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 Brett Favre

Week 17 Picks & Power Rankings: Dome too much for Pack?

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated: December 28, 2012 - 7:27 AM
What else would you rather do on a Friday morning than watch a poor man swing away at his weekly NFL Picks and Power Rankings? We’ll even throw in some extra purple with Three Reasons for Optimism and Three Reasons to Go `Uh-Oh.’
 
Power rankings
TOP THREE
 
1, Broncos (12-3)
Last week: No. 1.
Comment: Twelve wins. Ten-game winning streak. Sounds like pretty much any other Peyton Manning season the past decade or so. Only this team also ranks No. 3 in defense. With this offense, the Broncos might be better off not having home-field advantage. Manning might want to spend the AFC title game indoors in Houston than outdoors in Denver.
 
2. Falcons (13-2)
Last week: No. 2.
Comment: I don’t believe any records are kept on this, but Atlanta might be the most overlooked 13-2 team ever. Why? Well, for starters, their past two seasons have seen them go 23-9 in the regular season and 0-2 with a 72-23 point differential in the playoffs. The Falcons also haven’t won a playoff game since 2004.
 
3. Seahawks (10-5)
Last week: No. 8.
Comment: The Vikings have Adrian Peterson, but Seattle is the more productive running team. They have three guys averaging 4.6 yards or better with over 350 yards. Marshawn Lynch has 1,490 and 11 TDs on 297 carries (5.0). QB Russell Wilson has 431 yards on 83 carries (5.1). And Robert Turbin has 359 yards on 78 carries. (4.6). So how has Russell, a rookie third-round draft pick, responded with the benefits of having this No. 2-ranked running game? He’s completed 63.4 percent of his passes with 25 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a 98.0 passer rating. He’s also helped the Seahawks win their last three games by a combined score of 150-30, including a 42-13 win over the 49ers last week.
 
 
BOTTOM THREE
 
30. Jaguars (2-13)
Last week: No. 30.
Comment: Need further proof that Tom Coughlin is a good coach? Here you go: Since the Jaguars fired Coughlin 10 years ago, Coughlin has more Super Bowl wins (2) than the Jaguars have playoff victories (1).
 
31. Lions (4-11)
Last week: No. 31.
Comment: Unfortunately for Calvin Johnson’s receiving numbers, this is the final week that the Lions will be able to fall hopelessly behind in a meaningless game.
 
32. Chiefs (2-12)
Last week: No. 32.
Comment: The Chiefs rank last in interceptions thrown (20) and interceptions caught (7). Ouch.
 
 
6. Packers (11-4)
9. Vikings (9-6)
13. Bears (9-6)
 
 
NFC NORTH
 
6. Packers (11-4)
Last week: No. 7.
Comment: Mike McCarthy won’t win NFL Coach of the Year, but he at least deserves some thought for no other reason than leading this team to a 10-2 mark after the “Fail Mary” fiasco in Seattle. When the replacement officials botched that last-second touchdown that gave Seattle the win and essentially ended the labor dispute with the regular officials, the Packers were 1-2 and looking at three more road games in their next four weeks.
 
9. Vikings (8-6)
Last week: No. 11.
Comment: If not for the “Fail Mary,” the Packers would have less to play for when they face the Vikings on Sunday. Green Bay would have the No. 2 seed and a bye wrapped up. And the Vikings wouldn’t be looking at the likely scenario of having to travel to Green Bay next week if they made the playoffs.  
 
14. Bears (8-6)
Last week: No. 13.
Comment: He’s good, mind you. But at what point do we give pause before we keep referring to Jay Cutler as an elite quarterback and therefore a thorn in the Vikings’ side for years to come? Cutler has 18 TDs and 14 INTs. Christian Ponder has 15 and 12. Cutler an 80.2 passer rating. Ponder has a 78.8. I won’t compare the completion percentages since Ponder has no passing game beyond five yards of the line of scrimmage. Cutler needs better protection, but he also needs to complete better than 58.8 percent of his passes.
 
