A few hours after he signed a six-year, $73 million contract with the Vikings in April 2008, Jared Allen dined at an Eden Prairie restaurant with new teammates Kevin and Pat Williams and defensive line coach Karl Dunbar.
Allen feasted on shrimp and listened to the banter between the Williams Wall and Dunbar, their mediator. Rapid-fire Pat did most of the talking, but, as Allen remembers, “You couldn’t really understand what he was saying.”
Allen loved it, though. He felt right at home in that tight circle, unencumbered by any nervousness of being the new guy with the mega-contract.
“I said, ‘Oh, I’m going to like these guys,’ ” he said.
As Pat Williams enjoys retirement, the odd couple of Allen and Kevin Williams remains intact, at least for the balance of this season. Those two have been fixtures on the right side of the Vikings defensive line.
Since 2008, they have played 94 games together, including playoffs, and shared roughly 5,200 snaps. They’ve collected multiple All-Pro nominations and trips to the Pro Bowl in careers that deserve Hall of Fame consideration.
They are so in tune with each other’s moves and way of thinking that they often communicate on the field with a simple nod. They’ve become close friends off the field, both married with children, though their personalities could not be more different. Allen is loquacious, Williams uses words as if he’s on a pitch count.
Now, both face uncertain futures as this disappointing season nears completion. Williams and Allen will become free agents at season’s end, and the Vikings likely will look to get younger and cheaper at their positions.
The team drafted rookie Sharrif Floyd in the first round to be Williams’ successor at tackle. And the Vikings might opt to re-sign backup Everson Griffen to replace Allen at end.
The only certainty is that Williams and Allen have three games left as tag-team partners, but they refuse to concede anything just yet.
“Everybody seems like they’re building it up like it’s the end of the road and we might not play again,” Williams said. “It was weird when Pat left, and I’m pretty sure it’s going to be weird when we both are not playing together, either. But we haven’t really [talked about it].”
At age 33, Williams is the team’s oldest player and finishing his 11th season. Allen is 31 and in danger of failing to reach double digits in sacks for the first time since 2006.
But both scoff at the suggestion that they’re incapable of playing at an elite level at this stage of their careers. Allen said he would retire if a team asked him to rotate with somebody.
“I don’t think either of us is at a point where we want to accept lesser roles anywhere,” Allen said. “I still think I’ve got plenty of good football left in me. … Being at the end of our deals, it’s one of those things where you can get caught in the hype. But you know what? You put that tape on and it doesn’t lie. We’re still smashing quarterbacks. Maybe we don’t have the sack numbers that we’ve had, but the disruptions are there. We’re still competing.”
The two met briefly at the Pro Bowl one year, but they didn’t know each other before Allen arrived in a trade with Kansas City. Williams knew of Allen’s reputation as a pass rusher. The Vikings took pride in owning the NFL’s best run defense at the time, so Kevin and Pat made sure Allen understood that responsibility.
“They started busting my hump, [saying], ‘You know, we play the run over here at Minnesota. You have to knuckle up,’ ” Allen recalled.
Allen was drawn to the competitiveness within the defensive line group, particularly the Williams Wall. Those two constantly strived to outdo the other in everything. They even turned their postgame grades by coaches into a friendly but intense competition.
“Shoot, Jared jumped right in without missing a beat,” Kevin said. “And he gave us that edge pass rush that we didn’t have.”
Allen said it took about half of that first season to mesh with Kevin’s style of play. In his prime, Williams was a supremely athletic tackle who could rush the quarterback. Allen said he tried not to “impede” Williams’ approach until Dunbar, their line coach at the time, told him, “Man, just play.”
“I started feeling, ‘OK, I know how we’re going to work,’ ” Allen said.
Now, they react without hesitation. They just know what the other will do in every situation.
“I can give him a look in a game or I just know off a blocking scheme how he’s going to handle his guy,” Allen said. “I know on my second step, if I look over and I see where he’s at, I know where he’s going off that. That’s just years of playing together.”
Playing with pain
Allen got “dinged up” this season and the team tried to persuade him to take a practice off to rest. But he saw Williams dressed for practice.
“If ‘Ticket’ is out there,” Allen said, calling him by his nickname, “I’ve got to go out there.”
Apparently, rest is not an option, even for veterans with their credentials.
“We give each other a hard time,” Williams said. “If I miss a day, they’re going to let me know it.”
They take pride in their durability and willingness to play through an assortment of injuries over the years. Williams has missed only three games in 11 seasons because of injury. Allen has played in every game since joining the Vikings.
“We’re self-motivated,” Williams said. “A lot of guys need speeches and all that stuff. You’ve got to have something in you. The money is great. Everybody wants to get paid a lot. But most of all, we’re motivated to succeed. We want to get the tackles, the sacks, the splash plays. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, that’s the tough part. The games are where you have all your fun. It’s dreadful making it through the week, but that’s why you play through stuff that hurts.”
Allen sounds like a kid on Christmas in reliving how Hall of Fame defensive end Jack Youngblood played with a broken leg in the 1979 postseason.
“That’s the coolest,” he gushed. “I do believe that I get paid a great salary to go out and give it everything I’ve got. It’s the same reason I don’t want to come off the field. I know that I’m at my best on my third wind, sweatier than heck and we need to get a play. That’s when you dig deep and say, ‘I’m better than this fat dude across from me.’ ”
Yes, they can be stubborn, too. Admittedly, they occasionally disagree with coaches’ decisions on strategy, and they prefer to do things a certain way because, well, their way has worked in the past. Those two often reminisce — and remind others — about the success they had as a unit not so long ago.
“Sometimes it’s talking to deaf ears,” Williams said. “But we remember all the time, especially me and him.”
Added Allen: “I think that’s why we relate so well is because the techniques that we use are similar and we know they work. They might be outdated, they might be old, but why build an engine a different way when you know it works?”
Allen leaned forward to the edge of a couch at Winter Park as he recalled his favorite memories of playing alongside Williams.
“One of my favorites is when he went off for four sacks against Detroit [in 2008],” Allen said. “I’m like, this dude is killing me [in sacks]. It was the coolest thing ever. I never knew a D-tackle who had four sacks in a game and could rush that way.”
Allen rattled off a few more games and memories, becoming more animated as he recalled specific details. Williams laughed and shook his head.
“I’ve got a terrible memory,” he said.
Both players have sounded sentimental in recent weeks in discussing their time in Minnesota and their friendship. Allen has opened up about the impact that Williams has made on his personal life, saying their “moral fibers line up.”
“For me, I’ve always looked up to Kevin,” he said. “He’s a good husband, a good father, similar morals, very family-oriented. Now, we’re the old guys on the team so we have something to talk about from our experiences in the league. I know I can call him and he’d be there for me, and I’d be there for him every time.”
They prefer not to think about what might happen after the season, but wherever that road leads, Allen admits it will feel weird if he looks to his left before the snap and “I don’t see 93 down there.”
“Being in this league as long as we have, you learn that everyone’s going to get cut or move on,” Allen said. “The fact that he’s been here 11 years is just crazy. For me, it’s not going to change how I feel about him. We’ll just have to travel a little further to hang out. Off the field, it doesn’t change a thing. On the field, I’ll be watching to make sure he’s doing well wherever it is.”