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 Off the field

Spielman 'leaves door open' to Winfield returning

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated: March 12, 2013 - 5:54 PM
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said he wanted "to leave the door open" for cornerback Antoine Winfield's return.
Whether the 14-year veteran cornerback, who had rejected the hypothetical notion of having to accept a pay cut, would choose to walk back through that door is, obviously, another matter.
That's the question of the day since it now appears that Winfield wasn't even presented with a restructured deal before he was released.
Either way, Spielman said the Vikings will be OK at cornerback in 2013. The top three corners would be 2012 third-round pick Josh Robinson, A.J. Jefferson, who's a restricted free agent, and Chris Cook, a promising 2010 second-round pick but a guy who has had a hard time staying on the field.
"We feel confident the way Josh has developed, and tendering A.J. Jefferson, and having Chris Cook," Spielman said today during a news conference. "And we have a couple other guys we want to look at as well."
Then Spielman surprised reporters by saying Winfield isn't out of the team's plans entirely. Of course, it wasn't as surprising as Spielman cutting the 35-year-old corner an hour or so earlier rather than pay him the $7.25 million he had left on the final year of his contract.
"By no means do we want to shut out Antoine," Spielman said. "We hopefully want to have the door open for his return, if that’s possible."
Spielman said Winfield's release wasn't based on performance. Or his locker room presence. Winfield remains -- or remained -- one of the team's best defensive players and leaders.
"Antoine played very well last year," Spielman said. "He’s probably one of those players who defied odds for his age, what he did for our football team last year. There’s no question what Antoine does for our football team on the field and off the field as well.
"It was a very, extremely hard decision to make. Hopefully, we’ll be able to keep the door open for him. We’ll just have to see."
Spielman said he spoke with Winfield today. He wouldn't discuss the details of what was said, so at this point we have no indication one way or the other whether Winfield is open to return.
Obviously, since he resisted a pay cut to stay on the team, he's not likely to accept one until he's shopped around a bit. And the guess is he'd choose a comparable contract with another team with a chance to make the playoffs rather than return to the team that cut him.
"I definitely want to keep the door open for Antoine to potentially return," Spielman said. "But we have to make all the pieces fit into the puzzle as well."
Spielman confirmed the Percy Harvin trade and the re-signing of tackle Phil Loadholt. He also said the team is still wrapping up a deal to re-sign receiver Jerome Simpson and has "four or five" things going on when it comes to trying to re-sign some of the team's other free agents.
Asked if he thinks the team will be able to compete this year, Spielman said, "We think we’re going to compete next year. There’s no doubt about that because we were a playoff team last year. And by keeping your own and continuing to build through the draft, and the success we’ve have the past couple years with the draft -- and we feel very strong about this draft class coming up -- we feel that this is an approach and a philosophy that is showing success."
 

Hall of Famer Cris Carter talks about the most important day of his life

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated: February 14, 2013 - 4:47 PM
Cris Carter, the Vikings' newest Hall of Famer, met with the Twin Cities media at Winter Park today. He talked for about 30 minutes about a variety of subjects. But the highlight definitely was his candid conversation about Sept. 19, 1990, the day that changed his career and his life. Here's our take on it:
 
