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.
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.’”
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.”
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.”
Adrian Peterson was chosen the Vikings' Ed Block Courage Award winner by his teammates.
Since 1984, each team names a winner of the award to recognize a teammate who overcomes great adversity.
Peterson has rebounded from major knee surgery to challenge the NFL's single-season rushing record.
Here is the team's release:
Vikings RB Adrian Peterson has been selected as the 2012 Ed Block Courage Award recipient by his teammates.
During Week 16 of the 2011 season, Peterson tore his ACL and MCL against the Washington Redskins. Eight months removed from the major knee injury, Peterson was true to his word and was in the starting lineup for Week 1 of the 2012 season. Peterson scored 2 TDs and rushed for 84 yards in the overtime victory versus Jacksonville. The 4-time Pro Bowler has appeared and started in all 14 games this season.
Peterson is in the midst of his greatest season as a member of the Minnesota Vikings. The 2-time All-Pro RB currently leads the NFL with 1,812 rushing yards and is tied for 2nd with 11 rushing TDs. Over the past 8 games, Peterson has rushed for over 100 yards 8 times and eclipsed the 200-yard mark twice. His 1,313 rushing yards since Week 7 ranks as the best 8-game stretch in NFL history. With 2 games to play, the 6-year veteran is 294 yards shy of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards set in 1984. He has tied Barry Sanders’ (’97) record of 7 50+ yard rushes in a single season. Peterson has 2 TD runs of 82 yards this season, a career long.
Since 1984 the Ed Block Courage Awards annually honors one player from every NFL team who exemplifies commitment to the principles of sportsmanship and courage. Recipients are selected by a vote of their teammates to recognize both on and off the field extra efforts and their ability to overcome great adversity, whether it be personal or professional. The Ed Block Courage Award is named in honor of Ed Block, the longtime head athletic trainer of the Baltimore Colts. Winners travel to Baltimore every March to receive their trophy at a gala in their honor and spend time at the local Courage House at St. Vincent’s Center, a facility specializing in working with abused children. This visit, and the time spent with the children, allows each recipient to fully comprehend the true meaning of the award.
For more information on the Ed Block Courage Award Foundation, visit www.edblock.org.
Vikings Ed Block Courage Honorees
Cedric Griffin............... 2010
E.J. Henderson........... 2009
Kenechi Udeze........... 2008
Chad Greenway......... 2007
Matt Birk....................... 2006
Koren Robinson.......... 2005
Corey Chavous........... 2004
Eric Kelly...................... 2003
Lewis Kelly.................. 2002
Daunte Culpepper..... 2001
Gary Anderson............ 2000
Robert Griffith.............. 1999
Randall Cunningham 1998
Robert Smith............... 1997
Scottie Graham........... 1996
John Randle................ 1995
Cris Carter................... 1994
Henry Thomas............ 1993
Darrin Nelson.............. 1992
Terry Allen................... 1991
Gary Zimmerman....... 1990
Jim Gustafson............. 1989
Leo Lewis.................... 1988
Scott Studwell............. 1987
Walker Lee Ashley..... 1986
Keith Nord.................... 1985
Steve Riley................... 1984
Alan Williams isn’t big on moral victories. So while the Vikings have been solid defensively the last two weeks in Chicago and Green Bay, the defensive coordinator points to only one thing: the Vikings still lost.
“Still not good enough,” Williams said. “They still scored too many points.”
The Bears and Packers combined to convert 57 percent of their third downs (20-for-35). Connected with that, the Vikings’ defense has also been chewed up by lengthy, draining, time-consuming drives. In Week 12 in Chicago, the Vikings allowed a 14-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter.
Last week, the Packers ran 11 minutes off the clock to open the fourth quarter, marching 73 yards in 17 plays before Mason Crosby kicked a game-sealing 31-yard field goal. There were no major defensive breakdowns on that series. But there were no big plays either.”
“It’s one guy here, one guy there, not getting our job done, not taking care of our assignments,” Williams explained. “It builds up and when you have a team like that, if you don’t take care of your assignment on every play, they’ll make you pay.”
One thing at a time
Williams believes his players have fallen into the trap too often this season of “trying to do more than their supposed to.” That’s again been a point of emphasis this week as the Vikings attempt to shore things up for Sunday’s game with Chicago.
“The preaching point, the sticking point is if you do your job, that will be plenty good enough to win a ball game and to get off the field series after series,” Williams said.
It’s a concept easier preached than practiced, especially with a team growing increasingly desperate to get back on the winning track. Williams understands the challenge for players in harnessing their desire to make something happen.
“But the point is, when you look at tape and we do get off the field and we are playing good football, it is just that: guys doing their job. We’re trying to hammer that down and make sure we get that done this week.”
