Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.


Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.


Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.


Posts about NFC

Schedule could dictate Florida meltdowns -- or not

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated: April 22, 2014 - 11:53 AM

Your author has never been known to run around flapping his arms in giddy anticipation of the NFL releasing its schedule. Your author has often wondered, "Hmm, these people already know who and where their teams are playing. And chances are they're not sports writers praying for a MSP-to-MIA flight in DEC. So what gives? Other than the inherent irrational behavior defined in the term fan, why are these people so impatient over and excited about WHEN these games will be played?"

The NFL apparently will make its grand announcement at some point this week. So time is running out for your author to find a reason for his heart to skip a beat while anticipating the schedule release.

Desperate for an angle, he thought of a personal worst-case scenario: Vikings at Miami in September. Talk about, "Noooooooo!"

Plus, if you're a Vikings fan, you don't want the Purple heading to South Beach to bake in the September heat, do you? 

Well, upon further review, we discovered the Dolphins' once-dominant home-field advantage in that September heat melted away eight years ago.

The media in South Florida claim it started to fade when then-coach Nick Saban had a climate-controlld practice bubble built in 2006. Don Shula getting older and retiring might deserve some recognition up high somewhere.

Anyway, BB -- Before the Bubble -- the Dolphins were 44-9 at home in September from 1970 to 2006. AB -- After the Bubble -- they are 2-8 (although they were 1-0 last September). This 10-game flop at home in favorable elements includes:

. An 18-point loss to the Raiders.

. A loss to Brett Favre and the Jets during the 11-5 2008 season.

. A home-opening loss in 2010 after a 2-0 start on the road.

. A loss to the Patriots, who rolled up 622 yards in a prime-time blowout. Cornerback Benny Sapp was so bad in that game, he was released the next day. Weeks later, he ended up back in Minnesota for his second stint with the Vikings.

So maybe it really doesn't matter when the Vikings play the Dolphins. Uh, oh. Now what? Anybody know Tampa Bay's home record in September?

Cole discusses benefits that two-week head start had for Vikings linebackers

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated: April 18, 2014 - 2:56 PM

As teams starting anew at head coach, the Vikings, Lions, Browns, Buccaneers, Texans, Titans and Redskins were given a two-week head start on their offseason conditioning programs. That head start is coming to an end this week, so we talked with Vikings linebacker Audie Cole about the importance of being allowed to get a jump on most of the league.

“Right now, I don’t think any of us is an expert on what’s going on defensively,” Cole said. “We’re still learning what the coaches want us to do because it’s different than what we’ve done. We need to pick it up as fast as we can, and to have two [more] weeks helps.”

No position on any of the teams mentioned above better illustrates the need for a head start than the Vikings’ linebackers. The Vikings have played the same defense with essentially the same linebacker responsibilities since 2006. So that means even 31-year-old Chad Greenway has never played in any other defense than the Cover-2-oriented system that came to town with Brad Childress and then-first-year defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin eight years ago.

Until April 7, the new coaching staff and its players weren’t allowed to even talk football. If they passed in the hallways at Winter Park, they could say “hello,” “how’s it goin’,” “boy, some weather we’re having, eh?” But they couldn’t talk football, per rules of the Collective Bargaining Agreement established in 2011.

“It was a little strange,” tight end Kyle Rudolph admitted this week.

The Vikings' coaches, led by new head coach Mike Zimmer, went about their business. Zimmer had a new team-meeting area with theater-like seating built in the corner of the indoor practice facility. He overhauled the strength and conditioning program, and made changes to the nutrition program.

Then, on April 7, Zimmer and his coaches were allowed to teach football, at least off the field. They could meet with players and discuss actual football. Go through the playbook. Those kinds of things. But as far as on the field, only strength and conditioning activities are allowed at this point.

The Vikings, however, will get an extra voluntary veteran minicamp, which also should help. Especially at linebacker, where the Vikings have eight players, several potential answers and only one confirmed starter in Greenway. But  even Greenway’s role is uncertain.

“We’re still learning what the plays are called and how the coaches want us to play,” Cole said. “It’s not that big a deal. I mean there’s only so many things you can do. Maybe, I don’t know, we won’t be as much of a Cover 2 team as we used to be. But we’re finding all of that out now.”

If one were to pencil in – lightly – a prospective depth chart at linebacker, it might look something like this:

MLB: Jasper Brinkley, Cole, Simoni Lawrence.

