IT'S TIME for the Vikings to put up or shut up, and they know it. Even without Randy Moss the offense will keep scoring plenty of points; it's the defense that needed fixing. Minnesota has spent a ton of money and used a lot of high draft picks the last five years in trying to make the defense a championship-caliber unit, and it's time for some postseason payoff. "Everybody's made us champions on paper," says defensive end Lance Johnstone, a free-agent signee in 2001. "We feel it."
The Vikings were the only NFL team to rank in the bottom 10 in total yards allowed every season since 1999, so vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski used the cap dollars he saved by trading Moss--$42 million over the next four years--to acquire four free agents who should fortify a defense that was steamrollered for 4.6 yards per rush last year: former Bills nosetackle Pat Williams, a 317-pound run stuffer; Sam Cowart, an aggressive middle linebacker formerly with the Bills and the Jets who is familiar with coordinator Ted Cottrell's system; Fred Smoot, a cocky, clingy cornerback late of the Redskins; and former Packers safety Darren Sharper, who has more interceptions (31) over the last five seasons than any other player. Cowart will call the signals, and Sharper will be the de facto captain of the secondary, two key roles in Cottrell's attacking scheme.
With so much turnover in the free-agency era, finding the right blend of players to form a cohesive unit from year to year has become a science. Players who looked great elsewhere might struggle to fit into a new team's system. "The benefit we have is that I coached Pat and Sam in Buffalo, and they know this defense probably better than any other they've played in pro football," says Cottrell, who was the Bills' defensive coordinator from 1998 through '00. "Fred Smoot fits like a glove because he's a cover corner and we like to play man, not zone. And Darren Sharper [who spent the last eight years in Green Bay] knows this division probably better than anyone. That's why I don't think the adjustment period should be too long."
If the defense performs the way Cottrell envisions, two immediate improvements over last year should be obvious. First, the addition of Pat Williams makes All-Pro tackle Kevin Williams even more dangerous to quarterbacks; for the past two years he has had to fight through double teams to rack up 22 sacks. "When I saw we signed Pat, I had a smile like the Grinch," Kevin says. "You have no idea how much that should help me. Now offenses have to pick their poison up front with us." Second, by adding Antoine Winfield in 2004 and Smoot this year, the Vikings finally have a pair of quality cover corners. The combination of those two changes should make it much tougher for opponents to throw against the Vikings.
But the man who's really on the hot seat is coach Mike Tice, who begins his fourth full season. The last two years Minnesota started 6--0 and 5--1, only to lose seven of its final 10 games each season. The Vikings sneaked into the playoffs as a wild card in 2004, beating the Packers before losing to the Eagles in the divisional round. There were excuses for the stumbles down the stretch--injuries to key players and distractions created by Moss, for example--but Tice has been hit with a large share of the blame. Critics say he hasn't been tough enough on the players and, in particular, allowed Moss to get away with too much.
One of the media's favorite sources for a good quote, Tice this summer has been noticeably guarded in his comments. One training-camp press conference lasted all of 93 seconds. Players say Tice is the motivator he's always been, but they notice he's more businesslike. "Mike's grown as a coach," Johnstone says. Fiercely defensive in the past about his coaching ability, Tice appears ready to let the team's performance speak for him. "The biggest thing you need late in the season is to keep being physical," he says. "We will be a more physical team. As far as me, I'll let the experts judge me the way they want. I'm not going to answer questions about myself."
Fortunately for the Vikings, there isn't a great team to contend with in the NFC North, though the Packers have won the division three years in a row and the Lions and the Bears are on the rise. "This team doesn't feel maybe we'll win," says Tice. "They feel it's our time." --P.K.
Cornerback Fred Smoot led the Redskins in interceptions in three of his four seasons in Washington, and he's trying to take his game to an even higher level. He weight-trained so hard in the off-season that he strained neck muscles, causing him to miss the first week of camp. "I'm stronger than I've ever been," says the 5'11", 174-pounder, "and it hasn't taken anything away from my cover ability." Cover guys who can sting receivers are rare, but that's what the Vikes think they have in Smoot.
An Opposing Scout's View: Enemy Lines
What worries me the most about the offense is the backfield. Michael Bennett is a speed guy, very limited, and I don't think he'll hold up physically for 16 weeks. I bet Ciatrick Fason, the durable rookie from Florida, starts before the end of the year.... Losing [center] Matt Birk [to hip surgery] is a crippling blow to the line. There's no way they'll be as good a running team as they were last year.... Bryant McKinnie was drafted to be a franchise left tackle, but I haven't seen it. He's a good enough drive-blocker, but he gets beat around the edge too much.... Nobody's talking about it, but the return of Jim Kleinsasser after knee surgery will be as big for this team as the drafting of wideout Troy Williamson. Mike Tice likes the power running game, and losing Kleinsasser last year was like losing a third tackle. That's how great a blocker he is.... Kenechi Udeze has to develop more moves as a pass rusher. He's too predictable and gets stuck on blocks.... I don't think Sam Cowart will hold up in the middle for 16 games.... If I were building a defense, my top pick just might be Kevin Williams. It's amazing how productive he is dealing with double teams.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2004 statistics
2004 RECORD: 8--8
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): OFFENSE 18/2/4 DEFENSE 21/29/28
COACH: Mike Tice; fifth season with Minnesota (23--26 in NFL)
MARCUS JOHNSON (R) [NEW ACQUISITION]
PAUL EDINGER [NEW ACQUISITION]
FG MADE 15
TRAVIS TAYLOR [NEW ACQUISITION]
NAPOLEON HARRIS [NEW ACQUISITION]
SACKS 11 1/2
FRED SMOOT [NEW ACQUISITION]
SAM COWART [NEW ACQUISITION]
PAT WILLIAMS [NEW ACQUISITION]
SACKS 2 1/2
DARREN SHARPER [NEW ACQUISITION]
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 170)
11 TAMPA BAY
18 at Cincinnati
25 NEW ORLEANS
2 at Atlanta
9 Open date
16 at Chicago
23 GREEN BAY
30 at Carolina
13 at N.Y. Giants
21 at Green Bay (M)
4 at Detroit
11 ST. LOUIS
25 at Baltimore
NFL rank: T24 Opponents' 2004 winning percentage: .480 Games against playoff teams: 5