As the Vikings gathered for their team meeting on Wednesday morning, Mike Zimmer had a series of plays he wanted to show them from Everson Griffen’s game in Green Bay on Sunday.
The highlights — of the defensive end dipping his shoulder low as he banked around David Bakhtiari in the first quarter, of him bull-rushing Lane Taylor into the Packers’ backfield as he forced Aaron Rodgers to throw the ball away in the second quarter — looked like vintage Griffen, full of the athletic ability and fierce edge that’s made him one of the NFL’s most accomplished pass rushers.
But for those who’d seen him up close for the past year, the effort represented something more significant.
“Everson’s really a great person; he cares about the team a lot,” Zimmer said. “He cares about his teammates. He’s one of the hardest-working guys we’ve got. From the day I walked in here, he’s been all in. We wanted to make sure we stuck by him, give him as much support and help as we possibly could, and he did all the work.”
A year ago Saturday, Griffen was taken in an ambulance to a mental health facility after a series of incidents sent police looking for him in downtown Minneapolis and near his home in Minnetrista. Griffen did not play the following day in a loss to the Buffalo Bills, and he missed four more games before returning on Oct. 28 against the New Orleans Saints.
He finished the season with only 5½ sacks, his fewest since 2013, and returned to the team on a restructured deal that slashed his base salary by $4.5 million, while giving Griffen the opportunity to earn up to $1.5 million of that money back through per-game roster bonuses. The defensive end waited in the parking lot of the team facility in March, minutes before the base salary on his old contract was set to become guaranteed for 2019, while the team worked with Griffen’s agent on a deal it would abide for the upcoming year.
If it seemed like a reversal of fortune for a player who had been to three Pro Bowls from 2015-17, Griffen accepted the reworked deal for a chance to stay in Minnesota, where he lives year-round, rather than uprooting his life and moving to a different city. He mined additional on-field creativity through his regular work with Shawn Myszka, his longtime movement coach, and found a team of medical professionals he could trust.
Though Griffen knows at this point his road can only be traveled a step at a time, he’s happy with his progress.
“I’m just continuing to take the proper steps, sticking to my meetings, sticking to the people that are in my corner and helped me along the way to get to this point,” Griffen said. “I feel good, each and every day I come here.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Griffen’s 11 pressures against the Packers on Sunday were the highest single-game total in the league this year. Counting the sack he posted in Week 1, he’s got 15 pressures for the year, which ties him with Danielle Hunter and the Packers’ Za’Darius Smith for the league lead.
His on-field return to form has reinforced the edge of a Vikings defense that’s created an NFL-high five turnovers through two weeks. As defensive end Stephen Weatherly put it on Wednesday, Griffen is the one who “brings the juice” to the team’s defense.
“I like playing my game violent. I like playing my game with passion, for the love of the game — because you never know when it’s going to be your last,” Griffen said. “Being back to being 100 percent healthy and in my right mind, I’m happy. So I’m going to go out there and play this game with passion, and not anger. I want to give this team all the love and all the passion I have for this game. That’s my goal going into each and every Sunday.”
Griffen, who turns 32 in December, has seemed sharp on the field through two weeks — “Quite honestly, a lot of these guys get better with age, because they perfect their techniques more and more,” Zimmer said.
As part of his restructured deal, Griffen can void the final three years of his contract and become a free agent after the season if he plays at least 57% of the Vikings’ snaps this year and posts at least six sacks. That would set him up for another trip to free agency, or the chance to secure additional guaranteed money through a new deal with the Vikings.
His prospects for the future are a ways off, though — and if Griffen has learned anything in the past year, it’s the value of simply staying in the moment.
“I feel back to myself,” he said. “But I just have to keep it up. It’s day-by-day.”