31. Lions (4-10).
Last week: No. 31.
 
 
THE REST
 
4. Patriots (11-4); 5. Redskins (9-6); 7. 49ers (10-4-1); 8. Colts (10-5); 10. Bengals (9-6); 11. Texans (12-3); 12. Ravens (10-5); 14. Saints (7-8); 15. Cowboys (8-7); 16. Panthers (6-9);
17. Rams (7-7-1); 18. Dolphins (7-8); 19. Chargers (6-9); 20. Steelers (7-8); 21. Giants (8-7); 22. Titans (5-10); 23. Browns (5-10); 24. Jets (6-9); 25. Bills (5-10); 26. Cardinals (5-10); 27. Raiders (4-11); 28. Eagles (4-11); 29. Buccaneers (6-9)
 
VIKINGS
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1, The first drive: It’s baby steps, but given the state of this offense, especially without Percy Harvin, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave deserves a lot of credit for giving Ponder an early script that has been tremendously successful during the team’s current three-game winning streak. In the first drives against Chicago, St. Louis and Houston, Ponder has looked decisive, confident and all the other things he lacks far too often. He’s 7 of 7 for 111 yards, one rushing touchdown and one passing touchdown. The other drive ended with Adrian Peterson rushing for a touchdown. The Vikings never trailed after those touchdowns.
 
2, Peterson’s high standards: It’s been funny to hear people talk about how the Texans “shut down” or “took away” the Vikings’ run game. If running for 174 yards on 42 carries (4.1) is “shut down,” then shut me down every week. Yes, Peterson didn’t run for 150 yards, but the NFL has ruled that guys who aren’t chasing Eric Dickerson are allowed to carry the ball, too. Plus, I might be one of the few who actually was impressed that Peterson managed to get 86 yards the way the Texans played that game. Houston had cornerbacks completely ignoring the passing game while darting in from the edges to tackle Peterson whether he had the ball or not. Twenty-two of Peterson’s carries went for 25 yards. But three of them went for 61. All in all, it was a very productive running game.
 
3, Defense and the Dome: Before getting thumped 23-6 last week, the Texans hadn’t gone without a touchdown since Matt Schaub joined the team. And the Vikings hadn’t given up fewer points since beating Atlanta 24-3 in the 2007 opener, which was Peterson’s NFL debut. The Vikings haven’t played with this much confidence on defense in a very long time. And they get the significant edge of playing this game at the Metrodome. The Packers have a great passing attack, obviously, but they’re also 27th in the league in sacks allowed per pass play.
 
THREE REASONS TO GO `UH-OH’
1, Packer swagger: No team in the league – other than whichever one Peyton Manning happens to play for – goes into a game with a higher level of confidence than the Packers. It doesn’t matter who’s hurt, where the game is being played or whether the replacement officials cheated them the week before. Aaron Rodgers gives this team a consistency that Brett Favre never did. And right now, the Packers have won a franchise-record 12 consecutive division games.
 
2, Ponder’s nerves: In my ledger, Ponder has played eight games in which I’ve felt he’s shown that the Vikings can continue to build around him as the long-term answer at QB. That means he’s played seven – in my mind – in which he’s shown the opposite. That point is probably moot because the consensus feeling is this next offseason will be bone dry when it comes to quality QBs via the draft, free agency and trade. So Ponder gets at least one more year. Playing well at home against the Packers with the playoffs on the line sure would help. Have you ever been at a wedding and your tie is too tight and you’re miserable? And you get to the reception and you get to loosen the tie and you feel fantastic? A win sure would loosen the noose that Ponder’s wearing.  
 
