NFC North News

The Vikings have a new front man, while the Lions and the Packers are contemplating the future of their defensive backfields for different reasons.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS Apparently, former Vikings owner Red McCombs figures he can have his cake and eat it, too.

Or, in this case, his $354 million bonanza and credit should the Vikings win a Super Bowl in the near future. McCombs sold the Vikings to New Jersey developer Zygi Wilf for $600 million seven years after he bought them for $246 million.

"This year, it will be my team," McCombs said in a farewell teleconference with reporters on the day his $600 million sale to New Jersey developer Zygi Wilf closed. "This will be my team, regardless of the fact that we're totally out of ownership. This will be my team. It's obvious we were involved in putting this team together, the staff that will run it and such.

"Each year, it will be a little less my team. But in my own mind, I will feel ownership of this team as we move on."

McCombs compared his feelings for the Vikings to those he had for the San Antonio Spurs after he sold them in 1993. The Spurs won the 1999 NBA title and recognized McCombs afterward.

"They were generous enough to invite me to all of the celebrations and gave me a ring, for which I was very grateful," McCombs said. "I felt very much a part of it because most of the players and coaches that were there, I'd have had a big role with.

"So there would be no one that would feel any more sheer joy of the (Vikings) doing well this year than me."

McCombs took credit for the Vikings' active off-season. The addition of potentially six new defensive starters has positioned the Vikings as a trendy early Super Bowl pick.

What McCombs left unsaid was why he signed off on about $20 million in bonuses for the new faces. Because the bonuses were deferred, it's Wilf who picks up the tab.

Also, one has to wonder if McCombs will be willing to accept the blame if the Vikings' offense sputters without Randy Moss. McCombs pushed the Moss trade to the Oakland.

--New owner Zygi Wilf met the Twin Cities media this week at the team's decrepit Winter Park headquarters. "The first thing we're going to do is fix the air conditioning," Wilf said, "and then we're going to take care of that (Vikings) ship out front." Former owner Red McCombs refused to fix the air conditioning. For the past two summers, the Vikings' front office had to rent a portable air conditioning unit. It was placed near the loading dock and attached to the building with a long tube leading to the back locker room door. The wooden Vikings ship by the parking lot has been falling apart for years.

Wilf pledged to pay one-third of the price for a new stadium. He said he prefers an open-air venue, but is open to a domed stadium. Wilf also said he will never move the Vikings, or threaten to move them if he doesn't receive a new stadium. "If we're stuck in the Metrodome, then we'll be stuck in the Metrodome," he said.

Wilf announced Thursday that he will serve as the team's chairman, while cousin Leonard Wilf will be vice chairman and brother Mark Wilf will be team president.

Meanwhile, Kevin Warren, a former vice president with the Lions and Rams, and Lester Bagley, the former ownership's point man on stadium issues, join the team as vice presidents. Warren, an attorney, will be vice president of operations and legal counsel, while Bagley will be vice president of public affairs and stadium development.

Warren was with the Rams when they won Super Bowl XXXIV. He has spent the past several months working on the Vikings sale, starting off with Arizona businessman Reggie Fowler.

Fowler originally was the lead investor. Wilf assumed that role when it became apparent that Fowler didn't have the liquidity to complete the deal.

--Free-agent running back Chad Morton visited Winter Park this week, but left without agreeing to a contract. He was expected to take several more visits to other teams. Tice was asked if Morton looked good. "Yeah," he said. "He was in a suit." Tice said the Vikings are interested in signing Morton. "That's why he's here, to give us the ability to give us that sixth running back going into camp, and a very prolific return guy and also a very good cover guy," Tice said. "He knows some of the guys. ... I think we have a good shot there."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I wasn't going to put them out there with a game tonight. If they pull up, (Twins manager Ron Gardenhire) would knock me out." -- Coach Mike Tice on Twins outfielders Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones, who were invited observers of the team's final developmental camp practice on Tuesday. Hunter told reporters he was ready to suit up if Tice needed him.

It's one of Matt Millen's pet sayings: "You can never get too many good defensive backs." And he's giving the phrase more than lip service.

The addition of seven-year veteran cornerback R.W. McQuarters is the fourth major move Millen has made in the past three seasons to shore up the Lions defensive secondary.

It started with cornerback Dre' Bly, who was acquired as an unrestricted free agent in 2003. Bly has earned Pro Bowl honors in both years with the Lions.

Millen added cornerback Fernando Bryant, also by the free agent route, a year ago but didn't have quite the same luck. Bryant was hampered by an ankle injury, was limited in his effectiveness and missed much of the second half of the season.

In the past four months, Millen has made two more free agent moves - landing strong safety Kenoy Kennedy in the early days of free agency in March and, more recently, convinced McQuarters to accept a one-year, $1.6 million contract to join the Lions.

There is still a question as to how the Lions plan to use the versatile McQuarters when they get into the NFL season.

