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.
Spending part of the morning with Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway as he interacted with children at Hudson Hosptial & Clinics in Wisconsin was a healthy reminder that most NFL players are decent men who add value to their communities. Unfortunately, they just don't grab the headlines and the spotlight the way the lunkheads do when they get into trouble.
Greenway traveled to Hudson as part of his "Lead The Way Foundation," joking that as a Viking, he "crossed the border, but not very far because we have to tread lightly over here." He and his wife, Jenni, were well-received -- no Cheeseheads were spotted -- during an event in which they unveiled "Chad's Locker," a program that provides patients and their families access to kid-friendly technology during hospital visits.
An actual locker, labeled "Chad's Locker" and all decked out in purple with a photo of Greenway in uniform, was opened to reveal several iPads, video gaming systems, laptops and other items. This was the third hospital in the Twin Cities area that the Greenways have partnered with as they grow their "Chad's Locker" idea.
Greenway said he was made aware of a similar idea before he had children. He thought it was a good idea. But not as good as when his children came along.
"We've spent a lot of time in the hospital the last year with my dad," said Greenway, whose father is again battling leukemia after a brief remission. "When you're in that moment in time in the hospital, it's huge to have something for your kids to occupy their time. You need them to behave, but it's also unrealistic for them to just sit there for five, six, seven hours with nothing to do."
One of the hospital's care-givers took it to another level, recalling how a young boy was able to use one of the iPads from the locker to distract himself during a lengthy chemotherapy session.
I also caught up with Greenway on a number of hot topics concerning the Vikings. Here's a look:
On the release of veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield: "Obviously, when it comes to free agency, you never know what's going to happen. Even from a personal standpoint, you worry because if your cap number is high, you could possibly be that guy. Antoine didn't see it coming, obviously. To me, he's one of the top players on our football team. Veteran leader. Great guy in the locker room. Hard worker. And even at his age, he plays at such a high level. I really hope they can work something out and get him back on our team because he makes us a lot better.
On reaching out to Winfield to see if he'll return (The Vikings have said the door is open): "I haven't reached out to him yet. It probably would be a good idea for some of us veterans to reach out to him just to say, `Hey, we want you back.' If there's a chance he can work it out to come back, that would be great. It also becomes personal because he's been here nine years. He's had a long career just here. It was unfortunate to see it, but obviously we all understand the type of business it is and the job we're asked to do. Hopefully, I can talk to him. Hopefully, a bunch of guys can talk to him and tell him if he wants to play a couple more years, we'd love for it to be with us. "
On the likelihood that middle linebacker will be manned by a rookie: "we'll have to see how things shake out. We don't know what they'll do. They could move some people around. They could change some positions. It depends on how the draft goes or if they reach out to someone in free agency. Obviously, Erin [Henderson] has experience at that position, so that's something you could think about doing as well. If they want to move me there, I don't know. I'm open to whatever, but I'm not sure that's what they're thinking. But I do know that if it's a young guy who ends up starting there, it can work. Every position at some point you have to go young. So it's a normal process that takes place."
On the Percy Harvin trade: "You look at the move from a football standpoint and he's obviously one of our top players. The output that he was producing at when he was healthy was pretty amazing. The talent he has is amazing. It's hard to see a guy like that go, but obviously management thought it was a good move for our football team. And the things that we got in return for the talent level that he has is pretty deep as well. And picking up Greg [Jennings} helps. We'll be happy not to have to play against him anymore. He's also such a great character addition to our team. Just a great guy all the way around. But it's hard to see Percy go. He could be MVP of the league. Last year, I was stumping for him midseason when he was healthy and doing so well for us. That doesn't change just because he's on another team. He's got some amazing talents."
On whether Harvin's sometimes poor attitude ever spilled over to the locker room: "What he was dealing with when it came to [General Manager] Rick [Spielman] and [Coach] Leslie [Frazier], that was in a private setting. We don't get to hear or know all that's going on. There were a couple of instances with him when [players] were around, but that's something that needs to be kept in the locker room, even from the standpoint that he's now on another team. For Percy, the work ethic he has and the talent he has, he put it all out there for us. As a teammate, you have to appreciate that."
