As a rookie in 2009, it was understandable for offensive tackle Phil Loadholt to think that winning in the NFL wasn't that difficult. He had never been accustomed to losing, coming from a college powerhouse at Oklahoma University, and nothing had changed his rookie year. Riding the tsunami wave that arrived with Brett Favre, the Vikings were one of the dominant teams in the NFL and had their sights set on winning a Super Bowl.
As the Vikings made their way off the team bus three hours before their NFL Championship Game at New Orleans, grizzled veteran Pat Williams pulled aside several of the young players and told them to soak in the moment. At the time, Loadholt didn't figure out exactly what Williams was saying – and it wasn't because his deep Louisiana drawl at times was difficult to decipher.
Williams was making the point to live in the moment, because few teams get to where they were at in terms of success.
"When we walked into the Superdome, we had to walk across the field to get into our locker room," Loadholt said. "The place was empty and pretty quiet and Pat was letting all us young guys know, hey, enjoy this. It doesn't happen. In the back of my mind, ‘C'mon, man, we've got so many of these guys coming back. We're going be just fine.' But you learn quickly that is doesn't always work that way. I'll never forget that and it's become a goal of mine to get back there and beyond."
The Vikings have failed the last two seasons to get back to that level of success or even make the playoffs and, as a result, they have undertaken a franchise overhaul that has just seven of the 22 starters from that NFC title game still on the team.
Loadholt has lost more games in the last two seasons than he did in his high school and college career combined. Frustration has led to making little mental mistakes at times that have cost him and his teammates on given plays. He said the mantra for himself (as provided by the coaching staff) has been "consistency." At times, he looks like an questioned starter. At other times, he will make technical errors that result in plays getting blown up.
As he enters his fourth season as a starter, Loadholt can see the improvement in his game manifesting itself on the practice field and he expects that to translate into the regular season with consistency being the key to his success.
"We talk about consistency quite a bit and what they want from me as far as improving," Loadholt said. "I think it's just a matter of a technique thing with me. I've been working with (offensive line coach) Jeff (Davidson) on different techniques and things we didn't have a chance to touch on last year because of the shortened season. I think it's just a matter of when my technique is fine, I'm pretty damn good. I'm physical and have pretty good feet. It's just a matter of doing it the right way. In this league, if you take a false step or don't use your hands properly, you get exposed. It's just a matter of eliminating those plays from your game."
While Loadholt was a sound technician at Oklahoma, he was a mauling left tackle that was asked to become a right tackle to neutralize an opponent's top run-stuffing defensive end. The most difficult part of his transition was to eliminate the bad habits that, while not a big problem in college, would potentially be career-killers in the NFL. He believes those days are behind him and now it's more a matter of polishing his game and trying to perfect his technique.
"There were some things I had to un-learn, because what works for you in college – even with a big-time program like Oklahoma – doesn't work in the NFL," Loadholt said. "The problem is when you get tired late in games, you don't always use the best technique. That's what I've been focused on most."
Part of the Vikings rebuilding program is a changing of the guard at several positions and a youth movement on both sides of the ball. With the drafting of left tackle Matt Kalil, the Pro Bowl potential of center John Sullivan and Loadholt as a bookend on the right side, the Vikings have the foundation of an offensive line that could be solid for years. With Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco or Geoff Schwartz stepping in at the guard spots, the Vikings don't have a starter on the O-line more than 28 years old and they have meshed together to be formidable force that will help lead the Vikings charge back to respectability.
"I love playing with these guys," Loadholt said. "Kalil has come in and fit in right away. He's just like the guys we already have in our room as far as personality. John, me, Charlie, Brandon – we're all pretty much on the same page with what we have to do and what the other guys have to do. It's important to have that because you work as one unit instead of five guys doing their own thing. I'm excited about where we're going. I would love to play with them a long time, but, of course with this league, you never know what's going to happen."
While the progress he has made will be assessed by the front office this year – Loadholt is in the final year of his rookie contract – but he isn't concerning himself with the details. He's confident his agent will get a deal done and he will be a Viking for the next several years.
"I pay them well to do that, so it isn't something I'm concerning myself with," Loadholt said. "It's the furthest thing from my mind. I just want to have a great season and get back to how things were when I first got here. I haven't forgotten how fun that was and hopefully we can back to that level again soon. We're not getting used to losing and know that we can get us back to where we were (in 2009) and hopefully one game farther."
If and when that happens, Loadholt will impart the same sort of wisdom that Big Pat gave him as they strode across the Superdome floor in January 2010: Enjoy the moment and savor it, because you never know when it will come again.
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.
Loadholt locking in on technical improvements
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