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Vikings turn to Rick Dennison, a man of 'persistence,' to fix run game and offensive line

Rick Dennison set up the perfect segue for his thoughts on the Vikings run game when talking the start of his NFL playing career, which began as an undrafted college tight end in 1982. A master's degree in fluid mechanics in hand, Dennison eschewed what likely was a promising career in engineering – air pollution control, to be precise – so he could stumble while chasing a dream of playing football.

"I kept failing and kept failing," Dennison said.

Failure didn't deter the Vikings' new 60-year-old run game coordinator and offensive line coach, who thrice returned to one word Thursday when asked what makes a great run game during his introductory press conference. Dennison eventually latched onto the Broncos roster as a linebacker in 1982. A year later, a new teammate named Gary Kubiak would eventually become his close friend and loyal coworker for decades to come.

On a Sunday-to-Sunday basis, it sounds like the Vikings' run game will seek a similar breakthrough no matter how many failures precede it. Roughly 22 carries per game last season were among the fewest in the league, an imbalance Dennison – who oversaw the Bills' No. 6 run game in 2017 – was hired to correct.

"Persistence, like I said, and a good runner," Dennison said. "We feel like we have that right there."

More carries for running back Dalvin Cook won't be the only attempted fix. Coaches began the offense's makeover by poring over new run schemes. At the center is Dennison, who is tasked with reworking a previously zone blocking-heavy approach Kubiak said Thursday was too predictable.

As a coaching disciple of Mike Shanahan's, Dennison said his focus lies on properly meshing run and play-action pass concepts to create a more unpredictable offense. It's a reason why he's looking forward to working with quarterback Kirk Cousins, one of the NFL's most prolific play-action passers who was drafted by Shanahan's Redskins in 2012.

"[Cousins] worked in Washington with a guy that taught me a lot about the ball game," Dennison said. "I know he's learned quite a bit of that, so I'm looking forward to that."

From a work perspective, Dennison fills the void left by last summer's unexpected passing of Tony Sparano, the Vikings' former run game coordinator and line coach. The Vikings do expect Dennison's 10 seasons as a coordinator to provide a similar veteran presence on staff.

“I think it’ll be great,” Dennison said. “I’ve always done what the head coach wanted me to do. I’ve never been a rebel in that. I think it’ll be fine. Obviously, we want to threaten the defense, make them play all plays — not just the run or just the pass.”

A smooth collaboration, unlike the recently rocky ones under coordinators John DeFilippo and Norv Turner, will be required.

Dennison, Gary Kubiak's coordinator in Houston and Denver, described with Kubiak a “fluid” play-calling process, which 36-year-old coordinator Kevin Stefanski could expect on Sundays. Stefanski will call plays from the sideline while Kubiak said he'll advise from the booth.

"I don't think I went to a game where I called everything myself," Kubiak said. "Whether it was Mike [Shanahan] coming on the headset saying 'Hey Koob, what about this?' or whether it was Rick Dennison or Mike Sherman or Kyle Shanahan, who worked for me. I think as a group, Kevin's got a job to do. It's our job as coaches to help him in any way we can. When you've got people who have called games – Rick Dennison has called games as coordinator in Buffalo – I think we have a lot of experience around him to help him out."

Vikings face familiar question with kicker Bailey ahead of free agency

Dan Bailey is one of a few big-name veteran kickers headed for unrestricted free agency in a month.

We could see musical chairs movement around the league with the Vikings among teams likely eyeing free agent options led by Matt Bryant, Stephen Gostkowski, Robbie Gould and Bailey. The conversation in Minnesota starts with Bailey, who is coming off another career-low, 75-percent season on field goals that could have the Vikings seeking a fifth kicker in four years.

“I think given the circumstance, on a personal level, I came in and thought it went O.K.,” Bailey said at the end of the season. “[In December], I thought the whole field goal operation, we were really gelling and working well. I think it was definitely trending upwards.”

Bailey made his last five field goal attempts after missing three of 11 tries in October, his first full month after taking over for ousted rookie Daniel Carlson in Week 3. He missed eight kicks (one extra point) overall. One was a 42 yarder taking a hard left turn in strong winds at MetLife Stadium. Another was blocked. Al Riveron, the NFL’s VP of Officiating, later said a penalty flag should’ve been enforced on the Seahawks for leverage. An official picked up a flag on the play and the block stood.

Five more misses dropped Bailey to 29th in field goal percentage (21 of 28). The Vikings coaching staff is once again looking to improve that mark, whether with Bailey or not. This time, a new special teams coordinator, Marwan Maalouf, will give the discussion a fresh set of eyes. Maalouf will be made available to reporters for the first time on Wednesday.

Bailey did shore up the Vikings’ extra-point operation by making 30 of 31 attempts. He also rebounded from two first-half misses in Philadelphia with a 52-yard field goal in the fourth quarter of the Vikings’ 23-21 win. One of his unblocked misses, a 48-yard kick wide left during the first quarter in New England, came during a loss.

Despite consecutive seasons at 75 percent, Bailey is still the NFL’s fifth-most accurate field goal kicker of all time with a career mark at 86.6 percent. 

“This is a pretty good organization to play for,” said the 31-year-old Bailey. “I enjoyed my time here. We had nine games inside, including Detroit. That’s kind of hard to beat. There are a lot of positives about being up here. Obviously, it’s not completely up to me as well.”

General manager Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer will have to decide whether Bailey’s five misses, those unaffected by ridiculous wind gusts and uncalled penalties, are enough to move on despite his Sept. 18 signing that deprived Bailey of much prep time with his new holder and long snapper. Bailey said the groin injury that contributed to his 15-of-20 field goal exit from Dallas was a “nonfactor” last season.

“Working with the same guys over a period of time is huge for us,” Bailey said. “You’re talking about three guys working collectively to do one job in 1.3 seconds? So, the timing, rhythm and all that stuff has to be on for everybody to be confident and comfortable.”

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