Bryant McKinnie said he's happy, healthy and 28 pounds lighter than the day his nine-year Vikings career came to a surprise end on Aug. 2.
"I was 383 pounds when I showed up in Mankato for training camp," said McKinnie, now the starting left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens at what he calls his normal playing weight of 355. "Yes, I was heavy. No, I wasn't 400 pounds."
McKinnie sounds happier. For good reason.
He once was a larger-than-life-size symbol of the baggage the Vikings needed to purge for the good of the team. Now, he's atop the AFC North with his 4-1 Ravens while the Vikings are last in the NFC North with a 1-5 record and some serious pass protection issues.
"When we signed him [Aug. 24], I told him this isn't our first rodeo as far as dealing with players that have issues," said Ozzie Newsome, Ravens general manager. "We will take on some of the issues if that player is willing to work with us. Bryant was more than willing. He's met every [weight] mark he was supposed to make and has actually been even better than we thought in making those marks."
McKinnie has started every game this season for a team that's fifth in the league in scoring. He's improving with each game, said Newsome, and gives Baltimore a 10-year veteran and former first-round draft pick who, like him or not, has never missed a game because of injuries or health issues.
"I wish the Vikings well," McKinnie said. "They did what they felt they had to do. I did what I felt I had to do. I'm doing fine. I look around and I can't help but think that things happen for a reason."
McKinnie said he knew his release was coming when his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, threatened to file a grievance against the Vikings for putting McKinnie on the Non-Football Injury (NFI) list. McKinnie said he had already rejected an offer to restructure his contract, per Rosenhaus' advice, in part because the team wanted to move some of his guaranteed money to incentives to reduce his $5.4 million salary cap figure.
"I was on the NFI, but I wasn't injured," McKinnie said. "Knowing the grievance was coming at 3 o'clock the day I was released, and knowing that they had to be under the cap two days later, the only option was to release me."
Coach Leslie Frazier never once said McKinnie was released because of his weight or poor conditioning. He simply said McKinnie was released "in the best interests" of the team.
Because of McKinnie's appearance, however, it was assumed Frazier had used the opportunity as a first-year head coach to take a stand against an out-of-shape player with a checkered past off the field.
The assumptions continued during the three weeks that McKinnie went unsigned. There was speculation that he needed a year to get back in shape and lower his cholesterol to a safe level.
"A year?" said McKinnie, apparently not aware of the rumors. "I played in Week 1. I played well. Against a good player, [Pittsburgh's] James Harrison. And we won the game, 35-7.
"As for my cholesterol, it's been high since I was 22, and they checked me at the combine. It's hereditary. I take medication to control it."
Finding a home
Newsome said it took some time to investigate McKinnie and to then secure the team's preferred two-year deal. Ravens coach John Harbaugh got a positive report from former Vikings coach Brad Childress, with whom he had coached under Andy Reid in Philadelphia. Newsome also got a couple of strong endorsements from two current Ravens who one day will join him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Safety Ed Reed and linebacker Ray Lewis lobbied Newsome hard. Reed and McKinnie were teammates at the University of Miami. Lewis was a Hurricane before them.
"I have a lot of confidence going to the players and asking them about former college teammates," Newsome said. "Ed was giving Bryant a raving endorsement when Ray overheard the conversation.
"Ray comes over to me and said Bryant would fit in with us. When you get Ray and Ed saying, 'Hey, look, if there's additional work that needs to be done with this guy, we're going to do it with him,' that makes the decision easier."
Newsome also liked that McKinnie offered to play right tackle for the first time in his life if Michael Oher, another former first-round draft pick, wanted to stay at left tackle. But Oher, who has experience at right tackle, said it would be best for the team for him to move to right tackle.
Newsome said he'd ideally like to keep McKinnie beyond two seasons and see the younger Oher move back over to left tackle when McKinnie retires.
"That's a comforting factor for me," Newsome said. "But, more importantly, it's also a comforting factor for our young quarterback, Joe Flacco."
Mark Craig • firstname.lastname@example.org