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.
Spending part of the morning with Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway as he interacted with children at Hudson Hosptial & Clinics in Wisconsin was a healthy reminder that most NFL players are decent men who add value to their communities. Unfortunately, they just don't grab the headlines and the spotlight the way the lunkheads do when they get into trouble.
Greenway traveled to Hudson as part of his "Lead The Way Foundation," joking that as a Viking, he "crossed the border, but not very far because we have to tread lightly over here." He and his wife, Jenni, were well-received -- no Cheeseheads were spotted -- during an event in which they unveiled "Chad's Locker," a program that provides patients and their families access to kid-friendly technology during hospital visits.
An actual locker, labeled "Chad's Locker" and all decked out in purple with a photo of Greenway in uniform, was opened to reveal several iPads, video gaming systems, laptops and other items. This was the third hospital in the Twin Cities area that the Greenways have partnered with as they grow their "Chad's Locker" idea.
Greenway said he was made aware of a similar idea before he had children. He thought it was a good idea. But not as good as when his children came along.
"We've spent a lot of time in the hospital the last year with my dad," said Greenway, whose father is again battling leukemia after a brief remission. "When you're in that moment in time in the hospital, it's huge to have something for your kids to occupy their time. You need them to behave, but it's also unrealistic for them to just sit there for five, six, seven hours with nothing to do."
One of the hospital's care-givers took it to another level, recalling how a young boy was able to use one of the iPads from the locker to distract himself during a lengthy chemotherapy session.
I also caught up with Greenway on a number of hot topics concerning the Vikings. Here's a look:
On the release of veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield: "Obviously, when it comes to free agency, you never know what's going to happen. Even from a personal standpoint, you worry because if your cap number is high, you could possibly be that guy. Antoine didn't see it coming, obviously. To me, he's one of the top players on our football team. Veteran leader. Great guy in the locker room. Hard worker. And even at his age, he plays at such a high level. I really hope they can work something out and get him back on our team because he makes us a lot better.
On reaching out to Winfield to see if he'll return (The Vikings have said the door is open): "I haven't reached out to him yet. It probably would be a good idea for some of us veterans to reach out to him just to say, `Hey, we want you back.' If there's a chance he can work it out to come back, that would be great. It also becomes personal because he's been here nine years. He's had a long career just here. It was unfortunate to see it, but obviously we all understand the type of business it is and the job we're asked to do. Hopefully, I can talk to him. Hopefully, a bunch of guys can talk to him and tell him if he wants to play a couple more years, we'd love for it to be with us. "
On the likelihood that middle linebacker will be manned by a rookie: "we'll have to see how things shake out. We don't know what they'll do. They could move some people around. They could change some positions. It depends on how the draft goes or if they reach out to someone in free agency. Obviously, Erin [Henderson] has experience at that position, so that's something you could think about doing as well. If they want to move me there, I don't know. I'm open to whatever, but I'm not sure that's what they're thinking. But I do know that if it's a young guy who ends up starting there, it can work. Every position at some point you have to go young. So it's a normal process that takes place."
On the Percy Harvin trade: "You look at the move from a football standpoint and he's obviously one of our top players. The output that he was producing at when he was healthy was pretty amazing. The talent he has is amazing. It's hard to see a guy like that go, but obviously management thought it was a good move for our football team. And the things that we got in return for the talent level that he has is pretty deep as well. And picking up Greg [Jennings} helps. We'll be happy not to have to play against him anymore. He's also such a great character addition to our team. Just a great guy all the way around. But it's hard to see Percy go. He could be MVP of the league. Last year, I was stumping for him midseason when he was healthy and doing so well for us. That doesn't change just because he's on another team. He's got some amazing talents."
On whether Harvin's sometimes poor attitude ever spilled over to the locker room: "What he was dealing with when it came to [General Manager] Rick [Spielman] and [Coach] Leslie [Frazier], that was in a private setting. We don't get to hear or know all that's going on. There were a couple of instances with him when [players] were around, but that's something that needs to be kept in the locker room, even from the standpoint that he's now on another team. For Percy, the work ethic he has and the talent he has, he put it all out there for us. As a teammate, you have to appreciate that."
More on Jennings: "Greg's got tremendous ability. I know people question his age, which makes me worry because we're the same age [Greenway is 30, Jennings will be 30 in September]. But he can still get vertical over the top of the defense. And from what I hear and know, he runs excellent routes. He's going to be there to bail out Christian [Ponder] when he needs a bailout option. And he can play the slot as well. There are going to be a lot of things he can do to ease that transition away from Percy. We do lack some depth at receiver right now, but I'm sure we'll be able to pick some guys up. We feel pretty confident about the job that Rick and his staff do."
On the league's decision to outlaw the `peel-back' blocks, making it a penalty for an offensive player to throw a low blindside block on a defender even in the box: "I'm in favor of that rule change. I've caught a couple of those in my day. At that point, when it happens, you're just saying, `Ah, it's part of the game.' That's how it works. You gather yourself and try to go on and play. But if you're talking about health and safety, you have to talk about health and safety of defensive players as well."
On the league's decision to outlaw running backs lowering their heads and delivering a blow with the crown of their helmet outside the tackle box and at least three yards down the field: "It's hard for us when you have running back like Adrian [Peterson]. But I think we've come to find out that if there's a rule that's going to be made, it's going to be administered the same way throughout the league. So it might affect us more than many other teams, but at the same point we're going to get that benefit as well. I don't necessarily agree with it. I don't agree with taking the physical portion of the game away. In any way. But I also realize that it is what it is. I'm not going to go out there and stump and say we should do this and get anything accomplished. I'm better off saying, `If these are the rules, then I'm better off playing within the rules.'"
Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder has spent a big chunk of this offseason in Arizona, working out and training at Athletes Performance in Phoenix. This morning, Ponder swung through the Arizona Biltmore where the NFL is holding its annual meetings this week. And with the Vikings using last week to get Ponder a back-up quarterback and a new top receiver, the third-year quarterback stopped Monday to deliver a few thoughts on the recent acquisitions.
Here’s some of what Ponder had to say:
On his contact with Greg Jennings, the newest arrival to the Vikings’ receiving corps …
“I talked to him Thursday night before he signed. I talked to him after he signed. And I’m sure we’ll try to get together at some point before OTAs start. I’m offering him whatever he needs help with. He can come stay at the house or whatever. But we’re excited. I’m definitely excited to have him. … He’s a great route runner. And obviously that’s important. And he’s got some speed and an ability to make plays after the ball is in his hands. We saw that countless times playing against him, in the five games that I’ve seen him play against us. That’ll be good to have. But it’s also his leadership aspect, with the young guys that are in the room already, he’s going to bring a lot to this team and this offense.”
On Jennings’ comments Friday that he studied Ponder to “know what I was getting into” …
“It’s always a positive thing to see. He watched me on film and then he signed. So that’s definitely good. And that’s always important. I think that shows you how smart of a guy he is. He knew to look at what he’s coming into with the offense and with his quarterback. I think that shows his maturity and his intelligence and I’m glad he signed with us.”
On the arrival of Cassel and his thoughts on whether he could be pressured for the starting spot at quarterback despite the continued insistence of GM Rick Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier that he is the undisputed starter …
“I think there’s always a competition. Whether it’s Matt or Joe [Webb] or McLeod [Bethel-Thompson], there’s always competition. And I think competitions is always a good thing. I think it’s always definitely a motivating factor. It helps us push each other. So I think it’s nothing but positive.”
On the group of pass catchers he know has with last week’s signing of Jennings, the re-signing of Jerome Simpson and the continued development of tight end Kyle Rudolph …
“Having a guy like Kyle, I think everybody knows our chemistry together and his ability as a player. Pro Bowl MVP. But with him and adding Greg, who’s obviously a great player as well. And Jerome, who I think will be so much better having this past year under his belt and being able to learn from that and continue to grow in this offense. And I’m sure we’ll draft a guy or two in the draft and guys who can step up and play early. And to have Adrian Peterson in the backfield as well, it helps. I think we’re really coming together as an offense.”
On the communication he had with Cassel last week ...
“We talked after he signed. He gave me a call. And then we’ve texted back and forth a little bit. And I had worked out with him last year for about a week. So we’ve had some conversations. He’s excited, all-aboard. And he’s said that whatever he can offer to help me, he will. I think it’ll be a good relationship.”
On what having a veteran back-up will mean …
“I think it helps. Obviously, he’ll probably know more than I do on certain things and has a different [vantage point] in watching film. I think that’s always good to learn, how guys watch film and what they can see and can pick up on. That’s always a good thing.”
Yes, we know. We’ve really spent a lot of time drilling home the reality that the Vikings’ receiving corps is depleted right now. At present, the receivers under contract are Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright and Stephen Burton. That’s the trio that actually played in a game last season. There’s also Chris Summers, who was on the team’s practice squad.
And that brings us to the one question so many fans are wondering about: What about Greg Childs, a seemingly promising talent who spent his rookie season on Injured Reserve?
You’ll remember Childs was a fourth-round pick a year ago, once a rising star at the University of Arkansas whose college career was derailed in October 2010 when he tore the patellar tendon in his right knee. The recovery time from that injury was slow. Childs returned in 2011 but was highly limited, totaling only 21 catches for 240 yards and zero scores for the enitre season.
But the Vikings saw enough flash, enough potential, enough promise to take a gamble on Childs in last year’s draft. And at times throughout OTAs, mini-camp and training camp, Childs displayed the blend of size, body control and sure hands that justified the Vikings’ hopes.
Said coach Leslie Frazier last August: “His size stands out. To have a big receiver who can run as well as he can and having the catching radius that he has gives you a belief that even when people have decent coverage, because of his size and ability to catch balls in tough spots, he has big-play potential.”
But then came the setback. A major one at that.
In the final minutes of a team scrimmage in training camp, Childs dove for a pass in the end zone and wound up rupturing the patellar tendons in both his left and right knees. It was a major injury and a disheartening setback. The 22-year-old receiver has since attacked his rehabilitation with great effort and positive energy. But the fact remains that a return to full health from injuries that severe registers somewhere between questionable and doubtful. In a league, where every fraction of a second, every little bit of burst matters, Childs has a long road back to even consider being a significant factor as an NFL receiver.
If it took him upwards of 18 months to feel right again after his college knee injury, what’s the realistic timetable of getting him back up to speed with two knees to work on and worry about?
To make a long story short, the Vikings have outside hopes that Childs can still be a part of their plans. But it’s far too early to count on that. And so as they go through the offseason with free agency and the draft, the only sensible way to approach business is with the worst-case scenario in mind: that Childs’ unfortunate injuries will keep him from being a major part of the equation at any point in 2013 or beyond.
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