Williams was most peeved last Sunday by the number of costly penalties his defense incurred. Officially, the Vikings’ D drew four flags for 38 yards. But a Letroy Guion offsides penalty was only wiped off the books because Aaron Rodgers used the free play to throw a 32-yard touchdown pass to James Jones. And Everson Griffen’s offsides penalty a few series later was declined when Rodgers used the free play to draw a 23-yard pass interference flag on Mistral Raymond.
"The first rule of winning is don’t beat yourself," WIlliams said. "And in a lot of respects, it had more to do with us than it did the Packers."
Rodgers’ cadence and hard snap counts often provide opposing defenses with headaches. But Williams said, that’s not a valid excuse for the Vikings’ miscues.
“You move when the ball moves. It’s that simple,” Williams said. “You have to tune out the cadence, you have to tune out the gyrations and get off the ball when it moves. … When you have a team that’s as good as Rodgers is and as good as they are on offense, they will make you pay if you make mistakes. And they did.”
Coach Leslie Frazier downplayed the significance of the team's decision to work out Brian Stahovich and other free agent punters just five days after Chris Kluwe's poor performance helped put the Vikings in an early 10-0 hole en route to 36-17 loss to Tampa Bay at Mall of America Field.
"We worked out some different guys [Tuesday]," Frazier said. "We worked out some linemen, some punters. We worked out a defensive back over the weekend. We worked out different positions. It's something we'll do throughout the season. We'll probably bring in some guys next week as well.
"[General Manager] Rick [Spielman] and the personnel department do a great job of just helping us to have a rolodex of players that could be avialable if we have an injury or something else occurs. It's something that will we ongoing for us through the year, bringing in guys. We've always done that."
Kluwe has been one of the best punters in team history since signing as a free agent in 2005. Thursday was one of the worst performances of his career. He averaged just 37.8 yards on six punts. His second punt was a 20-yard shank out of bounds. The Bucs got the ball at their 42-yard line and turned the short field into a field goal
"Chris is a pro," Frazier said. "He'll figure this out. Between [special teams coordinator] Mike Priefer and our staff, he'll come through it. He's been in this league for awhile now. He knows how to look at himself and look at tape and figure things out. Mike always does a great job with him so he'll get through this."
Frazier said he doesn't think Kluwe's political activism has anything to do with Thursday's poor performance on national prime-time television.
"He's been able to deal with so many things in his career," Frazier said. "He's able to focus in these situations on the task at hand. He's been a very good punter, which he is. So I don't think anything off the field is distracting him. He knows how to focus on his job. We fully expect him to have a big game for us on Sunday."
Kluwe said the team's decision to work out punters doesn't bother him.
"That's the way the NFL is run," he said. "It's nothing personal. If they feel I'm not performing my job, they will find someone who can.
"I just approach each week the same way. That I'm going to try and do the best job possible. The way I've always approached this job is I will be cut if I don't perform. There's no extra incentive there because that's the way I've always viewed it."
Kluwe said his problem Thursday is easily correctable.
"I'm just going too fast and not letting myself get situated with my drop," Kluwe said. "So that leads to an inconsistent drop and just not hitting the ball well. Just try to slow myself down and not rush myself and just hit the ball the way I know I can hit it.
"It's just correcting some minor things and then going out and hitting the ball consistently well, which I've been able to do for quite a while now. I just have to start doing it again."
Despite Frazier's attempt to downplay the significance, Kluwe said he knows why they worked out punters.
"The main problem is you can't have a 20-yard punt in the first quarter on a long field against a team and give them momentum like that," he said. "That can't happen in the NFL. I just have to have better punt there."
Kluwe also was asked for his reaction to the outcry via Twitter and elsewhere that he "just focus on football" rather than choose to be such an outspoken proponent of gay marriage rights.
"Generally, I just ignore them," Kluwe said. "I read all of them, but I don't really think about them. The funny thing is if you look at that argument, the basic foundation of that argument is why don't you worry more about a children's game than basic human rights. Yeah, generally I'm going to go with the basic human rights on that issue."
Frazier still mulling cornerback decision: The assumption is cornerback Chris Cook's broken arm will force the Vikings to move Josh Robinson from nickel back to starter and A.J. Jefferson from dime back to nickel back. Hold on a second, says Frazier, who won't make that call until the end of the week.
Asked what he was looking for from the Cook and Jefferson, Frazier said, "The consistency in practice and who grasps the game plan the best and gives us the best chance at this stage of the season to go out and be effective at the cornerback position opposite Antoine [Winfield]."
Frazier said the coaches are leaning one way, although he wouldn't say which way.
"We have an idea of what direction we want to go," he said. "But we have to see how it goes in practice the next couple of days."
Vikings still have roster opening: The Vikings still haven't filled the roster spot that's been open since they put Cook on injured reserve on Friday. Frazier was asked if the team is waiting to make a move until Thursday's 3 p.m. trade deadline.
"It's different factors, without giving too much [information] away," Frazier said. "You want to do everything you can. I know [General Manager] Rick [Spielman] and our personnel department is doing everything we can to improve our team. You want to exhaust all avenues in doing that."
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