WLB: Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti, Terrell Manning.

SLB: Greenway, Larry Dean.

Brinkley was the starter in the middle two years ago, but was allowed to leave via free agency to Arizona. It didn’t work out for him there and now he’s back with a tentative sliver of a lead on Cole. Hodges, a second-year player now, is highly-regarded, but wasn’t able to seize the weak-side job against weak competition a year ago.

Of course, because of the new defense, there’s potentially some new position flexibility that the coaches will explore during the minicamps. Even Greenway, who has been a strong-side backer his entire career, might move around.

“I think I could play any of the three positions,” Cole said. “I think the way we’re doing it, anybody could play any of the positions. That’s a good thing to have. You can always have people to fit into the puzzle. We’ve only scratched the surface on what we’re going to do, so it’s going to take us a while to figure this out.

“But I think if you talk to any of the linebackers, they’d say we have the guys we need on the roster. We all think each one of us can play.”

That may be true, but it’s highly unlikely that the Vikings will come out of next month’s draft without at least one more linebacker in the mix. And depending on how the first round shakes out, that new face may come in as the top dog at one of the three starting positions.

Peterson, not CJ2K, the defender of the declining RB position

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated: April 16, 2014 - 9:07 AM

If there is one peer that Adrian Peterson considers his closest rival and the guy he really, really, REALLY wants to top, it would no doubt be Chris Johnson.

Peterson has never come out and said that. But anyone who has interviewed him since 2009 knows this to be the case.

When the 2009 season began, Peterson was, well, Peterson. In the eighth game of his 2007 rookie season, he ran for a league-record 296 yards. In his second season, he ran for a Vikings franchise-record 1,760 yards.

Johnson, who joined the league a year later than Peterson, was a 1,200-yard rusher as a 2008 rookie. Good, but no Peterson.

In 2009, however, things began to change, at least temporarily. For the first time in his three seasons, Peterson was being asked to name the best running back in the league.

It’s a setup question when tossed out to someone of Peterson’s abilities. Naturally, Peterson bristled at the notion that Johnson was better than him.

But Johnson kept piling up the yards before reaching the exclusive 2,000-yard club (2,006). Meanwhile, the same question kept being lobbed at Peterson and Johnson just to see what they’d say.

Johnson wasn’t shy about declaring himself the best running back in the league. Meanwhile, Peterson’s initial reaction usually was to answer the question with a question: “Who do you think is the best?” Then he’d smile and keep the conversation professional, but assert his competitive side.

In 2011, Johnson was a training camp holdout. It took the Titans coughing up $54 million over four years to get him back to work. Peterson congratulated him. Weeks later, Peterson topped him with a seven-year deal worth up to $100 million.

In 2012, Peterson joined Johnson in the 2,000-yard club, rushing for 2,097 in the season that immediately followed a knee reconstruction.

Now, two seasons later, Johnson has been released by the Titans as the age of the devalued running back position marches on. Tennessee chose a $4 million salary cap hit and no Johnson over a $10 million cap hit and Johnson. And while Johnson didn’t have the greatest season a year ago, he’s still a durable and productive back under the age of 30 (29 on Sept. 23).

Johnson has missed only one game in his career and is one of only six running backs to rush for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first six season. Four of them are in the Hall of Fame.

But a career-low 3.9-yard average per carry was lackluster enough for the Titans to dump him.

On a conference call last week, Peterson was asked about a trend that’s seen a pass-oriented league devalue running backs. Former Vikings running back Toby Gerhart’s $4.5 million in guaranteed money is the most by a 2014 free-agent running back and is less than kickers Robbie Gould ($8.85 million) and Dan Bailey ($7.5 million) and punter Pat McAfee ($5.3 million). Johnson is expected to land a relatively modest deal, and no running back is expected to be taken in the first round of the draft for a second straight year.

“You know, it’s just kind of how it is, unfortunately,” Peterson said. “There are a couple of guys who are different from that. I feel like I’m one of them.”

Peterson then made it clear that his one-time rival wasn’t one of them last season.

“Chris Johnson, maybe if he would have ran for 1,800 yards, he’d have a different story about how much he could be bringing in [this year],” Peterson said.

