Craig: Vikings feel their lack of depth

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 14, 2011 - 6:35 AM

Successful teams have backup plans to absorb injuries, one more thing missing this year.

Packers rookie D.J. Smith intercepted a pass against Oakland on Sunday.

Photo: Rick Wood, McClatchy Tribune

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The 13-0 Packers are giving the 2-11 Vikings more than an 11-game beatdown in the NFC North.

En route to a probable second consecutive Super Bowl, the Packers are educating the Vikings and other teams with depleted rosters that injuries, while bothersome, are no longer a valid excuse for losing in the NFL.

Like the Patriots did in becoming the Team of the 2000s, the Packers are getting an early jump on the 2010s by proving that teams don't become great because they happened to bumble their way into a top-three draft pick. Greatness comes when precise harmony between the scouting, personnel and coaching departments continuously feeds an ailing roster with obscure gems such as Ryan Grant, James Starks, Frank Zombo, Erik Walden, Sam Shields, Tramon Williams and, well, you get the idea.

"That's something I've given a lot of thought to, particularly looking at our team this year and being in the role that I'm now in and having a lot more say in how we build our roster," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "Look around our league and see what happens when you lose a front-line player, how big a dropoff it is on certain teams. Our team is not a whole lot different. It's something I hope to address with our personnel people after the season."

Patriots coach Bill Belichick's philosophy is to build his depth 65 players deep because that, he has said, is what it typically takes to get through an NFL season. Teams have 53-man active rosters and seven-man practice squads, so Belichick's point is he needs at least five more players at positions across the board that he can pluck from at any moment, insert into the Patriots' offensive or defensive systems and not break stride.

It's not easy. But it is possible.

"That's going to be the key going forward for us," Frazier said. "Myself, [Vice President of Player Personnel] Rick Spielman and his scouts understanding exactly what we need to win here. To create that quality depth, our scouts have to know as much about what we're looking for as I do.

"So they've got to be well-versed in what we're looking for in a wide receiver, a running back, a defensive back, a lineman, everything. What fits what we do. Not necessarily what would fit in New England or Green Bay."

Eight years ago, the Patriots forever chopped the legs from beneath anyone who chooses to use injuries as an excuse. That year, New England used 42 different starters and still won Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004. The 42 starters were a record for a division winner until the Patriots won the AFC East with 45 different starters two years later.

In between those two seasons, the Patriots won Super Bowl XXIX with a secondary as depleted, if not more so, than the one the Vikings are using right now. By the time the Patriots got to the Super Bowl, their nickelback was receiver Troy Brown and their fourth cornerback was Earthwind Moreland. If that latter name sounds familiar it's because Belichick signed him off the Vikings' practice squad that season. Moreland never had played a regular-season game.

In Green Bay, where General Manager Ted Thompson continuously feeds coach Mike McCarthy's victory machine, the Packers won the Super Bowl last season with 16 players on injured reserve. Six of them were starters. This year, the Vikings are heading toward their worst record in franchise history with half as many players and regular starters on injured reserve.

In Sunday's 30-point victory over the Raiders, the Packers were without inside linebackers A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop. No problem. D.J. Smith, a 5-11 rookie sixth-round draft pick from Appalachian State, started and intercepted a pass on his sixth snap of the game. The Vikings haven't intercepted a pass in eight games.

The Packers also were without Andrew Quarless, one of their many talented tight ends. No problem. Ryan Taylor, a rookie seventh-rounder from North Carolina, stepped in and caught a 4-yard touchdown pass on his first offensive snap in the NFL.

"There are teams that are falling by the wayside because of injuries, but there also are some that are able to overcome it," Frazier said. "Look at Houston. To get to your third quarterback and still be able to do what they've done? That tells you something about their quarterback, T.J. Yates. But it also tells you something about their personnel people to be able to find a guy like that to build with."

Mark Craig • mcraig@startribune.com

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