3, `Claymaker’ is back: Vikings fans kind of figured out that Packers linebacker Clay Matthews was pretty good when he ripped the ball out of Peterson’s hands and returned it for a touchdown as a rookie in 2009. Peterson ran for 210 yards against the Packers four weeks ago. But Matthews didn’t play in that game. Asked how big a deal that was not to have Matthews, coach Mike McCarthy said, “He’s our best player on defense.” In other words, it mattered. Plus, the Packers were humiliated by poor tackling. They’ll give a much better effort this time.
 
THE PICKS
Vikings 24, Packers 21: Blair Walsh opened the regular season with a winning field goal in overtime. He’ll end it with one against the Packers. The Packers are the better team. And they’re on a 9-1 roll. But I’m going with the home team and the fact the Vikings essentially need this to make the playoffs. Sure, they can get in with a loss if the Bears, Giants and Cowboys also lose. But what are the chances in the NFL that three teams you need to lose are going to lose?
 
Record picking Vikings games: 8-5.
 
GB minus-3 ½ at VIK: Vikings by 3.
NYJ plus-3 ½ at BUF: Bills by 7.
MIA plus-10 at NE: Patriots by 14.
BAL plus-3 at CIN: Bengals by 7.
CLE off at PIT: Steelers by 7.
JAC plus-4 at TEN: Titans by 7.
PHI plus-7 ½ at NYG: Giants by 3.
DAL plus-3 at WAS: Redskins by 10.
CHI minus-3 at DET: Bears by 7.
TB off at ATL: Buccaneers by 3.
CAR plus-5 at NO: Saints by 7.
KC plus-16 at DEN: Broncos by 10.
OAK off at SD: Chargers by 14.
ARI plus-16 ½ at SF: 49ers by 10.
STL plus-10 ½ at SEA: Seahawks by 14.
 
 
Overall Record Last Week: 10-6. Vs. Spread: 8-8
 
Record Season: 127-76-1. Vs. Spread: 99-99-1.
 
 
UPSET SPECIAL
HOU minus-6 ½ at IND.
 
Colts 28, Texans 20: The Texans still need to win to clinch home-field advantage after last week’s lifeless 23-6 loss to the Vikings at home. But they’re heading for the perfect storm: A division road game that features the return of Colts coach Chuck Pagano, who has spent the past three months battling leukemia.
 
Last week: CHI minus-5 ½ at ARI. Prediction: Cardinals 28, Bears 21. Actual: Bears 28, Cardinals 13.
Record: 8-7.

Chris Cook eager to face Rodgers

Posted by: Chris Miller Updated: December 26, 2012 - 3:56 PM

Chris Cook is looking for redemption Sunday when the Vikings meet the Packers.

The Vikings’ third year cornerback was torched during his rookie season by Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Cook, coming off early season arthroscopic surgery on both knees, was pulled by coach Brad Childress after Rodgers lit up the visiting Vikings for 166 passing yards in the first quarter of a 28-24 victory on Oct. 24, 2010.

Things got worse six weeks later when the Packers beat the Vikings 31-3 at the Metrodome. Cook gave up receptions of 47 and 39 yards to James Jones, and was pulled by Childress after Jones caught a 3-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Cook was yelled at by teammate Ray Edwards on the sideline, and after the game both Cook and cornerback Asher Allen were criticized by teammates.

Childress was fired the next day.

Cook missed both meetings last season after an arrest for domestic assault on the eve of the first Packers game, which he spent in jail. He was inactive for the rest of the season, and missed the Vikings’ 23-14 loss to the Packers two weeks ago because of a broken arm.

“I’ve been looking forward to this game,” Cook said. “My rookie year, I was coming off both my knee surgeries, and they were picking on me – a lot. I expected that coming off two knee surgeries. But I don’t have knee problems now, so we’ll see how it goes this week.”

Cook said Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL.

“He’s Brett Favre-like, but I feel he makes better decisions at times,” said Cook. “He’s crazy accurate, that’s the thing that stands out. He can put balls in places the other guys can’t put it in. It’s amazing to me to me. Every time I watch him I think, man, this guy, he’s great.”

