NFC North News

The Minnesota Vikings have made news this off-season for signing numerous free agents, but now they're making headlines for losing a player to suspension.

Tired of all the distractions, Vikings coach Mike Tice excused embattled running back Onterrio Smith from the rest of the team's off-season program when the NFL notified Smith last week that he faces a yearlong suspension because of a recent third violation of the league's substance abuse policy.

Smith had five days to appeal the decision, but Tice thought it was best that Smith take the time to deal with his personal problems and issues with the league.

"He'll be gone indefinitely," Tice said. "I really can't speak about any reasons why or when he'll be back. I think it's in the league's hands, and we'll just leave it at that."

It's unclear whether Smith actually tested positive. According to the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement, a player in Stage Three of the substance abuse program receives notice of a third violation by either testing positive or failing "to comply with his treatment plan, as determined by the medical director."

A person with knowledge of the situation said Smith told the team that he missed a scheduled drug test, which is the same as a positive test per league rules. Smith was subject to unannounced testing up to 10 times a year after a second violation resulted in a four-game suspension last season.

League sources insist Smith's latest violation of the substance abuse policy is not related to the April 21 incident at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Smith was detained that day with "The Original Whizzinator," a kit designed to circumvent drug tests.

Smith was dismissed from the University of Tennessee in 2000 for testing positive for marijuana. He transferred to Oregon, where he finished his college career.

Questions about his history with illegal substances caused him to slide to the fourth round of the 2003 draft, where the Vikings selected him. He led the Vikings in rushing with 544 yards last season and was No. 2 on the depth chart behind Michael Bennett before being excused from the team by Tice.

The Vikings were prepared for this. They traded up in the fourth round of this year's draft to select Florida running back Ciatrick Fason. They also selected running back Mewelde Moore in the fourth round of last year's draft.

Tice announced earlier this off-season that there would be an open competition between Bennett, Smith and Moore for the No. 1 running back position. He made Bennett the tentative No. 1.

"Obviously, you're concerned about injuries," Tice said after excusing Smith. "But Michael has had a brilliant off-season, and I think is really making the competition thing for the No. 1 job pretty much a joke from what I've seen. We just pray that he stays healthy."

The Vikings also have 30-year-old veteran Moe Williams. Williams can start in a pinch, but is best suited as the third-down and short-yardage back.

As late as May 16 -- the first day of a four-day voluntary developmental camp - the Vikings were using Smith as Bennett's primary backup. Smith missed the next day's workout because of personal reasons. He practiced again on the third day, but then was excused by Tice before the fourth workout.

"A year is a long time to sit out of a game you love," cornerback Antoine Winfield said. "But, hopefully, it will teach Onterrio what's important. Maybe then he can get his priorities straight."

Barring a successful appeal, Smith will become the 18th NFL player since 1995 to be suspended for a full season. He also stands to lose his $380,000 base salary, and his only contact with the Vikings would be limited to medical treatment only.

Smith, 24, would be placed on the Vikings' inactive list and would not count against the 2005 salary cap. After the 2005 season, Smith would have to appeal directly to NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue for reinstatement.

Ken Irvin, a 32-year-old cornerback heading into his 11th season, showed signs that he could be used at free safety in a pinch.

With starter Darren Sharper and rookie Dustin Fox missing the team's four-day developmental camp (May 16-19), Irvin stepped in at free safety and made few mistakes.

"He looks like he's been there for 10 years," coach Mike Tice said. "He had an excellent week."

Irvin missed all of last season when he ruptured an Achilles' tendon during pregame warm-ups before the season opener against Dallas.

The Lions' rookies have started their crash course in learning exactly what it takes to survive the day-to-day routine of the NFL. They joined the team's veterans at the Allen Park headquarters last week and will have approximately six weeks of work before breaking for the league's rookie symposium, and will get a few more days in early July.

"By the time they cut out of here in July, they've got a pretty good idea of what we do," coach Steve Mariucci said.

And the element Mariucci wants them to learn the best is hard work. In fact, he says virtually each of the team's 25 rookies will have to work harder than he has ever worked at football in his life.

"Over the years, the rookies tend to pull muscles because they simply haven't been working at the pace of our practices," Mariucci said. "Or they train for that combine and then they shut it down a little bit. "They think they're working but they're not working out. Then they get into a mini-camp and these OTAs, and all of a sudden it's fast, change of direction and they tend to pull hamstrings, groins, hip flexors. It happens every year.

"So this is for strength and conditioning and flexibility, core training and those sort of things to prevent those injuries."

The rookies will get some classroom time and will get a refresher course in the offensive and defensive basics they were given during the post-draft minicamp in late April. But mostly they will be spending time with strength and conditioning coach Jason Arapoff.

"We could teach them the whole book but if they're not physically capable of staying on the field, healthy, then you're whistling Dixie."