By MARK CRAIG
Sept. 19, 1990 was the most important day of Cris Carter’s 16-year NFL career.
Heck, it was the most important day of his 47-year life.
“That was the last day I ever drank,” the Vikings’ newest member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame said Thursday during a press conference at Winter Park.
Carter spent nearly half an hour reflecting on a stellar career that included two of the best hands in league history. But it wasn’t the 1,101 catches, the 13,899 yards or the 130 touchdowns that stood out. It was Carter’s teary-eyed recollection of his first few weeks as a Viking.
Carter arrived as a troubled former Philadelphia Eagles receiver on Sept. 4, 1990. When then-Eagles coach Buddy Ryan took a hard line against Carter’s cocaine and alcohol abuse, the Vikings stepped in with a $100 check for the waiver wire fee and a plan to help Carter off the field.
“I think that 100 bucks has to rank right at the top as the best [bargain] in NFL history,” said Jerry Burns, Carter’s first head coach in Minnesota and one of the former Vikings who attended the press conference.
“The first day [in Minnesota] was very, very difficult because I would say the Vikings were somewhat aware of my situation, but not fully aware,” Carter said. “But once they opened that file, they became fully aware, realized I had an issue and they put certain steps in place that day.”
Carter played in the 1990 season opener, but didn’t catch a pass. He played the next two games and didn’t catch a pass.
He was a long, long way from getting his life straight.
“My biggest problem was the struggle with cocaine,” Carter said. “At that time, I wasn’t using [cocaine], but I was still using alcohol.”
Carter looked into the background, spotted former Vikings co-owner Wheelock Whitney and thanked him and Whitney’s former assistant, Betty Triliegi, a drug and alcohol counselor who worked with the team for nine years during the 1980s and early 1990s.
“Personally, what they did for me, that changed my life,” Carter said. “I can stand here today as a man and tell [Whitney] that if you wouldn’t have helped me that day when I came here that second week in September, I wouldn’t have made it.”
On Sept. 19, Triliegi met with Carter in the moment that changed his life.
“Betty issued me a challenge,” Carter said. “It was for a week that I wouldn’t drink. I haven’t had a drink since then.”
It was a long week, and then some.
“I was just trying to make it through the week and survive, really,” Carter said. “That’s what I was really trying to do. Make it through one week. But eventually, after surviving, I could feel my body starting to change. I could feel my ability starting to [surface]. I could be really as good as I wanted to be. I upped my conditioning, dropped my body weight and then the rest was history.”
Four weeks later, Carter went back to Philadelphia and caught six passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns against the Eagles.

Birk talks about Moss and finally reaching Super Bowl

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated: January 29, 2013 - 7:29 AM
NEW ORLEANS -- In some ways, 1998 doesn’t seem that long ago. Then again, we haven’t been playing center in the National Football League for the past 15 seasons.
 
So when current Raven and former Viking Matt Birk was asked yesterday whether he thought it would take 15 seasons for him to reach the Super Bowl, he answered like a guy who has been through a decade and a half of the NFL’s aches and pains.
 
“I didn’t think I was going to be here 15 years later in 1998,” said Birk, the Vikings’ sixth-round draft pick that year.
 
Birk also was asked for his thoughts on former Vikings teammate and fellow 1998 draft class member Randy Moss. The two weren’t exactly best buds, particularly when the SuperFreak walked off the field with 2 seconds left and the Vikings lining up for an onside kick in a loss at Washington in the 2004 regular-season finale.
 
But Birk, whose Ravens play Moss’ 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday, followed Denny Green’s old advice and kept himself up on the high road while talking about Moss.
 
“I was fortunate enough to play with Randy for seven years and the way he took the league by storm was unbelievable,” Birk said. “To be a part of that and to be his teammate for seven years, we had a lot of fun in the locker room and obviously won a lot of games in large part to him.  I haven’t kept in touch with him or anything like that, but obviously I’m happy for him and that he’s still playing.
 
“I think Randy’s been through a lot, gone through a lot of different things, but I understand having been his teammate for seven years what a competitor he is and how hard he works.”
 
Asked if ther are any “misconceptions” about Moss, Birk said, “I would just say he was a great teammate, extremely hardworking.  I mean the things he did on the football field were fantastic.  Those are the guys you want to play with, those types of competitors.” 

Unwelcome surprise: Vikings players react to Christian Ponder's injury

Posted by: Updated: January 5, 2013 - 11:57 PM

The biggest surprise of the first day of the NFL playoffs came 90 minutes before the Vikings kicked off at Lambeau Field. That’s when 16-game starter Christian Ponder was declared inactive, too bothered by a stiff and bruised throwing arm to get the green light for Saturday’s game.

