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Postcard from camp: Vikings

I always get a little nostalgic coming back to Mankato's Minnesota State University, where I once spent a decent chunk of my summer while on the Vikings beat for two different Twin Cities newspapers in the late 1990's, for a visit. The team has camped here almost forever and I understand why. It's a nice, compact camp setting, and the loyal Vikings fans always turn out in droves for the Purple. One Minny fan actually asked me to sign a T-shirt that he had gotten autographed by some players Monday, but I talked him out of it by pointing out that my scrawl would only devalue it. Fortunately, he saw the wisdom of my advice.

1. You'd think the biggest question in Vikings camp would be when is the starting quarterback arriving, but the BrettFavre watch is pretty low key this time around. After all, no one expects to see him before the club heads back to its team complex in Eden Prairie in mid-August anyway.

The more pressing concern is Pro Bowl receiver Sidney Rice, and when he might be full speed after starting camp on the physically unable to perform list due to a lingering hip injury that has lingered longer than expected.

Rice first hurt the hip in January's NFC title game loss at New Orleans, and even though he thought he was ready to take part in a June minicamp, he wound up being shut down after experience trouble making cuts and in getting in and out of pass routes. Eventually Rice saw three specialists, two of which recommended surgery, while noting it wasn't absolutely necessary. Rice has said he'll definitely be ready for the Vikings' opener at New Orleans on Sept. 9, but then again no one expected he wouldn't be ready to go at the start of camp, so there's some building skepticism.

But if you look a little closer, there's not quite so much mystery to the situation. Rice is certainly injured, but there's also a contractual component to his easy-does-it early camp status. He's entering the last year of his rookie deal, making just $550,000 this season, and his new agent, DrewRosenhaus, is looking to get him a rich new deal. With that in mind, Rice is taking a very cautious approach to his hip, and the Vikings are fully on board with that.

"I'm going to be cautious, and it wasn't a problem with Coach (Brad Childress),'' Rice told me after Monday's afternoon workout. "He recommended I start (camp) on the PUP list. It's something that's been bothering me and you want to be healthy for the season ahead and trying to win that trophy. So you want to be smart. Right now, it's just day-by-day and we're taking it slow. We don't want to rush anything.''

After his 1,300-yard-plus breakthrough season of 2009, in which he and Favre tormented defenses all season with their little version of lob ball, Rice is clearly in line for a huge raise. Vikings officials I talked to don't seem overly concerned with his hip, but given the looming labor showdown next year I also don't sense the club is about make a contract extension offer any time soon. For now, Rice and his balky hip are running something of a holding pattern.

2. AdrianPeterson can't really enjoy everyone asking all the time about his fumbling issue. But that's kind of what you bargain for when you develop that particular problem, so naturally my first question to the All-Pro running back was about his renewed efforts to protect the rock.

"It's going well, but it really is all mental,'' Peterson said. "It's not really anything I'm really stuck on. It's just knowing to keep the ball high and tight at all times. But it's funny, no matter how much good you do, they're going to find something to point out and focus on.''

True enough, but those two critical fumbles in the NFC title game loss to the Saints (and he actually took credit for another fumble charged to Favre) are the last image we have of Peterson. It's not a stretch at all to say Minnesota clearly outplayed New Orleans, minus its inability to hang onto the ball. Childress told me he doesn't want Peterson to change his violent, thrashing running style, but the ball-security issue is one of those stories that won't go away until Peterson makes it go away. The way one-time chronic fumbler TikiBarber did with the Giants.

3. This team knows it's built to win now, and there's no beating around the bush about it. A couple players told me Childress said as much in his first team meeting this season, framing 2010 as Super Bowl or bust. But, after losing in overtime of the NFC title game, what other goal can there be? Especially if Favre returns.

"That's just the harsh reality of it,'' Peterson said. "There's definitely a sense of urgency. This group understands that and this whole organization understands that. To shoot for anything else but that would be cheating ourselves. That puts it right in your face and makes you understand what's at stake. For the young guys this year, that tells them the mindset and what we're trying to accomplish.''