More on Jennings: "Greg's got tremendous ability. I know people question his age, which makes me worry because we're the same age [Greenway is 30, Jennings will be 30 in September]. But he can still get vertical over the top of the defense. And from what I hear and know, he runs excellent routes. He's going to be there to bail out Christian [Ponder] when he needs a bailout option. And he can play the slot as well. There are going to be a lot of things he can do to ease that transition away from Percy. We do lack some depth at receiver right now, but I'm sure we'll be able to pick some guys up. We feel pretty confident about the job that Rick and his staff do."
On the league's decision to outlaw the `peel-back' blocks, making it a penalty for an offensive player to throw a low blindside block on a defender even in the box: "I'm in favor of that rule change. I've caught a couple of those in my day. At that point, when it happens, you're just saying, `Ah, it's part of the game.' That's how it works. You gather yourself and try to go on and play. But if you're talking about health and safety, you have to talk about health and safety of defensive players as well."
On the league's decision to outlaw running backs lowering their heads and delivering a blow with the crown of their helmet outside the tackle box and at least three yards down the field: "It's hard for us when you have running back like Adrian [Peterson]. But I think we've come to find out that if there's a rule that's going to be made, it's going to be administered the same way throughout the league. So it might affect us more than many other teams, but at the same point we're going to get that benefit as well. I don't necessarily agree with it. I don't agree with taking the physical portion of the game away. In any way. But I also realize that it is what it is. I'm not going to go out there and stump and say we should do this and get anything accomplished. I'm better off saying, `If these are the rules, then I'm better off playing within the rules.'"
The NFL’s annual meeting wraps up this afternoon from the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. This morning, all 16 NFC coaches held court for the conference’s coaches breakfast in the Grand Ballroom. Included: Seattle’s Pete Carroll, the proud new coach of standout receiver Percy Harvin, a Viking for his first four seasons in the league but now a Seahawks after last week’s blockbuster trade.
I had a chance to briefly pick Carroll’s brain on the move to land Harvin and how he hopes to wrap around his brain around the receiver’s fiery personality, which at times is both his greatest strength and most dangerous weakness.
Here’s a quick taste of Carroll’s thoughts ...
Before the trade occurred, when you were trying to do some background on Percy and familiarize yourself with his situation, what specifically did you want to glean from Darrell Bevell, who had obvious comfort with him? What was some of his feedback
Carroll: Darrell had nothing but the best things to say. He said he had had a great relationship with Percy, which I found out after talking to Percy, that it was reciprocated. They work together really well. Darrell raved about his competitiveness. He raved about his work ethic. He raved about his talent. And it was a total positive, supportive perspective that Darrel had. So we felt compelled that that was a perspective that we had to call on, what Darrell provided. That cemented the idea for us as we were looking into it.
In some ways, Percy’s personality can be a bit of a riddle. And people who know him well will tell you that his competitive fire is admirable but yet can get the best of him at times. How do you sense you’ll be able to manage that and channel that fire in the right direction.
Carroll: I think it’s that way with the greatest of the great athletes. I think that’s a positive. Sometimes they push the limits. But they’re like that because that’s who they are. You know what I mean? So I don’t have any problem with that. I have no problem with guys being highly, highly competitive. And so I think there’s an understanding there that’s needed. We’ve already talked about it. I want him to be as competitive as he can be, that way we make sure he’s always helping this football team. So that’s one thing I’ve had to learn, dealing with young kids. That nature has made him what he is. So if you think that that’s a problem, you’re missing the boat I think. So we’re going to figure out how to help him along the way so he can translate that competitiveness to great play and championships and all that kind of stuff. I’m not worried about that one bit.
He was glowing at his introductory press conference. Did you have an immediate sense of why specifically he was so excited for a new start and to join the offense you guys have?
