MANKATO – A Face of the Franchise arrives at training camp to hooting, hollering fans with Sharpies, and podium news conferences set before a firing line of cameras flanked by nosey reporters. But what about the Big Toe of the Franchise?
“Yeah,” said a Vikings employee. “[The Big Toe] went in the side door. I don’t think anyone saw him. Veteran move.”
Big, strong, agile and apparently smarter than the average bear-sized nose tackle. That’s Linval Joseph and his surgically repaired and now “110 percent healthy” right big toe. Together, they are the key piece on the pivotal position group for a team setting its sights on the 51st Super Bowl.
“I won a Super Bowl with the Giants [in 2011], so I know what it takes up front and how important it is,” Joseph said when tracked down by phone after the team meeting Thursday evening. “That year, everybody came together at the end and did their job to a T. You trusted the guy next to you. I know this defensive line is capable of the same thing. We’re younger, more athletic, with depth and the tools to win the Super Bowl. We can be as good as we want to be.”
The faces of the franchise — Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson — obviously are vital, but if the Vikings are to reach their first Super Bowl since Jan. 9, 1977, they’ll need to do so the old-fashioned Vikings Way with defensive line as their guiding heartbeat.
“If you look at the Super Bowl champions, they’ve all had defensive lines that had the ability to take games over,” said Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson. “I’ve been harping on my group about building toward that. I can’t say that’s who we are now, but I think we have the talent and the growth to become that.”
Two years ago, when coach Mike Zimmer was hired, his top priority was the defensive line. Joseph and defensive tackle Tom Johnson arrived via free agency, Everson Griffen lived up to his big contract as Jared Allen’s upgraded replacement, Sharrif Floyd played like a first-rounder when healthy and, well, voila.
“We figured we had the pieces,” said left end Brian Robison. “We just didn’t know if it would come together that quickly. Now, for us to make that Super Bowl run, it starts up front with us.”
With 21-year-old end Danielle Hunter coming off a six-sack rookie season and tackle Shamar Stephen back from a knee injury, Patterson has a deeper line than the one he had when he was coaching Hall of Famers John Randle and Chris Doleman in the late 1990s.
“You can’t match a John Randle or a Chris Doleman,” Patterson said. “But from one to nine, I’ve got more overall talent as a group now. And I also don’t think Everson gets the credit that he’s due. I think Everson is one of the top five defensive ends in this league.”
As for the Big Toe of the Franchise, Patterson shoots even higher, saying Joseph was “hands down, the best nose tackle in the league” last year because of his rare combination of strength against double teams and lateral quickness to make plays near the sideline.
Joseph had seven or more tackles and three or more quarterback hurries in the four games before suffering turf toe, a ligament injury that, Joseph says, “felt like my whole foot blew off.” The statement game came in an overtime win against St. Louis. Eight tackles, three for loss, four quarterback hurries and half a sack earned him NFC Defensive Player of the Week.
“If teams try to single-block him, like St. Louis did, he can just take the game over,” Patterson said. “All of their runs gave the illusion of going outside but always ended up right back down the middle. But [running back Todd Gurley] would make his cut and the big bear would be standing right there.”
Joseph went from All-Pro front-runner to missing four of the final five regular-season games. The run defense suffered noticeably and ended up ranking 17th.
“In order to get to the top, I think No. 1, we have to continue to stop the run better,” Patterson said. “We’ve got to be top 10 against the run.”
That’s where the Big Toe of the Franchise comes in to set the tone. Quietly. Without fanfare. Just like reporting day.
“Ah, man, I had things I had to get done,” Joseph said of Thursday’s side-door entrance. “It’s a busy day. It’s time to go to work building a Super Bowl-winning defense.”
Mark Craig covers the NFL for the Star Tribune. E-mail: email@example.com.