And ultimately that's why Favre will once again come back and play later this month. Because he knows this Vikings team has Super Bowl talent and Super Bowl potential, and there's no way he's passing up another shot at getting a career-capping ring. He wants one more go-round with this team, maybe even badly enough that he'd be willing to drive himself from the airport to the team complex this time.

LitoSheppard spent most of last season in RexRyan's doghouse with the Jets, but he's a Viking now and there are some who think the veteran cornerback is going to come in very handy here. With starting cornerback CedricGriffin opening camp on the PUP list after blowing out his ACL on the overtime kickoff against the Saints, reserve cover man BennySapp not practicing either, and 12-year veteran AntoineWinfield coming off a season in which he missed six games with a foot injury, Sheppard might start the season with a larger role than expected.

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Sheppard has history with both Vikings defensive coordinator LeslieFrazier and Childress dating from their days in Philadelphia together, and Minnesota believes he still has some gas left in the tank. Even with how well second-round cornerback ChrisCook has looked in camp so far -- and he had three interceptions Sunday -- the Vikings feel fortunate to have a veteran pair of hands around like Sheppard's.

Got my first up-close look at Vikings rookie running back TobyGerhart, and my only regret is that I wasn't here on the first day of camp, when defensive tackle PatWilliams and linebacker ChadGreenway combined to welcome the Stanford star to the NFL in that veteran sort of way.

"It was a screen play and I kind of got wrapped up and I spun back around,'' Gerhart told me. "And right in the middle of the spin, Pat and Chad just laid me out. It was a good welcome to the NFL. I didn't see it coming at all, but I should have expected it.''

Gerhart said he loves that the Vikings are predominantly an inside zone blocking team, because that suits his running style. "It's one cut for me, and then I'm heading north and south,'' he said. "I think it'll translate well to what I do.''

The exact nature of Gerhart's role hasn't completely been decided, but Childress is high on the change of pace that Gerhart's running style offers in contrast with Peterson's. He could wind up spelling Peterson on first and second down at times, rather than just serving more as a third-down back, as departed Vikings rusher ChesterTaylor was used.

The Pizza Ranch on Madison Avenue in Mankato has the following message on a sign outside its establishment: "Favre eats free during training camp.''

Now, No. 4 can be notoriously tight with a buck, but as one sage Vikings team official said to me Monday morning, if $12 million a year can't sway him to be here, free pizza probably won't do the trick.''

1. I was there that Sunday night in Arizona last December when Vikings linebacker E.J. Henderson broke his leg in grotesque fashion in the second half of their loss to the Cardinals. I wasn't alone in thinking that he'd never play again, but he's back running around and moving pretty well. He didn't even start camp on the PUP list, and Childress said the only problem so far has been that he has had to hold Henderson back. It's a remarkable comeback story in the making.

2. I'll be shocked if I return to Vikings camp next summer and Frazier is still the team's defensive coordinator. He's more than ready to be a head coach in this league, and the team that hires him is getting the closest thing to TonyDungy without actually luring the ex-Colts head coach out of retirement.

3. One-time Vikings quarterback and former NFL MVP Rich Gannon was in camp Monday as part of his SIRIUS Radio gig. Gannon is 44 and retired from the NFL five years ago this month but, if he keeps hanging around and you-know-who doesn't show up, maybe he can make a comeback in Minnesota. After all, he's only 3 years and 10 months older than Favre.

4. I kidded Gerhart that while he has been told Favre is the Vikings quarterback, he has no first-hand knowledge of that, since No. 4 hasn't been seen on Vikings turf since Gerhart was drafted in late April. He responded by telling me that Favre was his childhood idol, even though he grew up in Southern California.

"The only jersey I ever owned was a Green Bay No. 4 jersey,'' Gerhart said. "I had the Cheesehead hat and everything back in the Packers' Super Bowl heyday. It's crazy thinking that now I'm going to take handoffs and catch passes from him. I think I might be in a little awe the first time I meet him.''

Whenever that happens.

5. Other than a quick clip on a Twin Cities station late Sunday night, I haven't really heard much of the band fronted by Vikings punter ChrisKluwe. But I love the name: "Tripping Icarus.''

Gotta love those kickers.