I have told this story before, about how Paul Brown had the second choice in the 1968 NFL draft. That was a draft with a group of great quarterbacks and running backs available, such as Larry Csonka, but the Cincinnati Bengals coach shocked everybody in the room by taking center Bob Johnson of Tennessee with his choice.
When I asked Brown about his choice at the draft — held in a small Chicago hotel room, unlike the spectacle that takes place today — he said how important the center position was and that Johnson would play 15 years for him. Brown wasn’t too far off, as Johnson ended up being with the Bengals for 12.
When it comes to centers, there’s no question John Sullivan is that important to the Vikings, and he is one of the reason the team’s offense was not as effective as it could have been last season, because he played hurt all year.
While Sullivan isn’t the kind of player to use injuries as an excuse for a decline in play, there’s no question that the 2012 first-team All-Pro wasn’t himself last season. But as the first week of training camp came to a conclusion, even Sullivan admitted he is feeling much better this year.
“I don’t know if you’re ever close to 100 percent when you play in the NFL,” said Sullivan, a sixth-round selection in 2008. “You know, it’s difficult to be fully healthy, and everybody deals with different nagging things throughout the year. But I will say this: I feel a lot better right now than I did a year ago.”
Sullivan’s health will go a long way to improving the Vikings offensive line play, a unit that helped Adrian Peterson to a near-NFL-record 2,097 rushing yards in 2012 but struggled comparatively last season. One thing that Sullivan said will also help is that the offensive line will feature the same starting five for the third season in a row.
“Continuity is incredibly important [in the offensive line],” he said. “It takes a while to build chemistry, and when you’re familiar with guys, you know how they’re going to react, it gives you an advantage.
“We’re playing in a new offensive system, obviously we have a jump start on it from OTAs and minicamps, so we feel like we picked up [at the start of training camp] right where we left off. We didn’t have to go back and relearn everything that we did in the spring. There’s still some things to figure out, obviously, with the new system — however, having continuity in the room with the players and having Jeff Davidson back as our coach, it definitely helps us progress very fast.”
Yes, even though it’s a new offense under Norv Turner, the players on the line are the same, and Davidson remained with the team. It’s clear that this will be a big advantage for the Vikings.
“Some things get called differently, some assignments change, but a lot of our terminology stays the same in terms of the techniques we’re using on the offensive line,” Sullivan said. “So you know for the first group, the guys that have played together for a long time, we don’t make many calls when we get on the field, especially when we know what we’re going to do.
“All you’re doing by making calls and communicating is kind of muddying the picture, and giving the defensive linemen an opportunity to know what you’re going to do during a play. So it’s really helpful in the meeting room after practice when we’re discussing things, we can talk about different techniques that we’re using, and that terminology stays the same. Football is football, but the ways you put plays together, the way that certain things are called, that has changed with this new system.”
Expectations high for 2014
Sullivan started as a second-year player when the Vikings reached the NFC Championship Game and was also part of the wild-card team in 2012. He thinks that this team can be greatly improved over last season, and thinks a lot of that will come if they can take on the character of new coach Mike Zimmer.
“Ultimately anything we say right now is just conjecture,” Sullivan said. “We need to go out and prove it. We have a couple weeks to get ready at training camp in pads, then the preseason to get ready for the live show, and once we get to the regular season we’ll see what this team is made of. But we’re going to try to be built in the image of our head coach. We’re not going to talk a whole lot, we’re going to be real tough, and we’re going to go out there and play good football.”
Does Sullivan have any individual goals for this season outside of winning more games? “We do set individual goals, but a lot of times they’re not necessarily measurable,” he said. “You can get a feel, but as an offensive linemen it’s not like I can say, ‘I want to rush for X amount of yards or have Y amount of tackles.’ It’s about improving your technique and being a better leader and things along those lines. You know you have to take feedback from your coaches and then be honest in the assessment of what you see on tape about how well you’re playing and how well you’re achieving those things.”
• This season, to buy a Vikings single-game ticket to the Packers game, you also have to buy a ticket to the Falcons game as well. To buy a single ticket to the Patriots game, you have to purchase a ticket to the Jets game. After going with 64,000 seats at the Metrodome for years, the Vikings will have only 52,000-plus seats at TCF Bank Stadium, with 1,700 bleacher seats being added in the open end of the stadium.