He almost certainly will get a chance to compete with Bryant for a starting cornerback job and Millen knows McQuarters could be effective as a nickel back. Because McQuarters has experience at free safety there is another scenario that isn't getting a lot of discussion.

It has been assumed that third-year player Terrence Holt would be the successor to Brock Marion at free safety but coach Steve Mariucci and defensive coordinator Dick Jauron have seemed at times to have reservations about turning the job over to Holt.

If Bly and Bryant look solid at the corners, there is a possibility McQuarters will join Holt in the competition for the free safety position.

Either way, the Lions look stronger in the secondary than they have been in recent years.

--Although the Lions say they never considered it an issue, quarterback Joey Harrington is assured of collecting the $3 million roster bonus as it was written in the contract he signed as a rookie three years ago.

With the $3 million bonus and the $4.95 million salary he is due this year, Harrington's salary cap number comes in close to $8 million, giving rise to speculation the Lions might ask him to renegotiate the contract. One news report last spring even speculated the Lions might cut Harrington.

As it turned out, the Lions did not even approach Harrington to renegotiate and the team says there was never a serious consideration of cutting him.

"There's no issue around it," said Lions executive vice president and chief operating officer Tom Lewand.

Lewand said the $3 million bonus became guaranteed on June 15 and is payable on July 1. Harrington, a three-year starter, has two years left on his original contract.

--Russ Bolinger, who played seven years with the Lions and has been in the team's scouting department the last nine years, has left the team to accept a similar position with the Washington Redskins.

Bolinger played with the Lions as an offensive guard from 1976 through 1982, continued his NFL career with three seasons with the Los Angeles Rams and also had a season with the Memphis Showboats of the USFL in 1985.

The Jacksonville Jaguars hired Bolinger as a scout in 1994 and he rejoined the Lions as an area scout in 1996. He was the team's director of college scouting in 2001-2002, and was the college scouting coordinator the past two seasons.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "If we get a multi-year deal worked out, great. If we don't, we've always been comfortable with Eddie playing at that $1.43 million tender." - Lions executive vice president Tom Lewand, on the team's decision not to reduce the tender offer to Pro Bowl kick returner Eddie Drummond as they could have on June 15.

The Packers will enter training camp without knowing who either of their two starting safeties will be.

Last year, Darren Sharper was listed as the free safety but actually played more to the tight end side as the strong safety. The other starter was Mark Roman.

After Sharper was cut (and later signed with Minnesota), the Packers brought in a total of five safeties. The group includes Bethune-Cookman rookie Nick Collins, a second-round pick; San Diego State rookie Marviel Underwood, a fourth-round pick; former Brown Earl Little; former Dolphin Arturo Freeman; and former Redskin Todd Franz. Roman also returns after a lousy season.

"Two guys will come out of that group," new secondary coach Joe Baker said. "We're giving everybody a shot right now. We're certainly not where we feel we need to bring somebody else in.

"We feel good about the guys that are here right now. We need to see these guys play in a competitive situation against guys in different jerseys, and see what we look like."

Little, a long-time starter for the Browns, is nearing the end but wants one more shot.

"I came here for the offense; I know they can put a lot of points on the board," Little said. "And I also knew the safety position was wide open; that's what every coach told me. They've been true to their word so far."

Collins is the fastest player in the bunch but comes out of a Division I-AA program and figures to need extensive seasoning. Underwood isn't as athletic as Collins but looks more ready to play.

--Hockey is coming to Lambeau Field in February. It really will be the Frozen Tundra Feb. 11 at 3 p.m. when Wisconsin and Ohio State play the first hockey game of any kind at Lambeau.

The 72,000-seat stadium will be converted into a 40,000-seat outdoor ice rink. It has been dubbed the Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic.

"I just hope the football gods give the hockey gods one day," Ohio State coach John Markell said. "Outdoors, I hope it's not subzero."

At that time of year, the average mean temperature in Green Bay is about 19 degree and the average high is 27.

The only other outdoor hockey game in NCAA Division I history was played between Michigan and Michigan State in October 2001 at MSU's Spartan Stadium. That game drew 72,000 fans.

A portable rink will be set up on the north half of Lambeau Field.

--Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the team's first-round draft pick, failed to distinguish himself in the nine-day June mini-camp that ended last week.

"The one thing we didn't see is the accuracy that we all saw in college," offensive coordinator Tom Rossley said. "I think that that's just a part of being overloaded with the thinking. Sometimes he was a little bit quick to shuffle-step back up inside and I think it's because he's not seeing downfield."

Rodgers, a 66.1 percent passer at Cal, wasn't on target often enough.

"He's high on all his throws," Rossley said. "When he doesn't cut loose, he's not following through and finishing on the ball. I want to see him torque and throw the ball hard."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm assuming he'll report to camp on time and ready to go and be in the greatest shape he's ever been in. That would certainly be good for him, that he would undertake that." -- Coach Mike Sherman on DT Cletidus Hunt, who blew off the voluntary mini-camp in June.

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