Harrison Smith rarely, if ever, reveals his emotions when he’s being interviewed. He is easily the most stoic Vikings player in the locker room in those settings. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if his team won or lost based on his demeanor.
The All-Pro safety is courteous and thoughtful, but he shows the same level of emotion as a Buckingham Palace guard. Nothing but stone-faced.
Smith let down his shield Tuesday in a way that was both jarring and illuminating. He choked back tears when asked about linebacker Anthony Barr’s decision to turn down a more lucrative free-agent contract from the New York Jets this offseason to return to the Vikings.
Smith’s trembling voice caught everyone by surprise, even Smith. “I didn’t think that would happen,” he said, cracking a sly smile.
“He’s one of my best friends,” he continued. “Honestly, I wanted him to go get as much money as he could make. Pro sports, that’s how things happen. I obviously wanted him here as well. So I wasn’t going to be upset one way or the other. It’s just … it’s an emotional game and you make friendships and you make plays together and you’re pumped for the guy next to you. It’s why I play.”
The Vikings returned to work this week to start preparation for the 2019 season. Coming off a belly-flop season, expectations should remain high because their roster makeup in talent and financial commitments still mandates a win-now edict.
Players met with the media Tuesday, and there was something about Smith’s emotional display and defensive end Everson Griffen’s candidness in discussing why he accepted a $3 million pay cut to stay with the team that felt authentic in explaining the bond that has kept coach Mike Zimmer’s defensive core intact.
That group has been together a long time by NFL standards — Smith, Barr, Griffen, cornerback Xavier Rhodes, linebacker Eric Kendricks and nose tackle Linval Joseph. They have made Pro Bowls, earned big contracts and formed the backbone to one of the NFL’s best defenses in recent years.
All of them are still in the prime of their careers and important pieces in Zimmer’s scheme. Those are tethered to Zimmer in trust and communication.
Their window together won’t stay open forever, though. The raw emotion we witnessed Tuesday was a stark reminder of the urgency they must feel to reach the finish line together and win a championship.
Barr’s change of heart was based on comfort level, but it also dripped of unfinished business and wanting to see something through, if possible. Leaving more money on the table elsewhere runs counter to the philosophy that NFL players should always maximize their earning potential before the league spits them out.
“I feel like we just love playing with each other,” Kendricks said. “We know what kind of group we have. We have each other’s backs. We know what we’re all chasing.”
Zimmer’s influence on the organization has enabled his “guys” to stay together, but now it’s incumbent on the front office (and Zimmer) to address shortcomings on offense so that the Vikings can become legitimate contenders before an inevitable breakup of the defensive nucleus. The onus falls squarely on quarterback Kirk Cousins to perform better in big games and General Manager Rick Spielman to fix the offensive line.
Life in the NFL changes quickly.
“This business is cutthroat,” Griffen said. “You can have five, six, seven good years and then next thing you know [you’re cut]. But I’m blessed to be here. I want to be a Viking for life.”
Few veterans get to make that choice. Keeping a core intact requires teams to be patient, financially nimble and blessed by some degree of luck.
Most of Barr’s teammates probably assumed he was leaving this offseason. Kendricks trained with Barr every morning throughout his negotiations, but he tried to avoid bugging his friend for updates. When news leaked that Barr was signing with the Jets, Kendricks sent him a text.
“Hey, it’s going to be weird not playing with you,” he wrote.
“Just wait a second,” Barr wrote back.
The band wasn’t breaking up just yet. They get at least one more season together. The importance of that was evident when the unflappable safety had to compose himself.