“It’s all about what have you done for me lately. Unfortunately for the guys who were in free agency this year didn’t have incredible numbers or incredible seasons to be able to get the type of [money] they wanted in free agency. I feel like that’s it. I feel like me and a couple of other guys are going to keep it alive as far as running backs being able to come out and keep the running back position at a top level. That comes with guys putting in the hard work and being able to produce and show that when they step on the field.”  

A quick look at the Vikings' 2014 opponents

Posted by: Matt Vensel Updated: April 11, 2014 - 7:03 AM

The NFL released its preseason schedule on Wednesday, which -- unless you are the rare fan who gets geeked up for exhibition games -- is noteworthy because it means the regular season schedule will be unveiled soon, too. The NFL hasn’t yet said when, but it should be in the next two weeks.

We do know who the Vikings will be playing this season. And where. We just don’t know when.

The Vikings play the NFC South in 2014. They last drew that division in 2011 as they rotate through the different NFC divisions every three years. They host the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons at TCF Bank Stadium and will travel to play the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

They play the AFC East for the first time since 2010. The New England Patriots and New York Jets will come to the Twin Cities and the Vikings will travel to play the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins.

They also play the St. Louis Rams (on the road) and the Washington Redskins (at home) because those two teams, like the Vikings, finished last in their respective NFC divisions in 2013.

And, of course, the Vikings will play each of their NFC North rivals twice.

Only four opponents were playoff teams in 2013: the Packers (twice), Panthers, Saints and Patriots.

We will break down the opponents in greater detail once the schedule is announced, but here is the quick rundown of their home and road opponents this season (with 2013 records in parenthesis).

HOME: Bears (8-8), Lions (7-9), Packers (8-7-1), Falcons (4-12), Panthers (12-4), Patriots (12-4), Jets (8-8) and Redskins (3-13).

AWAY: Bears (8-8), Lions (7-9), Packers (8-7-1), Saints (11-5), Buccaneers (4-12), Bills (6-10), Dolphins (8-8) and Rams (7-9).

Peterson: Tuition not enough pay for college athletes

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated: April 10, 2014 - 9:00 AM

Vikings running back Adrian Peterson made the following comments on a conference call with about 20-some media members roughly 18 hours ago. We haven't checked to see, but do realize it's quite possible that these words have spent the past 17 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds being analyzed from coast to coast, internationally and galactically on the Martian NFL Radio Network.

But, hey, it's AP and it was one of his typically honest responses about a hot-button issue that divides opinions and usually leaves people in Peterson's position reaching for a comfortable fence to straddle. So when Peterson is asked whether college athletes should be paid, well, it's interesting to see where he stands. And here's where he stands, according to where he stood 18 hours ago:

"I feel like they deserve to [be paid]. I've been asked this before [and people have said,] `Well, what do you think about full scholarships?' Guys will say scholarships are good enough. No. No. Because you work for those full scholarships. You qualify academically, and if you don't ... I see the best athletes go to junior colleges because academically they weren't able to qualify. So guys work extremely hard to get to college, to be able to get that full scholarship at a university.

"And then, once you get to the university, you see guys ... for example, Johnny Manziel and, actually, I could use myself, too. When I was in college, I know personally as far as jersey sales and ticket sales I helped that university make a lot of money. Johnny Manziel helped make Texas A&M so much money. You're talking about championship games he was able to lead them to. You're talking about jersey sales that he doesn't see a dime of. And in the meantime, you got a guy who possibly could be struggling to live outside of college.

"No one wants to live in the dorms for four years. Then the guys who are older, who have responsibilities ... I came in at a time when my first daughter was being born. So there were different responsibilities that I had outside of playing football and going to class. So I feel like as much as universities make, I feel like some of that money should be given down to the players as well because essentially we are the ones making these universities money. These bowl games, without the players, how much money do they make? None. Without the players, how much money do they make? They make no money without the players.

"And then you transition into basketball. I hear they're trying to make basketball players go two years to college. Wow. I wonder why? Just think about it. Imagine if LeBron James would have gone to college for two years. How much money would that college have made off LeBron James? They would have made so much money off of LeBron James. So I feel like that's the reason they're doing it. And I understand they're are a lot of guys who come out of high school and go to the draft and they don't end upu making it. But it's a freedom. This is the United States. It's based off of freedom. You should be able to do as you want and make your own decisions. So I really feel like athletes should get paid as well because the universities are definitely getting paid."

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