Carroll: I think, from what Percy said, it first started when he began to hear about Russell. He loves Russell’s nature. He loves his approach to the game and his outlook about working hard and competing at all times. That resonated with Percy. And he started to check into it. And I think Russell wanted to see Percy. He came in and met with him when Percy was at our facility as well. Percy had a little background with me [from being recruited to USC]. He had tremendous background with Darrell. He knew that this was a young team coming up. So I think there were a lot of things that added up. So whatever he said, I know he felt very much in his heart.
So what are the odds that the Vikings will win Super Bowl XLVIII?
People who earn and protect their money against your wagers say 50-1. At least that's what the online sports book Bovada has the Vikings at as the first week of free agency winds to a close.
Those odds come in tied for 22nd in the 32-team league. They're also the longest of the four NFC North teams. The Packers are at 12-1, tied for fifth. The Bears are tied for 12th at 25-1, while the Lions are tied for 16th at 35-1.
The Broncos and 49ers are tied for first at 7-1. The Jaguars are last at 150-1.
And in Seattle, the trade for Percy Harvin moved the Seahawks from 12-1 to 10-1.
No word on how crazy one has to be to place a bet on the NFL, let alone a bet in March on who's going to win the Super Bowl in 11 months.
The question with Greg Jennings has never been about ability. Over seven NFL seasons, Jennings has caught 425 passes for 6,537 yards and 53 TDs. He’s a versatile weapon who is adept at both stretching the field from the outside or keeping defenses honest as a smooth-moving slot guy.
He is, for all intents and purposes, exactly the kind of proven and consistent playmaker that the Vikings’ receiving corps needs. Yet when free agency neared, the questions about Jennings circled.
At this point -- with Jerome Simpson and his 97 career catches as the top dog in the receiving unit – the Vikings are in no position to be picky. And that’s why, with ESPN’s Adam Schefter reporting that Jennings will visit Winter Park on Thursday, the Vikings would be wise not to let him leave without a purple jersey and a rubber-stamped contract.
This visit should be a business interview, a way of unifying a vision and hammering out the finer print of the contract details. The Vikings have had since late Friday night to communicate at length with Jennings’ agent, Eugene Parker. You can bet Parker has an asking price, one that’s moved over the past several days. And you can bet Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman has a thought in mind for what he’d like to ultimately pay.
But as Spielman said Tuesday afternoon about the chaos and unpredictability of free agency, “This is a very fluid business.”
Indeed it is.
At this point, so many other free agent receivers are off the board. Mike Wallace is in Miami. Wes Welker has gone to Denver. Danny Amendola has landed in New England. Donnie Avery is a Chief. Brandon Gibson, reports say, has visits scheduled with the Jets, Dolphins and Titans.
The Vikings? They’ve always vowed to be patient in free agency, to make sure they find guys who fit their system, their character profile and their budget. But to this point, the Vikings have given out six contracts this week, all of them re-signings of players that were already on the roster.
The biggest move by far so far was Monday’s trade or Percy Harvin to Seattle, followed a day later by the surprise release of Antoine Winfield.
The Vikings have lost their top playmaker in the passing game and their linchpin leader on defense. In a pass-happy league, they’ve depleted their receiving corps and their secondary.
At some point, they need a splash to replenish the talent pool in a major way. And there’s no way they should allow themselves – nor had they ever planned to – to get to April’s draft with Simpson as their top receiver.
That’s why today’s reported visit with Jennings shouldn’t be a getting-to-know-you encounter. It should be a determined effort to provide third-year quarterback Christian Ponder a real weapon. Welker’s two-year, $12 million deal with the Broncos was a huge power-shift move in the AFC, taking the league’s most prolific pass catcher over the past six years and moving him from one Super Bowl contender to another. But Welker’s contract may have also been a shifting of power in Jennings’ negotiating leverage. Sure, there have been the mammoth deals for receivers – six years, $67 million for Harvin; five years $65 million for Wallace; five years, $56 million for Dwayne Bowe.
But now, wouldn’t it make sense that Jennings’ price tag slides closer to that Welker ballpark. If so, the Vikings should be quietly celebrating. And they should be doing everything they can to make sure that Jennings is their guy.
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