Holiday presents

Houston running back Arian Foster bought Segways for his offensive linemen, so the question about what Adrian Peterson will do for his offensive line has been bandied about at Winter Park.

“We’ll see how it all plays out, how many yards he gets, when we win the game,” said center John Sullivan. “All I’m hoping for is a good performance from him and our offense and our entire team. The playoff berth is all we reaIly care about. I don’t really care about presents. I’m not too focused on that right now.”

Robison, Winfield ready

Defensive end Brian Robison (sprained shoulder) missed the Vikings’ 23-6 victory over the Texans on Sunday, which was doubly troubling to him because he played college football at Texas. He expects to play Sunday against the Packers.

“I’m doing much better, doing a lot of stuff hard in the rehab room, just trying to get it back,” Robison said. “I feel like I got a good range of motion, it’s just getting the strength back in it.”

Cornerback Antoine Winfield, who fractured a bone in his right index finger, expects to play Sunday with his right hand padded.

Reliable rookie

The Pro Bowl rosters will be announced tonight, and Vikings rookie kicker Blair Walsh has an outside chance of making the NFC team. Walsh has an NFL record nine field goals of 50 yards or longer.

“It’s one of those things where it happens, it’s awesome, if it doesn’t happen, keep on pushing,” Walsh said. “I’m more focused on what I have to do in practice. Accolades are great and all, but this game is more important.”

After a poor senior season at Georgia, it was a bit of a surprise when the Walsh was drafted by the Vikings in the sixth round. He has made 32 of 35 field goal attempts, however, and all 32 conversion attempts.

“I knew I was capable of doing it from the start,” Walsh said. “The biggest surprise is the number of attempts we’ve gotten. Thirty-five attempts is a lot. It’s a different beast at this level, each kick is so important, it matters so much when the game is so close.”

Veteran Ryan Longwell, who was cut to make room for Walsh, tweeted his support for Walsh’s Pro Bowl candidacy on Sunday.

“It was one of the most humbling things I’ve ever had said about me by anyone,” Walsh said. “My response was 100 percent truthful -- guys like him have set the bar for other kickers who come in the league, and they hold us to a higher standards, and we try to emulate careers like his.”

Ford added

The Vikings signed tight end Chase Ford to their practice squad. Ford, a rookie from Miami, has been on both the Philadelphia and Dallas practice squads this season. Tight end Allen Reisner, who has been on and off the Vikings’ roster the past two years, was claimed by Jacksonville after the Vikings cut him on Saturday. The Jaguars also signed guard Mark Asper, who had been waived by the Vikings.

 

 

Week 13 Picks & Power Rankings: December nears, so Pats get top spot

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated: November 30, 2012 - 10:35 AM
What else would you rather do on a Friday morning than watch a poor man swing away at his weekly NFL Picks and Power Rankings? We’ll even throw in some extra purple with Three Reasons for Optimism and Three Reasons to Go `Uh-Oh.’
 
Power rankings
TOP THREE
1, Patriots (8-3)
Last week: No. 1.
Comment: On the eve of December, let’s just go ahead and put the Patriots where they always are heading into the playoffs. They’ve won five straight, and their three losses have come by a combined FOUR points. Tom Brady ranks second in passing with a 105.0 rating. The running game is ranked sixth. And the defense always seems to do whatever is necessary to win.
 
2. Texans (10-1)
Last week: No. 1.
Comment: Houston didn’t look all that impressive at Detroit on Thanksgiving. And, heck, they would have lost if not for an ill-conceived rule that negates reviewing scoring plays when a challenge flag is thrown. Still a very good team. Just not as polished this time of year as New England.
 
3. Ravens (9-2)
Last week: No. 4.
Comment: There’s just a certain toughness about this team that’s hard to keep out of the top three once December arrives. All eyes were on how the Ravens would respond when they lost by 30 points to Houston on Oct. 21. They’ve won four straight and should bury Pittsburgh in the rugged AFC North on Sunday.
 