Like the rest of the country, many of the Vikings players said they had no idea Joe Webb would be their starting quarterback until they were inside of 2 hours before kickoff.

“I didn’t know at all,” cornerback Antoine Winfield said. “Until I saw Joe out there warming up. That’s when I knew.”

It was a late twist that left the Vikings handicapped for their playoff opener, a 24-10 loss to the Packers.

Having not thrown a pass in a game since August, Webb sputtered to an 11-for-30, 180-yard passing night. He also threw an interception and lost a fumble in the third quarter. And after scoring a field goal on the opening drive, the Vikings went nine scoreless possessions before adding a late meaningless touchdown.

As for the mental hurdle of trying to ready for a high-stakes playoff contest with such a late change in plans, Jared Allen simply shrugged.

“Honestly,” he said, “I don’t think there was a mental hurdle for us. When you find out, you have to go with it. There are no surprises in this league. People go down, the next guy’s got to step up. You can’t sit around like, ‘Oh, goodness!’ You’ve got to give that guy your full support and go out there and try to win the game.”

Allen pinned the blame of Saturday’s loss on a defensive effort that allowed 326 total yards and 24 points and not on the late quarterback switch.  

“When you hear that [news], you just keep your mind focused on what you can do,” Allen said. “I can’t throw the ball. I can’t hand it off. So it doesn’t matter what they do over there. So if I can tackle guys and get to the quarterback, I’m doing my part.”

Receiver Michael Jenkins, who had two catches for 66 yards including a late 50-yard TD grab on busted coverage, also admitted surprise at the quarterback decision.

“We didn’t know until game time like everybody else,” Jenkins said. “But [Joe] prepared all week like he was going to be the starter. And he did everything he could. We just weren’t efficient as we could have been on offense trying to win the game.”

Counting to 12

Jasper Brinkley might have been the Viking caught sprinting to the sideline when the field goal block unit was flagged for having 12 men in the huddle in the third quarter. But Brinkley wasn’t the one at fault. Instead, he was designated to count the Vikings on the field, a role that requires him to sprint off if there are too many out there.

“We needed to get one of our defensive ends off the field,” said coach Leslie Frazier. “We had two defensive ends on the field that play the same position.”

That penalty was arguably the most costly of the four flags the Vikings drew Saturday night. It came on fourth-and-4 with Green Bay’s Mason Crosby lining up for a 32-yard field goal. Instead, the Packers received a first down at the Vikings 9 and completed the drive on the next play with a 9-yard TD catch by John Kuhn.

Allen was miffed at the 12 men in the huddle call, under the impression the ball had to be snapped for the defense to be penalized in that situation.

Said Allen: “The refs said that was a new rule this year. Because I don’t know how a defense ever has 12 men in the huddle. We don’t huddle. … So that was news to me. I guess I should let the refs explain it. I really didn’t want to hear it. So I was just like, ‘See ya.’”

Winfield’s future?

Cornerback Antoine Winfield fought through the pain in his fractured right hand as best he could Saturday. Winfield started and never aggravated the injury but admitted afterward the sturdier soft cast he wore to protect the hand made it more difficult to jam receivers.

“The way my hand was in the cast, it wouldn’t bend all the way back,” Winfield said. “So my hand placement was kind of off.”

Winfield, 35, has now completed his 14th season in the league and has one year left on his contract. He said he certainly plans to be back in 2013.

“Without a doubt,” he said. “I’ve got to get 15 in. That’s a good number.”

Quotes of note

Here’s Vikings coach Leslie Frazier on the pride he had in this season’s 10-win campaign: “The effort they gave every single week over the course of this season, including tonight. These guys never let anyone put limitations on what they could achieve. They played as hard as they could and tried to do the very best they could to give us a chance to win. And I told them that after the game. We are all extremely proud of every one of them.

