. Former Vikings running back Toby Gerhart’s $4.5 million in guaranteed money is the most by a 2014 free-agent running back and is less than kickers Robbie Gould ($8.85 million) and Dan Bailey ($7.5 million) and punter Pat McAfee ($5.3 million). Johnson is expected to land a relatively modest deal, and no running back is expected to be taken in the first round of the draft for a second straight year.
“You know, it’s just kind of how it is, unfortunately,” Peterson said. “There are a couple of guys who are different from that. I feel like I’m one of them.”
Peterson then made it clear that his one-time rival wasn’t one of them last season.
“Chris Johnson, maybe if he would have ran for 1,800 yards, he’d have a different story about how much he could be bringing in [this year],” Peterson said.
“It’s all about what have you done for me lately. Unfortunately for the guys who were in free agency this year didn’t have incredible numbers or incredible seasons to be able to get the type of [money] they wanted in free agency. I feel like that’s it. I feel like me and a couple of other guys are going to keep it alive as far as running backs being able to come out and keep the running back position at a top level. That comes with guys putting in the hard work and being able to produce and show that when they step on the field.”
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