BOTTOM THREE
30. Jaguars (4-7)
Last week: No. 27.
Comment: Hard to believe this is the same team that opened with wins over Seattle and the Patriots in New England. Hard to believe they were 4-0 at one point. Just another lesson for the next desperate team that hitches its future to an overrated quarterback such as Kevin Kolb.
 
31. Eagles (3-8)
Last week: No. 31.
Comment: Hard to believe this is the same team that beat the Giants to start the season 3-1. The end probably can’t come soon enough for Andy Reid. He has to be overdue for a fresh start. Ditto for the Eagles.
32. Chiefs (1-10)
Last week: No. 32.
Comment: Beyond awful. The only team in the league without a win at home (0-6).
 
NFC NORTH
8. Bears (8-3)
Last week: No. 9.
Comment: We’d like to go Denny and say, “The Bears are who we thought they were,” but we have no idea what to think of them. One week, the block and coach like a Pop Warner team in a 32-7 loss at San Francisco. The next week, they devise a game plan that covers their massive pass protection flaws in a 28-10 rout of the Vikings. With Jay Cutler, they’re a contender for the NFC title. Without him, they’re a pink slip in waiting for offensive coordinator Mike Tice.
 
9. Packers (7-4)
Last week: No. 2.
Comment: A few Purple Lovers took offense to the Packers’ No. 2 ranking last week. Of course, they piped up the morning after the 38-10 loss at the Giants. They claimed to say it was “obvious” the Packers weren’t any good even before the Giants loss. To which one could respond, “Uh, ya mean the same team that had won five straight, three on the road and thrashed the now-10-1 Texans in Houston?” I wouldn’t dismiss Aaron Rodgers quite yet.
 
17. Vikings (6-4)
Last week: No. 15.
Comment: All the analysis, over-analysis, self-analysis, hyper-analysis and my-goodness-get-a-life analysis of the Vikings overlooks very one important element: They just ain’t as good as the Packers and the Bears. But they’re closer than they were last year.
 
20. Lions (4-7).
Last week: No. 19.
Comment: If Jason Hanson had Ndamukong Suh’s accuracy on kicks, the Lions would be 5-6.
 
 
THE REST
 
4. Falcons (11-1); 5. 49ers (8-2-1); 6. Broncos (8-3); 7. Giants (7-4); 10. Colts (7-4); 11. Bengals (6-5); 12. Redskins (5-6); 13. Buccaneers (6-5); 14. Dolphins (5-6); 15. Steelers (6-5); 16. Seahawks (6-5); 18. Saints (5-7); 19. Bills (4-7); 20. Lions (4-7); 21. Cowboys (5-6); 22. Titans (4-7); 23. Panthers (3-8); 24. Rams (4-6-1); 25. Browns (3-8); 26. Chargers (4-7); 27. Jaguars (2-9); 28. Jets (4-7); 29. Raiders (3-8).
 
 
VIKINGS
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1, Rudolph in the passing game: It was refreshing to see the Vikings use the Bears’ aggressive approach to stopping Adrian Peterson against them. Faking to Peterson one way, rolling the other and hitting a wide-open tight end Kyle Rudolph led to gains of 25 and 13 yards. It also led to a touchdown. Obviously, the Vikings can’t go to that well too often because now teams will be looking for it. But the few times it was used in Chicago at least provided a sense that this offense can do something besides turn and hand the ball to Peterson or throw bubble screens to Percy Harvin when he’s healthy.
 
