Perhaps the way the Vikings feel Everson Griffen the most, the means by which their longest-tenured player injects energy into their days, is through his voice.
It crackled through the halls between the team’s locker room and its indoor practice facility Thursday, as Kyle Rudolph stepped through a set of double doors with a knowing smirk on his face while Griffen was still chattering about something behind him. Through a resurgent 2019 season, it’s delivered advice to Ifeadi Odenigbo, encouragement to Kirk Cousins and challenges to the Vikings offense during practices.
It is Griffen’s voice that is again at the center of the Vikings’ pregame huddles. It is his longtime catchphrase — “If you want it, go get it” — that the Vikings have adapted as their slogan for the 2020 playoffs. It provides their soundtrack, and much of their soul, after a 2018 season where it was felt partly through its absence.
“He brings a lot of juice, a lot of energy,” Cousins said. “Tremendous teammate. We love that about him — the energy that he brings. When we didn’t have him last year, you felt that missing piece, because of the energy and the passion. We love him being him, and then what it brings to the whole group. … He’s been a great teammate to me, and it’s been great to have him this year healthy and playing at a high level.”
Griffen will start the fourth playoff game of his career Sunday, after a productive 2019 season in which he reasserted himself as a consistent pass rusher and a team leader following last year’s five-game absence while he went through treatment for mental health issues. Now in his 10th season with the team, the 32-year-old is again a disruptive force on the defensive line and a team captain whose words carry some weight.
It’s possible the Vikings’ 2019 postseason will be his last with the team; Griffen cleared playing-time and performance thresholds that will allow him to void the final three years of his contract and become a free agent next month if he wants, and the emergence of pass rushers Odenigbo and Stephen Weatherly could lead the Vikings in a different direction with Griffen scheduled to carry a $13.9 million cap number next year.
But for now, with the Vikings headed to the playoffs, Griffen seems grateful for where he’s at.
“I think that’s me being consistent each and every week, showing that I’m present and doing the right things,” he said in a recent interview at Eden Prairie’s Vault Fitness, where he trains with movement coach Shawn Myzska. “I think the hardest thing is, it’s a business. Being a leader, it takes some duties, but at the end of the day, I enjoy it, I love it and it’s fun.”
Iron man season
Griffen finished the regular season with 66 pressures — the 14th most among all NFL edge defenders, according to Pro Football Focus — and boosted his 2019 salary by $1.5 million by being active for all 16 games. Assuming he remains on the roster through the playoffs, he will unlock another $500,000 incentive for posting eight sacks.
To defensive line coach Andre Patterson, the pressure numbers are especially vital. He compared sacks, in a season where an end might get 500 chances to rush a quarterback, to home runs in baseball: As they come and go, they can lead players to make unnecessary changes in pursuit of glamorous numbers — when consistent pressure that affects a quarterback’s timing is just as valuable.
“When he’s got a good flow going, you see his explosive get-off, and you see his transition when he gets to the top of the rush — and when I say ‘to the top of the rush,’ I mean that he’s squared up on that offensive lineman,” Patterson said. “He has the ability to explode into that gap off that step immediately. But then, he has the ability to make you look like he’s going to explode into you, and then plant, and explode back underneath you. A lot of guys, when they do that, they have to stutter their feet, because they have to get their mind to tell their feet to do it. When he’s right, you don’t see that little stutter; his body just does it. That’s where he’s been this season.”
How Griffen approaches his work and his life has changed, too. He declined to discuss specifics about his mental health treatment, saying only he has a group of “people behind the scenes” who are on his side, in addition to his wife, Tiffany, their three children and Myzska. But the defensive end spoke about a different perspective that’s allowed him to be more focused on his different jobs — as an athlete, a leader, a husband and a father — while giving himself time to decompress.
His schedule with Myzska is more flexible than it used to be, building in time for him to recover after games. On some days, before (or occasionally instead of) a workout, the two “just talk” about life and their work, Griffen said.
“We just want to find balance; we just want to not be turned on all the time, and be able to change that knob throughout the day,” he said. “At the games, I can be on, but during the week, I’m just being myself. I’m working on being flowing, being graceful, and just trying to become one, learn how to flow, just become a master of my trade.
“The biggest thing is raising things up, not really being on all the time. When I’m playing football, I raise that up. When I’m with my family, I put that number one. When I’m working out with Shawn, I put that number one.”
Decade of work
Griffen’s experience in 2018 wasn’t the first time Patterson has coached a player who had dealt with mental health issues; he did it twice with the Cowboys and once more with the Browns, he said.
“Once you’ve been in this business for a while, you start to figure out that they’re humans just like the rest of us,” Patterson said. “They’ve got family. They’ve got things that lay on them just like the rest of us. In order for them to come out and compete to the best of their ability, they need to have those things in order, too. When they walk away from this building, they’re just like everybody else. I try to do the best job I can to help them manage through things that we all have to learn as we become men with families. It changes.
“And then, I think people think just because they’re rich, they don’t have any problems — when, in actuality, they have more, because they’ve got more people pulling at them, and they’ve never experienced it before. They’ve got to have somebody there to help them through that. That’s something that I’ve always done.”
On Sunday, it will be Griffen’s voice exhorting the Vikings in the Superdome din. Whatever lies beyond that is yet unknown, but a 10th season with the team that has been, by all accounts, positive and productive will end with Griffen surrounded by his teammates in the playoffs.
“I’ve got to do my job to be able to help my team win,” Griffen said. “That’s all I think I’m doing this year — trying to be a positive instead of being somebody who’s impacting the team in a negative way. I feel good about that. And I’m happy with the year. Do I want more sacks? Yeah. Am I around the quarterback a lot? Yeah. But we’re winning games, and that’s what matters the most.”