There is money to be made in the NFL but the rookies are learning they won't get rich in the couple months of off-season workouts. The league rules establish modest limits on how rookies are compensated in mini-camps and organized team activities (OTAs).

"They get room and board," Lions coach Steve Mariucci said. "We put them up, we feed them breakfast and lunch (at the team practice facility) and they get per diem for dinner. That's what they get. There's no paycheck over and above that."

Veteran players frequently try to negotiate some sort of financial rewards for off-season workouts into their contracts but the rookies aren't yet at that stage.

"It's just a room and board scholarship," said Mariucci, referring back to his college coaching days. "That's all it is."

# Rookie linebacker Johnathan Goddard, a sixth-round draft pick from Marshall, is making a position switch — from defensive end to linebacker — and has been surprised at help he's getting from the players with whom he is competing for a job.

"The rest of the linebackers are helping me out to make sure I get everything going," Goddard said. "It's a big adjustment but I think I can get through it.

"Even if someone's there to get your job, you still want to win. If you want to win, you've got to at least teach this person what to do and help them out. You're all teammates or you're all going to be teammates.

"I was a little surprised, but this team has got it going in the right direction. They know what they want and that's a championship. They seem to know what they have to do."

# The "bottom feeding" phase of the free agent market is still a couple of weeks away — when teams begin making their June 1 salary cap cuts. Meanwhile, Lions president Matt Millen is biding his time, keeping a watchful eye on former New England cornerback Ty Law, who was in for a visit two weeks ago.

The Lions have indicated a strong interest in Law and say they will compete financially for the four-time Pro Bowl players when he is sufficiently recovered from the broken left foot he suffered last season.

Mike Sherman would never admit that he wasn't cutting it as both coach and general manager. Three NFC North Division titles and four straight trips to the playoffs are proof to him that the dual role wasn't too much and was working.

However, in January, Packers President Bob Harlan pulled the plug on Sherman as GM and hired veteran personnel man Ted Thompson to replace him. The decision by Harlan clearly crushed Sherman's spirit.

Associates say he barely left his Lambeau Field office for two weeks. Today, Sherman enters the final year on his contract as a wounded and lame duck but also as a man that has reconciled with what happened. He still respects Harlan and enjoys working with Thompson, and his love for the Packers remains boundless.

"If you told me when I was 16 years old that I would be the head coach of the Green Bay Packers I would be in awe of that," Sherman said during a recent mini-camp. "Then you finally become that, you've worked so hard to get here, you become so consumed in staying here. You don't enjoy the ride.

"That's one of the things, when I looked at myself, I want to enjoy my job even more. I made up my mind this year that I was really going to enjoy my job and go from there."

For the first time since the 2000 season, Sherman isn't the GM. Being coach only changes several things.

"As general manager at practice, you're watching the players as players, you are observing talent," Sherman said. "As a coach, you're observing players in your scheme and the scheme itself, the plays you call and how they are working. You have a tendency to be more interactive from that standpoint.

"When I was general manager, I'm trying to evaluate our team and our talent level. You have to sit back a little bit and not get caught up in it. Now I can get caught up in the personality of the player, the play that you're going to run and how you're going to teach the play. That makes you more interactive with the players."

With Brett Favre back home in Mississippi, rookie Aaron Rodgers competed against Craig Nall and J.T. O'Sullivan and looked like a first-round pick.

"You have to be cautious this time of year," coach Mike Sherman said. "What we asked him to do I thought he handled it extremely well. "He showed very good accuracy. Quick delivery. He made a couple bonehead moves, throwing the ball down the middle late, which you never want to do. But No. 4 has done that a few times."

Nall, described by Sherman as "just a fighter," performed poorly on one day but appeared at least semi-competent the other four days. O'Sullivan had fewer chances but made the most plays of any quarterback on the move.

# New running backs coach Edgar Bennett said the team still was trying to determine the best weight for fullback Nick Luchey. He showed up at minicamp lacking body definition and weighing 284.

The other backup fullback, Vonta Leach, might be just as powerful as Luchey at 256 but is stiff and needs improvement as a receiver. Despite the trauma in his personal life, Ahman Green impressed the staff with his burst through holes and by reporting lighter than he was at the opening mini-camp last year.

Running back Walter Williams, who has exceptional strength, flashed power and quickness. Rookie free agent Chaz Williams, an option quarterback at Georgia Southern, showed quick feet and better speed than anticipated.

# Holdout wide receiver Javon Walker played host to his first Big Hit Celebrity Softball Slam last weekend at Miller Park in Milwaukee. With Walker was his new agent, Drew Rosenhaus.

When Rosenhaus was unexpectedly summoned to take an at-bat, most of the 13,447 in attendance booed him viciously. Rosenhaus good-naturedly smiled and waved, then weakly grounded out to short.

"I'm here for the charity," Walker said. "The people are why I am here today. If it wasn't for them, no one would know who Javon is. I'm not a guy who is going to hide. The fans are the ones who are buying the tickets."

Bear Report Top Stories