2, They are 6-5, you know: Yeah, yeah. I know we’re supposed to treat every game like it’s our first born child. Yeah, yeah, we’re supposed to declare the season over after each loss. However … A week ago at this time, I felt the Vikings needed to win one of their next three to stay in the playoff picture heading to St. Louis. In other words, don’t burn your Christian Ponder jersey if the Vikings lose back-to-back games at Chicago and Green Bay. If they beat the Bears at home next week, they’d be 7-6 heading to St. Louis. The NFL is too unpredictable and evenly-matched to bank on last week’s loss in Chicago being duplicated at the Metrodome next week.
 
3, Look down the road, folks: Here’s why a 1-2 trip through the Chicago-Green Bay-Chicago meat grinder wouldn’t be cause for panic: St. Louis is on the other end. Not only are the Rams closer to the Vikings in terms of development, they also got whacked by the JETS by 14 points at home recently. Would you take 8-6 heading to Houston to play a Texans team that probably will start resting starters that week? In other words, don’t panic until the Vikings go 0-3 in their Chicago-Green Bay-Chicago test.
 
THREE REASONS TO GO `UH-OH’
1, Bounce back factor, Take 2: Just like the Bears weren’t going to duplicate their 32-7 loss at San Francisco, the Packers aren’t going to duplicate their 38-10 loss at the Giants last week. Home games after blowout road losses tend to go the opposite way for good teams. The Bears and Packers are good teams, and the Vikings have the misfortune of playing them at home after those teams have been humiliated on the road.
 
2, Peterson’s fumbles: It’s been a long time since Adrian Peterson has had to discuss his fumbling to this extent. He fumbled 19 times in his first 46 regular-season NFL games. Then he rid himself of that problem and went the next 30 games with only two fumbles. Now, he has three this season, including two in the past five games. And it probably should be three in the past five games. Ponder got credited with one last Sunday, but it probably should have been given to Peterson.
 
3, Harvin’s health Take 2: It’s never good when your team’s Scottie Pippen – or second Michael Jordan, depending on whom you ask – is out with an injury. Percy Harvin has missed the past two games and seems likely to miss a third straight game on Sunday. The way he’s running, one has to question whether he’ll be even close to his old self when the Bears visit next week. It’s very possible that the Vikings will be out of the playoff hunt before their second-best player is able to perform like their second-best player.
 
THE PICKS
Packers 31, Vikings 17: Not buying the Packers being vulnerable at home after a 28-point loss at the Giants. Aaron Rodgers is great against the rest of the league and even greater when facing the Vikings without Brett Favre in full revenge mode (see: 2009). Too much Rodgers. Too many receivers. And based on last week’s effort in Chicago, not enough pass rush from the Vikings.
 
Record picking Vikings games: 6-3.
 
VIK plus-8 ½ at GB: Packers by 14.
SEA plus 3 ½ at CHI: Bears by 7.
ARI plus 4 ½ at NYJ: Jets by 7.
CAR minus-3 at KC: Panthers by 7.
IND plus-4 ½ at DET: Lions by 3.
JAC plus-6 at BUF: Bills by 3.
NE minus-7 ½ at MIA: Patriots by 14.
HOU minus-6 at TEN: Texans by 3.
TB plus-7 at DEN: Broncos by 10.
PIT off at BAL: Ravens by 10.
CLE off at OAK: Browns by 3.
CIN minus-2 at SD: Chargers by 3.
PHI plus-10 at DAL: Cowboys by 7.
NYG minus-2 ½ at WAS: Redskins by 7.
 
 
Overall Record Last Week: 8-5. Vs. Spread: 7-6.
 
Record Season: 89-53-1. Vs. Spread: 71-67-3.
 
 
UPSET SPECIAL
SF minus-7 at STL:
 
Rams 27, 49ers 24: Every time the 49ers are about to be crowned, they lose. Or they tie the Rams at home, like they did three weeks ago. This time, the Rams win at home as the Colin Kaepernick-Alex Smith issue enters its really-fun-to-watch phase.
 
Last week: SF minus-1 at NO. Prediction: Saints 31, 49ers 28.  Actual: 49ers 31, Saints 21.
Record: 6-5.

