Joe Berger played with three teams in his first six seasons — the Panthers, Cowboys and two stints with the Dolphins — before landing a steady job with the Vikings in 2011. During those stops, he became familiar with Vikings offensive line coach Tony Sparano.
“I had him as an O-line coach in Dallas, and then when he took the head coaching job in Miami a year later, I followed him there,” Berger said. “I was with him there and then he came back here. I’ve just kind of been with him a lot.”
Berger said he has gotten to know Sparano well, and each situation provided a unique experience.
“In Dallas I was a young player so I had a lot to learn techniquewise, and he really helped me advance as an offensive lineman and be an NFL player,” he said. “In Miami he was kind of the head coach role so not as hands-on. Then just to see him back here, just some of the stuff I learned before and grow from there.”
Does Berger feel like Sparano, who has been coaching in the NFL since 1999, is a different coach now?
“No, not really,” Berger said. “He has been pretty consistent with his style and the way he coaches and the technique he teaches. I would say it’s pretty much the same.”
One of the things Berger said he learned from Sparano is the versatility to play several line positions.
“[In Dallas] I was the backup swing guy [at] both center and guard, inside guys, just learning the offense and technique there,” he said. “In Miami, primarily center, and here, wherever, I guess.”
After having played for several teams, Berger was asked to compare NFL head coaches and philosophies.
“They’re all a little different, but football is football at the end of the day,” he said. “You boil it down and you have to move somebody in the run game and stop somebody in the pass game. It’s different places, different teams, but at the end of the day, it’s football.”
And how about Vikings coach Mike Zimmer? “He’s a good coach,” Berger said. “He pushes us. And it’s great.”
Big milestones, big season?
Berger is nine games away from appearing in 100 with the Vikings, which he considers a great potential milestone.
“Any opportunity you have to make it on the field is a big deal,” he said. “It’s hard to make a team in the NFL, and I just feel very grateful to the teams I’ve been able to play for, and especially for the opportunity the Vikings have given me.”
When asked about some of the offensive line’s struggles, Berger said he knows the group will improve.
“We’re going to be better,” he said. “We’ve all committed to that. We have some work to do still, but we’re committed to do better.”
Can this team get back to the postseason?
“Our focus is just one game at a time,” Berger said. “Win that first game, and then build from that. You can look at the big picture, but some of that gets you a little distracted from what you’re trying to accomplish.”
Berger didn’t start his first game in the NFL until 2009 with the Dolphins, and between 2009 and 2013 he started 29 games — 20 with the Dolphins and nine in his first three seasons with the Vikings. In 2014 he started nine games at right guard, getting an opportunity when then-starter Brandon Fusco suffered a season-ending torn pectoral injury.
In 2015 Berger had arguably his best season, stepping in at center when John Sullivan injured his back.
Berger started all 16 games that season, and he made a big name for himself when Pro Football Focus named him the best center in the NFL.
Berger incurred a concussion during Week 12 last season. That led to Nick Easton getting a start at center and playing well, which moved Berger back to guard.
He is unconcerned about which position he plays this season, but he hopes he can consistently start at one spot.
“I mean, I like playing both of them,” he said. “I think it just takes some time to adjust to the other position and get the technique under control. Because they are different enough that it takes a little bit.”
From small beginnings
It’s amazing to think that Berger’s long NFL career all started as a walk-on at Michigan Tech. He said that starting at that level gave him a lot of room for growth.
“You have a lot to learn. When you first get here, my rookie year, it was a big difference between where I played,” he said. “I think it is for every college kid, but especially for me coming in and seeing the skill that the NFL players have and the speed of the game, and kind of the advanced playbook you have to learn. It just took some time, maybe longer than what some of the big-school guys take.”
Has he enjoyed his time with the Vikings?
“It has been seven great years with the Vikings,” he said. “The Vikings have been good to me. We haven’t always had the record the way we want it, but we’ve played on some great teams and had some fun.”
• Vikings coach Mike Zimmer on the improvements he has seen from defensive lineman and former Louisiana State standout Danielle Hunter: “Danielle has a terrific athletic skill set in the fact that he’s got long arms, speed and strength. He’s an extremely hard worker and he’s going to work a lot on his hand placement and his long arm when he uses that.”
• Former Vikings special teams standout Cordarrelle Patterson grabbed his first touchdown reception for the Raiders in the preseason, a 17-yard score in a 24-20 loss to the Cowboys in Dallas on Aug. 26. He finished that game with four receptions for 30 yards. He also returned two kickoffs for 48 yards.
• The Gophers’ first big test in the nonconference schedule might not come Saturday at Oregon State, a team that finished 4-8 last season and lost its opener 58-27 at Colorado State, but rather when they square off against Middle Tennessee on Sept. 16. The Blue Raiders finished 8-5 last season and lost 52-35 to Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl.
• Twins President Dave St. Peter said the team hopes to revamp two entrances to improve crowd flow at Target Field. “There has always been a pinch point in the right-field corner where Gate 29 and Gate 34 come together and we’re going to try to widen that concourse by as much as 40 feet,” he said. “I think that is going to be a huge improvement for fans coming in and out of the ballpark. Not really revenue-driven improvement, but just more of a fan improvement.”
• No one questions Harrison Smith has great talent at safety, but the Vikings standout said he is looking to get better after having no interceptions last season for the first time in his career. “There is a lot of areas that I want to improve on and make a bigger impact in games,” he said. “I didn’t get my hands on the ball very much last year, so that’s something I want to do this year.”