When Chad Greenway was a raw college prospect entering the NFL, he had the luxury of having a pair of veterans, Ben Leber and E.J. Henderson, alongside him in the Vikings linebacker corps. Both of them took the talented youngster under their wings and the results have been obvious. For the last three years, Greenway has played at a Pro Bowl level and has transformed from one of the young guns on the defense to one of its veteran leaders.
With that leadership comes responsibility and Greenway has taken the young core of Vikings linebackers under his wing as he pays it forward in hopes of helping the Vikings emerge as one of the better defenses in the NFL.
"We talk throughout the game, whether we're on the field or the sidelines," Greenway said. "We talk about what we're doing right, where we're getting hurt and what we need to do in our assignments. The on-field communication is critical and those guys are so good at picking things up, it makes my job a lot easier. If you're out there talking instead of being out there by yourself mentally, it makes things a lot easier. Fortunately, they're doing a great job of making plays and living up to their responsibilities on the field from one play to the next."
When it comes to teaching, it comes naturally to Greenway, who is quick to credit the roles Leber and Henderson played in his life. Some veteran players can hold some animosity to the new guys who are out to take their job, cut into their playing time or overshadow them. Henderson and Leber weren't those types of players. They were never judgmental and were quick to share their knowledge of the game, for which Greenway will always be appreciative.
"They were the best," Greenway said. "Their experience and willingness to teach me the little things was what was so helpful for me as a young player. I was allowed to just go out there and play, and the tips they gave me really helped me out. I just try to do the same with these young guys and try to help them get better."
Until two years ago, Greenway remained the young lion of the linebacker corps, but, through attrition, he quickly became the vested veteran. In 2011, the Vikings opted not to re-sign Leber, who spent one season with the Rams before retiring. This offseason, the Vikings opted not to re-sign Henderson. As they entered training camp, the starting linebackers were Greenway, Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley. Greenway was the only one with tangible NFL experience and his leadership was going to be critical for the new-look Vikings linebackers to be successful.
"He's great at communicating," Brinkley said. "He has helped me out a lot in being able to read and react to what an offense is doing. Chad is one of those guys who will talk to you and show you the right way to do things, but the best thing he does is lead by example. He rarely gets out of position and is always flying to the ball. It's one thing to talk about it, but he backs it up with his play on the field – whether it's in a game or in practice."
The Vikings have surprised the NFL with their success early on, handing San Francisco its only loss of the season and beating the Detroit Lions on their home turf. The bad taste the 2011 season left in the mouths of the Vikings players and coaching staff led to wholesale changes and the young Vikings have bought into the new program and translated it into success on the field.
"I think the message has been pretty clear since Day One of the offseason program," Greenway said. "We want to all be smart situational players that are playing tough – constantly getting to the ball and creating a swarm. On film, we want (opponents) to be impressed with the way we run to the ball and the energy we play with. If we want to continue to have that, we need to keep doing it every week. Eventually, our plan is, when we get into the fourth quarter, we can wear people down with that mentality."
While the surprising level of success the Vikings have enjoyed in September and October has expectations being raised significantly, Greenway isn't allowing the young Vikings defenders to get too overconfident. It can all go away quickly.
As he sees it, the 4-1 start for the Vikings has put some equity in the bank for the 2012 season, but they are far from being in position to punch their playoff ticket just yet. The football season is a marathon. While the Vikings are off to their fastest start since 2009 – the last time they made the playoffs – he's keeping it all in perspective.
"It may sound cliché, but we're taking things one game at a time," Greenway said. "We're a young team and you can build momentum as you go along, but I don't think any of these guys are looking too far ahead or looking back on what we've accomplished so far. This is a long season and we still have a long way to go. Not every team that starts off 4-1 makes the playoffs. You have to sustain it and keep it going. The veteran guys on this team that have been through the good times and the bad times like me, Antoine (Winfield), Kevin (Williams) and Jared (Allen) make sure that we keep the focus on the here and now. Hopefully, in the end, it will all add up to success. We've put ourselves in a position to succeed. Now it's our job to finish and maintain what we've built."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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