Coming Sunday: An in-depth examination of pain and pain treatment in the NFL

Posted by: Updated: August 17, 2012 - 3:43 PM

Starting this weekend, the Star Tribune will unveil a three-part series examining pain and pain treatment in the NFL.

It was a wake-up call like no other. Asleep at the downtown Hilton in Minneapolis on the morning of Dec. 20, 2010, Vikings head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman figured he had everything settled for that night’s clash with the Bears.

Instead, not long after sunrise, his bedside phone rang.

“Hey Suge," the voice on the other end said. "Does out mean out?”

On the line that morning was a certain energetic quarterback, a guy by the name of Brett Favre, who like a grounded teenager wanting to go out for the night, didn’t seem to want to accept his sidelined status.

Never mind that the Vikings had officially declared him out on their injury report, Favre still dealing with a badly sprained right shoulder that had led to numbness in his throwing hand.

The Vikings had a game that night. A Monday nighter. On ESPN. Against the division-rival Bears. On a snowy field, with temperatures dipping into the low 20s.Favre’s itch needed scratching.

Sugarman processed the question.

Does out mean out?

“It has,” Sugarman thought to himself, “in every other situation before this.”

Yet here was Favre doing as he so often did throughout his 20-season NFL career – challenging convention and battling through agonizing pain.

“This game is like a drug,” Sugarman said. “These guys can’t get enough of it. No matter how much they hurt, no matter how much they suffer, they can’t get enough.”

Favre’s consecutive starts streak of 297 games, an NFL record for a quarterback, had ended a week earlier when he couldn’t play against the Giants. The Vikings were already out of the playoff picture. There seemed to be little incentive to play.

Yet Favre wanted in. He needed in. And he ultimately pushed hard enough to get his way, starting that night, throwing an early touchdown pass, then leaving the game for good when he was slammed into the icy turf and banged his head.

“You’d think he probably regrets that he played in that game. Especially as we scraped him up off the turf,” Sugarman said. “But we all know he didn’t regret it. That’s just him.”

Favre is arguably the most celebrated player in NFL history in terms of his willingness to fight through pain to be ready on game day. But he is far from unique. Week after week, in every locker room across the league, players are wired in a way that pushes them to play as often as possible through as much pain as they can tolerate.

Beginning Sunday, the Star Tribune will begin a three-part series examining the lengths that NFL players go to assure their availability on game days. Specifically, the series will put the use of painkilling drugs in the NFL under a microscope.

  • We will examine the “play-at-all-costs” mentality that most players admit is embedded in their mental wiring.
  • We will examine the use of Toradol, a painkilling drug that has been a popular source of relief for more than a decade in the NFL yet now faces an iffy future.
  • And we will also bring readers the cautionary tale of former Jets and Dolphins quarterback Ray Lucas, a recovering addict whose life was turned upside down and almost ended due to his thirst to continue playing through pain. When Lucas walked away from football in 2003, he did not leave the agony behind. Severe neck pain came along. Back surgery followed. Lucas kept taking pain pills and kept needing more until, at his worst, he says he was taking 19 different medications at once, including narcotics like Percocet, Vicodin and Oxycodone. Lucas left the league with a severe addiction, a frightening disease he knows he will never fully defeat. “It doesn’t sleep,” Lucas said. “When I’m sleeping, it’s working out. It’s doing push-ups, pull-ups; it’s benching 600 [pounds]. It’s just waiting. My mind plays tricks on me now. ‘You haven’t taken anything in a while? You can take a couple today. It’s not a big deal.’ That’s the trap.”
Lucas’ predicament may be on the extreme end. But it’s certainly not a shock to players who understand and have lived the NFL culture. Former Vikings fullback Tony Richardson, who was an active member of the NFL Players Association's executive committee in the latter parts of his 17-year career, understands the pressures that players face to play through pain. And he hopes measures can be taken to change things going forward.
 
