There has never been any questioning Jared Allen's skill level on the football field. Shortly after he was the fourth-round steal by the Chiefs and got the chance to start as a rookie, it has been crystal clear that Allen is a rare talent with a flair for the dramatic – making the big play that turns games around.
Since joining the league, in 2004, nobody has more sacks than Allen's 89.5. He has 16.5 sacks in his last 13 games, including 9.5 in his last seven home games and five in the last two games. His status as one of the league's premier pass rushers has never been in doubt, and it still isn't.
But over the last couple of years, there has been a transformation in Allen. The only remnant of his once-trademark mullet is a caricature of a dude with the full "business in front, party in back" locks hanging in his locker. At the request of his fiancée last year (and now his wife), he lopped the mullet and hasn't grown it back. But his hair is just part of the change Allen has undergone as a Viking.
Head coach Leslie Frazier said that Allen has become a complete package this year. Not only has continued his impressive level of production, he has also become a team leader. It wasn't something Frazier or any defensive coach asked him to do. Like most great leaders, it came from within and Frazier said he has been pleasantly surprised with Allen's professional metamorphosis.
"His attitude, his entire approach is different than what I remember a year ago," Frazier said. "He mentioned to me once the lockout was lifted and we got on the phone – he told me some of the things he had done during that period away from one another. His whole approach is far different. We talked about it [Wednesday] morning when he was in the weight room working out. I told him that he's just a different guy to the point where he's helped a lot of teammates with the way he's approached practice and games. He's so very positive. He's stepped up from a leadership standpoint and really landing in a positive way. His play, that speaks volumes – talking to other players about raising their production. His approach and his attitude have been far different … for the best."
Allen said he has always been committed to the game, but admitted the 2010 season with all the distractions and the constant badgering of questions about non-football issues – from Brett Favre's junk-mail scandal to the in-and-out odyssey that was the failed Randy Moss experiment – there were (pardon the word choice) schisms in the locker room. When the season ended, Allen said he turned the page and didn't want to endure another year like he did in 2010, which is why he said this season, despite a 0-4 start, is better in the locker room than it was a year ago when the team was 2-3 and considered that to be a monumental failure. With a new baby helping transform him off the field, he has seen a change in himself.
"I'm just trying to grow as a human being," Allen said. "Last year was a tough year. There was a lot of negativity around here. At times, I found myself right in the heap of it. [I'm] just trying to be more focused on the positives of things this year. I'm trying to have more fun. Maybe it's because I've had a little girl. Maybe I realized there are more important things in life than this game."
Allen said the locker room has remained tight and united, despite a start that could lead to finger-pointing and locker-room fractures. Allen has not only been playing at a high level himself, he has been trying to motivate his teammates on and off the field to raise their level of their own game. Learning from his 2010 experience, Allen said that putting too much focus on failure is little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. He said the Vikings have to take away the positives of their 0-4 start because their problems have been self-inflicted and negativity would only make that situation worse.
"It doesn't do us any good," Allen said. "You saw what happened when the whole team got negative [last year] and people start [getting off] the same page. You don't accomplish [anything]. I'm just trying to keep my head up and push forward. We could easily be sitting here at 3-1 or 4-0. All we have to do is finish games and we have talented players. It would be one thing if we sucked or didn't have the players or were just getting drummed for four weeks. We haven't. We've been shooting ourselves in the foot. It's just time to clean it up. You're not going to better anyone's play by harping on them and being negative about it. We have to push through and see what happens."
The one thing that has come out of Allen's transformation is just how dysfunctional the 2010 Vikings team was. He is refusing to get back into the same tailspin mindset that had the Vikings scrambling for answers. Many players have gone on record as saying that they believed they could just hit the switch and pick up right where they left off in 2009. That didn't happen and the descent in the standings was fast and humbling. Allen said the Vikings are much better than their record would indicate and that bad attitudes can be a cancer in the locker room. He's been there, done that. He doesn't want to repeat that feeling this year, regardless of the Vikings' record.
"I'm just trying to have fun," Allen said. "I couldn't go through another season of misery. Obviously, 0-4 is miserable enough. You've got that to contend with, so it doesn't help having a bad attitude and not enjoying coming to work."
While he has changed from the hard-partying man-child that had a falling out with the Kansas City organization, one thing that hasn't changed is his sense of humor, which tends to kick in when the TV camera lights turn on. Asked how the team can have a more positive attitude at 0-4 than it had last year at 2-3, Allen said the attacks from the media haven't been splashed on every "SportsCenter" telecast. Even as reporters surrounded him Wednesday afternoon, he joked, "here come the sharks" – but they're not the sharks from out East that smelled blood in the water and were looking for headlines.
"We only have to deal with you guys [in the local media] every day," Allen said. "We don't have national media calling us losers, which is cool. It's just a different feel. I don't know how to explain it. I think the frustration lies in that we've played some really good football at times, we just haven't put it all together. It takes one game to correct that."
Whatever it is, if the Vikings are to pull out of their abysmal start to the 2011 season – whether to string together some wins or simply to try to avoid losing 10 games again this year – one of the best things they will have going for them is that Allen has become a leader, not just an enormously talented player. In the past, he may have given underachieving teammates a hard time if they're weren't producing. Those days, much like Allen's malaise from last year, are gone, he says.
"That's part of the attitude change," Frazier said. "In the past, maybe he's needling guys. But this year, [he's been] very positive, [giving] constructive criticism. But it all starts with him – the way he has approached meetings and practice. He's always been good at what he does – rushing the passer – but his attitude about lifting the entire team has been great. When one of your best players approaches things the way he has this year, it will be good for our team. Hopefully, it will translate into some wins."
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.
Jared Allen transforming into mature leader
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