WHO: Minnesota Vikings
WHEN: Saturday, July 28
HOW: Driving from Green Bay (passed a series of signs in northwest Wisconsin that read, BIEBER FOR SHERIFF)
EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings held their first official training practice in Tony Sparano’s shadow. A video board adjacent to the practice field displayed a black and white photo of Sparano, the team’s well-respected offensive line coach who died unexpectedly last Sunday from a heart attack. Players and staff spent the previous day at Sparano’s funeral, where his wife, Jeanette, delivered a powerful eulogy. Some coaches were so emotionally moved that they had to leave the service early.
Friday was a somber and difficult day, but on Saturday it was back to work. The harsh reality is that the NFL season is still coming, with or without Sparano. The team has kept his memory alive inside the Vikings brand-new facility as well on the video board outside. Near the players’ smoothie station, a small video screen that normally displays schedule announcements now displays a picture of a pack of wolves standing together and a favorite quote of Sparano’s. “When the snow falls and the white wind blows, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.”
And so the Vikings pack will survive. Second-year running back Dalvin Cook, now officially in his comeback season, has directly benefitted from that pack mentality Sparano preached. Cook tore his ACL in October, just three-and-a-half games into his breakout rookie season, and leaned on former Vikings quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford, who also were in the process of rehabbing similar knee injuries.
Cook smiled with confidence after finishing the morning walk-through of the first official training camp practice, but he grew serious when discussing the toughest part of the rehab process, the part that felt futile and filled him with doubt. Cook had his surgery in Pensacola, Fla. with Dr. James Andrews and then returned to Minneapolis about a month later, after the Vikings returned from their game in London. The next two weeks were Cook’s lowest point. He was behind in his rehab and hadn’t gotten his range of motion back when he returned to the Vikings training room.
“Me and Sug [Vikings head trainer Eric Sugarman], we bumped heads for about a week or two, because I had to get that range of motion back,” Cook says. “That's when they are pushing and pulling on your leg, so you can get it back, scar tissue breaking, it's a lot of pain man.”
“Oh yeah, he looked terrible walking around,” says tight end Kyle Rudolph. “You could definitely tell that it was stiff. Getting back that range of motion is the hardest part. It's like running into a brick wall every day. One of these days you are going to knock it down, you just don't know when it is.”
Cook knocked that brick wall down, and he’s now feeling comfortable enough with his knee that he’s shed his knee brace for camp, in order to mentally leave the ACL tear behind him. “I feel like my old self,” Cook says. “I feel like I am a step ahead.”
Cook looked like his old self in Saturday’s practice. Without pads, it’s difficult to judge, but Cook showed off his speed against the defense.
In his three and a half NFL games, Cook was a dual-threat back. He gained 354 yards rushing on 74 carries and caught 11 passes for 90 yards. New offensive coordinator John DeFilippo will use him in much the same way as he was last year, running the ball and catching passes out of the backfield.
New Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins hasn’t yet seen what Cook is capable of. “I am excited to stand beside Kirk and make plays for him, Cook says. “Kirk hasn't seen what I can do yet and a lot of people haven't. They've only seen a glimpse of it.”
Football is back in Minnesota, and so is Dalvin Cook. “I’ve seen him deal with adversity, he comes out here with a smile on his face every day,” says linebacker Eric Kendricks. “When you see a guy come out here with kind of attitude, you can't help it but be infectious.”
Sans knee brace, Cook is primed for a big season. His teammates are betting on him to be exactly who he was becoming at the start of last season. “Last year he was just getting his feet wet and he was ready to shock the world,” says receiver Stefon Diggs. “Now he is on the road back to putting the world on notice that he is a baller. My money is on Dalvin.”
“OH, I DIDN’T KNOW THAT": Kirk Cousin was known for having his own “office” at the Redskins facility, because he wanted his own personal workspace to watch film and take notes. In the Vikings massive facility, there’s no need for Cousins to ask for his own window-less cubicle. “There are plenty of offices here for him to use,” Rudolph laughs, as he gestured at the huge facility behind him.
Trevor Siemian, now Cousins’s backup, says that Cousins has a large storage bin in a corner of the quarterbacks room where he’s kept years of old playbooks and game-planning notes from his Redskins and Michigan State days. “He has the most real estate in our quarterback room for sure,” Siemian says.
STORYLINE TO WATCH: A handful of young players to keep an eye on: Wide receiver Brandon Zylstra, a CFL product who played Division III football in Minnesota, has been making some impressive catches, starting in OTAs last spring. He’s a total underdog in the Adam Thielen undrafted mold, but there may be room for him on the roster if he continues to play well in camp. The Vikings also like rookie tight end Tyler Conklin, their fifth round pick in the draft. First rounder cornerback Mike Hughes has also had a good spring, though it’s not clear yet whether he will play inside or outside. Second-year defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson has had a good offseason, after appearing in just five games last season as a rookie fourth-round pick. He could contribute to much-needed depth on the defensive line. Because of the issue of d-line depth, the Vikings would like fourth-round draft pick Jalyn Holmes to be ready to play right away this season at defensive tackle.
TOP POSITION BATTLE: Offensive line is the Vikings’ biggest issue. The right tackle spot is up for competition and the team would like Brian O’Neill, their 2018 second-round pick out of Pitt, to win that job, so that they can keep Mike Remmers on the inside at right guard.
OFFBEAT OBSERVATION: The Vikings recreated legendary head coach Bud Grant’s office in their new facility. Every detail is there, right down to the wood-paneled walls and taxidermy hunting trophies... The facility also includes a room for front office employees called, “The Dash,” which includes a row of treadmills with standing desks above them. Employees can walk (or run) on a treadmill while sending emails… The Vikings thought of everything when it came to designing this new facility. As a relatively short person, (I’m 5-3) I always struggle whenever I have to sit in an NFL team’s auditorium for a press conference or event. The seats are typically designed extra wide and long to accommodate the size of the players, which means my feet don’t touch the ground and I have to sit on the very edge of the seat or it will swallow me whole. To combat this, the Vikings auditorium has a stack of small footstools so that small people like me can actually sit.
PARTING THOUGHTS: Tight end Kyle Rudolph thinks DeFilippo’s offense will be a great fit for him. All you have to do is look at how DeFilippo, while quarterbacks coach with the Eagles last season, used tight ends Zach Ertz and Brent Celek last year to understand exactly why Rudolph is jazzed about the system.