Richardson thinks back two-and-a-half years to the worst he ever played through. On Jan. 24, 2010, while with the New York Jets, he suited up for the AFC Championship just seven days after, he says, he broke his ribs in a playoff win in San Diego.
 
When he ran, his chest tightened, the pain so sharp it left him breathless. When he sneezed or coughed or grunted, he’d feel paralyzed for a moment. Yet Richardson understood the drill.
 
“Still,” he said, “you play.”
 
With a week’s worth of therapy, consistent doses of painkillers to quell the discomfort and a pre-game painkilling shot of Toradol, Richardson fulfilled his role as the Jets’ backfield battering ram.
 
“It was the grace of God that I was able to play in that game,” Richardson said. “That was by far the worst pain I ever played through. But everybody’s hurt. From the second day of training camp on, everyone’s hurt to some extent. You find ways to deal with it. And you play.
 
“That day I took the Toradol shot. Looking back, I probably should have listened to the doctors and trainers. They said numbing my ribs might give me a false sense of security. It could have been dangerous. But I was in so much pain, that’s what I wanted to resort to. I had to play.”
 
So what’s more amazing – that Richardson, never once considered sitting out? That he played an entire championship game with broken ribs? That it didn’t seem, in his mind, to be extraordinary in the least? Or that just about every NFL player you run across can share a similar story of suppressing severe pain?
 
Stay tuned for our series on yet another player safety issue that the NFL and the players union are trying to get their arms around ...

 

The hype is building ... Adrian Peterson back and in full pads

Posted by: Updated: August 14, 2012 - 1:19 PM

Shhhh.

You hear that faint hum? That’s the sound of a buzz being generated in Mankato. By the Vikings.

Yep, with only two full practices left in training camp at Minnesota State University, we have signs that our first major story is surfacing.

Star running back Adrian Peterson is back. And not just back; this afternoon he’ll participate in his first padded practice since way back on Dec. 22. That was two days before the Vikings went to Washington D.C. and left with a 33-26 victory and their star running back on crutches.

Peterson tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee on the first play of the second half that afternoon. He had surgery on the knee less than a week later. And now, 32 weeks and four days after coming off the operating table, he’s back in the mix at practice.

That should provide for some intrigue and entertainment when the Vikings get back out on the field a little more than an hour from now. For the past three weeks, the Vikings have been almost entirely off the NFL radar. Yet today? The ESPN cameras have returned to document Peterson’s return.

This isn’t quite as big as the Brett Favre circus during the preseasons of 2009 and 2010. But it’s something.

Peterson has been itching to make this return for a long time now. Yet the Vikings’ coaching staff, aware of Peterson’s eagerness and relentless drive, will continue to use caution with how they handle Peterson today.

In fact, head coach Leslie Frazier spoke with defensive players at length about Peterson’s return to practice, reminding them to treat the team’s biggest offensive star with extreme care.

“I definitely talked with them about it and now we have to adhere to it,” Frazier said after this morning’s walk-through. “But one of the things they told me was, ‘Coach, you know how he runs. I mean he runs [so hard]. What about protecting us?’ Adrian’s not going to change his running style. We all know that. But we have to be smart when he’s out there.”

Peterson will participate in just a handful of plays this afternoon during 7-on-7 and full-team work, a workload, Frazier said, that’s designed “for him to be able to gauge where he is and be able to give us an indication the next day of how he feels after getting a couple of snaps.”

Peterson’s goal of playing in a preseason game will likely be met next week when the Vikings host San Diego. That Sept. 9 date that Peterson has targeted, hoping to return to action for the opening day of the regular season remains within reach as well. But Peterson likely won’t be ready for a workhorse workload any time in the next few weeks, a reality Frazier continues to stress as he talks about “giving [Peterson] increments along the way and not trying to bring it all back in one or two practices.”

Stay tuned for additional updates on Peterson’s return soon …

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