Late Tuesday morning, coach Mike Zimmer huddled the Vikings up at midfield. The players were two days removed from their fifth consecutive victory to open the season and minutes away from being dismissed for their bye week. They would not have to be back in the building until Monday.
Zimmer’s huddle was brief, his message simple: Stay in shape and stay out of trouble.
One player, a practice-squad offensive lineman, ignored that last part. Isame Faciane was arrested early Wednesday morning by St. Louis Park police on suspicion of driving while intoxicated after he wove around construction barriers to travel the wrong way down an off-ramp.
A couple of years ago, the headlines on local news websites and national NFL blogs such as Pro Football Talk might have read, “Yet another Vikings player arrested.” But this was the team’s first known arrest since December 2014. According to a database of NFL player arrests compiled by USA Today, that was the longest the Vikings had gone between arrests since 2000, which is as far back as their database goes.
Some members of the organization were more proud of that off-the-field streak than the five consecutive wins that have made the Vikings the NFL’s lone unbeaten team.
In an effort to make the Vikings an organization that fans will be proud of for what their players do away from the football field, too, their top decision-makers say they have been more selective about the type of characters they bring in to their locker room.
And their player development staff continues to try to put all of their players in position to thrive once they walk out of Winter Park — whether it is for the bye week or for good upon their retirement from football.
Of course, it’s up to the players to steer clear of trouble. But the current regime believes that incidents like Faciane’s arrest will not be the norm under their watch.
“I know it’s important to me that we represent the fans and the Twin Cities [the right way],” Zimmer said in June, at the start of a second straight quiet summer.
The Zimmer effect
From 2010 to 2015, no franchise had more reported player arrests than the Vikings, with 18. That was at least twice as many as 20 other NFL teams had over that span, according to USA Today’s database. The arrests ranged from domestic violence to a player being pulled over for drunken driving in a drive-through lane at McDonald’s.
“There were a lot of them,” Les Pico, Vikings executive director of player development/legal, acknowledged Tuesday. “And I’m sure it was an embarrassment to [the Wilf family] as an ownership and the things that they stand for.”
The 2014 calendar year was especially turbulent for the Vikings with five arrests, starting with linebacker Erin Henderson on New Year’s Day for his second drunken driving offense in three months. The Vikings, after hiring Zimmer as their head coach, released Henderson a month later.
Zimmer and the Vikings also moved swiftly that September to part ways with wide receiver Jerome Simpson after learning of his latest arrest.
Other players took note of how Zimmer handled those two situations.
“No one wants to come back and answer to Zim after being in trouble,” veteran wide receiver Jarius Wright said. “Coach Zimmer has established a mentality when it comes to how we carry ourselves and holding us to a higher standard.”
However, the biggest decision Zimmer was a part of that first year was standing by star running back Adrian Peterson after he was charged with child abuse and banned by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for the final 15 games of the season.
Zimmer saw firsthand during six seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, who were known for gambling on talented but troubled players, that some players are willing to learn from mistakes and become better men. And if he needed a reminder, he could look at defensive end Everson Griffen. After getting arrested twice as a rookie, Griffen has become one of the Vikings’ captains.
“If we didn’t believe in Adrian, he would not still be here,” General Manager Rick Spielman said. “He made a mistake, but it goes back to whether you believe the guy really is a good person. And I don’t think Coach Zimmer or myself or our ownership had any doubt.”
Peterson avoided jail time by pleading no contest to misdemeanor reckless assault and rejoined the Vikings in 2015. He rewarded their faith by winning the rushing title last season and has had no known off-the-field incidents since.
Those within the organization say there wasn’t a specific turning point when it comes to off-the-field conduct, that cleaning up the organization’s image has been a gradual process that started when the Wilfs purchased the team in 2005 — the year of the infamous “Love Boat” party — and was accelerated when Spielman hired the no-nonsense Zimmer.
“I’ve tried to change the culture on that when I came in here,” Zimmer said. “People make mistakes, but they know they’re going to have to deal with me.”
