The Minnesota Vikings suffered from the limited preseason practice time during last year's work stoppage as much as any other NFL team.
No such excuses will exist this season, and head coach Leslie Frazier is trying to take advantage of every opportunity to better develop this young, largely rebuilt roster.
After breaking training camp before their first exhibition game each of the previous three years, the Vikings will prepare for the 2012 season at Minnesota State University for three weeks this summer. They'll report on July 26 and depart on Aug. 16.
"Last season was obviously difficult to plan because of the lockout. There was so much uncertainty," Frazier said. "I would always like to take our team away for at least three weeks for the team building aspect that I think comes along with being at training camp, but because of the Minnesota State school calendar this is not always possible."
This year, it is.
The Vikings can stay longer on campus, because the residence hall they've usually stayed in is slated for eventual demolition. No new students will be moving into the Gage towers this fall. So that gives the players more time to live that dorm-room, cafeteria-dining, playbook-studying life.
"As a player, it stinks. We all know training camp is a long, grueling process. It's not fun, but it's part of the job," defensive end Brian Robison said, lamenting the time he'll have to spend away from his wife and infant daughter.
Spoken like a six-year veteran.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph, however, had his rookie season preparation altered by the labor dispute that didn't produce a new collective bargaining agreement until late July last year.
"This year will kind of be like getting back to normal," Rudolph said. "Last year, it didn't even feel like we were down there."
Year-round strength and conditioning programs, whether on their own or at team facilities, have all but taken out the get-in-shape aspect out of training camp. But there's still enough bonding potential at these out-of-town sites that a dozen or so NFL teams, including the Vikings, continue to make the trek to quieter, smaller cities to make focusing on football easier.
"Especially because we have such a young team of guys, to be able to take advantage of the extra week to get to know each other and be away from Eden Prairie and any distractions we may have up here is great," Rudolph said. "The only thing you have to worry about down in Mankato is football. You're down there long enough to clear your head."
With a new offense and a new quarterback to break in and plenty of other newbies to accommodate, the Vikings finished with a 3-13 record, matching the franchise's all-time worst. They still would've struggled last season even if they had six months to get ready, but this year will be different, no matter the end result.
Even the been-there-done-that veterans such as Robison can appreciate the benefit of offseason time together. That has already started with weightlifting and running this spring, followed next week by a series of organized practices through the mandatory minicamp from June 21-23.
Robison, in fact, had spoken with Frazier about just that on Tuesday before taking part in a brief phone interview about this back-to-basics offseason the Vikings are enjoying.
"You don't think it's that big of a deal until you don't have an offseason program," Robison said. "Being able to be with the guys right now is going to help us tremendously."
There were 12 teams that still held training camp away from team headquarters last season. One of them, the Cincinnati Bengals, has decided to move camp to the year-round facility. Two others that used to train away from home base, the New York Giants and New York Jets, are going back to their summer sites after staying local during the lockout. Many of these teams continue to stay three weeks or even a little longer at their camps. So despite the league-wide trend away from the old-fashioned two-a-day model, the Vikings are not alone.
They've been annually renewing their arrangement with the university in recent years, but with their new stadium almost secured they'll soon start discussing a longer-term deal. Assuming the Minneapolis City Council signs off on the local funding for the stadium on Friday, chief marketing officer Steve LaCroix said, the team will work toward a multi-year contract with MSU.
"The whole campus community is very pleased," university media relations director Dan Benson said. "It's just going to be a great thing for Mankato."
Not so great for the players stuck in those twin beds for several nights. But they realize that's only temporary, a small sacrifice in comfort for paid entertainers who see thousands of purple-clad fans each summer cheering them on through mundane workouts and swarming them for autographs afterward.
"It's great for the fans," Robison said. "A lot of people who can't afford to the go to the games have a lot of fun coming out and getting an up-close and personal look at practice."
Vikings' longer camp makes up for lockout
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