And here’s Frazier on the skills in Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers he admires: “He’s a very accurate passer on the run. That’s the thing that sticks out. When you get him moving around like you want to, he has the ability to make throws on the run. [That] creates a lot of problems for your defense. Because guys end up uncovered even when you get a good pass rush. It just creates a lot of problems, his ability to throw as well as he does on the run.”

Jamarca Sanford's investment, rapid growth typifies Vikings' resurgence

Posted by: Updated: January 3, 2013 - 9:07 AM

With their first playoff appearance since 2009, the Vikings have had ample opportunity this week to reflect on the catalysts of their impressive turnaround this season. With so many players showing notable growth, it’d take awhile to complete a full roll call. But Jared Allen delivers an unsolicited shout out to safety Jamarca Sanford, whose whose behind-the-scenes push to get better this season has been underrated.

Said Allen: “I’ve seen [him] different, in his preparation and his attitude and his focus of where he wants to go. Last year he was out there for us, and he had the potential to make big hits. This year he’s been an impact player on our defense.”

Sanford is proud of his maturation. After losing his starting job to Mistral Raymond in training camp, he was forced back into a leading role after Raymond dislocated his ankle in Week 3. Sanford played so well in the six games Raymond missed that he earned the opportunity to keep starting with the two safeties splitting time over the final seven games.

Sanford credits veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield with teaching him how to be a more complete player.

“Like I tell a lot of people, last year was my first year starting,” Sanford said. “And I was just really happy to be out there, still shocked that I’m in the NFL and I’m starting. And I was just out there on my natural ability. This year, I’ve gone up a level. This league isn’t about how athletic you are, it’s how smart you are. How well can you study film and break a team down. When you know stuff that’s going to happen before it happens, it’s incredible. I learned a lot from Antoine. And the thing I put in my mind this offseason is that I’ve never been the weak link of whatever part of the team I’m on. I want to be at my best for what I do or at least live up to the standards of the guys around me. And one thing about this defense here, you can’t be the weak link. They’ll find someone else to do your job.”

Sanford shared a few other thoughts with the Star Tribune this week. Among the more notable …

On what was going on beneath the pile when he recovered a third quarter Aaron Rodgers fumble last week …

“Under that pile, there’s a lot going on. You might get a little punch in the side, some pinching. Guys crawling trying to get to the ball. I was making sure we came out of there with that ball. Luckily we did. That was a big-time turnover at a critical time. I had it at first and then it bounced out of my arm. It was really a struggle under the pile. Eventually, I heard Everson yelling, ‘I got ya! I got ya! I got ya!’ At first, it was and somebody else had it halfway. But Everson was under there pulling off arms. And by the time he pulled that guy’s arm, I finally got total control of it and it was time to get up.”

On carrying Adrian Peterson off the field after Sunday’s win …

“That adrenaline was pumping. Adrian deserved that. I wanted him to know our appreciation. After the season he had, he deserved to be carried off. Like I said, my adrenaline was pumping. And when I did set him down, I was pretty tired. He’s pretty heavy. … This is a legend right in front of your eyes. I’ve heard of the great backs of all-time – Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, all the greats. To see one with my own eyes is special. … When A.D. is running, he’s just different. He plays like a guy on defense. He’s always loose. And if you hit him hard one time, you have to come back and do it again the whole game. Some backs, you hit them in the mouth one time, they start tiptoeing. Not Adrian. He just keeps coming.”

On whether he still communicates with close friend Percy Harvin, who has been absent from the Vikings’ facility since being put on injured reserve in early December …

“Percy and me are always texting. I’m making sure he’s still good, keeping his head up and reminding him to be ready to come back strong next year. He loves the success we’re having. He tells me he’s really proud of us. I know it was hard for him [to go on I.R.] He wants to be with this team, helping this team win. But unluckily he got hurt. That’s part of the game. So all he can do is sit back and watch. He just has to be ready to recover from that injury and be ready for next year.”

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