Spielman, who was given final say in the draft room in 2012, admits the Vikings in the past were more lenient when it came to taking chances on players with previous arrests and character concerns. But in recent years, they have focused on draft prospects who love football and are less likely to do something regrettable off the field to hurt the team or jeopardize their careers.
Pico and his assistant, Don Patterson, sit in on prospect interviews at the scouting combine and during the team’s 30 official pre-draft visits. Pico said they try to get an understanding of their background, family dynamics and any off-the field concerns. They then give their recommendations to Spielman and the scouting staff, who take them into consideration when assembling their draft board.
Spielman said that the Vikings have been taking more prospects off their board than in the past.
“I don’t want to say we’re picky, but we’re on the same page on the type of characters we want to try to bring into the organization,” Spielman said. “I wish I could say we’re always going to be 100 percent right, but you can’t. But we try our best.”
He added: “The other thing is everything that we do to give the players the support and life skills they need. I think Les Pico is the best in the business by far.”
The ‘trust factor’
On the bottom floor at Winter Park, below Spielman and Zimmer’s offices, and tucked into an off-the-path corner of the Vikings weight room, is the door to Pico’s office. One of the framed items on the back office wall is a poster with the word “Integrity.” Among the many books scattered around his office is one for expectant fathers and another called “Extreme Ownership,” which is about the Navy SEALs and leadership.
Pico, a former standout quarterback at Scottsdale Community College in his home state of Arizona, has been with the Vikings for a dozen years. He heads the team’s continuing education efforts and is a legal adviser. Nearly 20 years ago, he worked in NFL security.
Pico, with bulging biceps and broad shoulders, looks like he has spent his fair share of time in the weight room outside of his office. But he is soft-spoken and welcoming. Players are popping in and out of his office every day. Usually, it’s just to shoot the breeze. But he is there to help them with a variety of concerns.
“They have built such a trust factor down there that the players know they can go to them for help and [that information] doesn’t have to come upstairs,” Spielman said. “We trust them to do their jobs, and the players trust that they can confide in them.”
Pico and his assistants strive to earn the trust of young players right away and to prepare them for the challenges they will face away from Winter Park. From their first rookie minicamp to the team’s own rookie symposium in late June, they meet with first-year players a few days a week, discussing a variety of topics, from healthy relationships and battling addiction to credit repair and time management.
Pico makes a point to check in with all 90 players on the roster during training camp and continues to engage them during the season. He is available around the clock and offers them confidentiality to discuss whatever is troubling them, unless it is criminal in nature, at which point the Vikings are obligated to report it to the proper authorities.
“There’s been times where we had to jump on a plane and go sit down and visit with a young man that may have had some issues or been in a crisis,” said Pico, who credits the Wilfs for proving the resources needed to help players out.
Pico said that in the past he used to get late-night phone calls at least once a week. He admits that his sleep has been interrupted far less often the past couple of years.
The Vikings are not the only ones who appear to have cleaned up their act.
Player arrests are down across the league, according to Pro Football Talk. In the first half of this year, there were only nine arrests — 20 fewer than in the first half of 2013.
Since the high-profile cases of Peterson, Ray Rice and Greg Hardy in 2014, the NFL’s biggest controversy has been whether a team intentionally deflated footballs.
“I think Commissioner Goodell has made it an emphasis, a focus on being good citizens,” said Kevin Warren, Vikings chief operating officer. “It’s not a right, but it truly is a blessing to work in the National Football League. People are mindful that we are going to be held to a very high standard.”
The Vikings, under Zimmer and Spielman and with the assistance of Pico’s staff, feel they, too, have established a high standard. It helps that they have kept veteran leaders such as outside linebacker Chad Greenway and cornerback Terence Newman to help set the bar.
With 53 players on their active roster, not including the practice squad and injured reserve, they know off-the-field incidents are bound to pop up. But by being more selective on the caliber of people they bring in and by giving them resources to navigate life in the never-blinking public eye, the Vikings hope embarrassing incidents like Faciane’s arrest have become an anomaly.
“We just need to continue to put our foot on the pedal and do all of the right things — bring in the right guys, and our players have made good decisions in terms of being accountable,” Pico said. “And they need to continue to do that.”