“They pay us a lot to play football. We have a job to do, so once we get in between those lines we better be focused on football.”
That was former Viking Antoine Winfield in October 2005 after the so-called Love Boat had sailed the waters of Lake Minnetonka on the Vikings’ bye week and caused an uproar for the lewd behavior.
Last week, it was a far different situation, but one that brought negative light on the organization once again.
Players were trying their best to digest the allegations against Adrian Peterson, a teammate embraced in the locker room and beyond for his work ethic and his personality. But without Peterson on the field for this week and likely for the foreseeable future following a Texas indictment on reckless or negligent injury to a child, teammates were simply trying their hardest to focus on football, despite the crush of national and local media that invaded the walls of Winter Park from Monday through Thursday and then dwindled down to a whisper on Friday.
Veterans have been through the dance before. Prosperity doesn’t always build upon itself and after a 34-6 win to start the season, the legs were kicked out from beneath them with the stunning Peterson indictment and a 30-7 loss to the New England Patriots in the home opener.
“It’s not easy, but you’ve got to focus on compartmentalizing: What is my job, why am I here, and trying to block out the noise,” said long snapper Cullen Loeffler, who joined the Vikings the year before the Love Boat scandal in 2005 that was the beginning of the end of Mike Tice’s head coaching career. “Regardless of that situation or not, there are so many other factors. It’s a stressful game and you’re constantly trying to figure how can I play to the best of my ability and how can I just focus on what I need to be successful.”
After players like Jerome Felton, Captain Munnerlyn and Jarius Wright offered their support to Peterson on Monday and Wednesday, the tide shifted later in the week as players resolutely tried to steer clear of the Peterson news and focus on the New Orleans Saints in an effort to not let a promising season under first-year head coach Mike Zimmer slip away before it was a month old.
“We’ve just got to get ready for New Orleans and that’s what we’ve been doing this week,” said defensive end Brian Robison, in his eighth season with the Vikings.
“I just go home and hang out with my family and I watch film on New Orleans. That’s my job is to worry about the New Orleans Saints and try to get a win against them. That’s all I’ve been worrying about.”
Teammates know Peterson better than anyone in the media casting judgment, but it was impossible to ignore all the extra attention. From CNN to TMZ to NFL Network, Winter Park was once again thrust in the spotlight of negativity from Monday through Thursday. By Friday, the cameras that would draw national eyeballs had moved onto the next big talker and the locker room had returned to near normalcy, as much as that can be realistic without the face of the franchise and his never-ending energy pacing through it.
Head coach Mike Zimmer said he hadn’t spent much extra time talking with his players about the Peterson situation, and Greenway seconded that assessment, saying he believes that coaches and management were trying to make the players’ environment as normal as possible – however unrealistic that might have been.
“I think coach has handled it as well you can handle it. Our organization has tried really to shield us active guys from much of the stuff that’s going on because we have to worry about our job because that’s what we have to do,” Greenway said. “I guess we couldn’t ask for much more from them as far as how they’ve handled it.”
Despite this year being Zimmer’s first opportunity as a head coach, he has dealt with crisis and stress numerous times before. While the Vikings lead the NFL in arrests since 2000, according to a USA Today database, Zimmer’s former employer, the Cincinnati Bengals, are second on that list.
And, of course, Zimmer also dealt with the death of his wife in October 2009 and persevered through that tragedy while continuing to coach.
“I’ve been through a lot,” he said. “Being in the NFL for 21 years, you see a lot of different things. I try not to judge what is the most difficult (situation). It’s just the situation it is this week. Yeah, there was a lot of things that happened this week, but it’s a part of life.”
Zimmer referenced his wife’s death in both a media session and in a team meeting this week.
But perhaps more than the coaches, the veteran players will be relied upon to try and keep the team focused during not only a trying time off the field but an incredibly difficult stretch of opponents that feature some of the best quarterbacks in the league.
“The reality is there’s a lot of stuff going on and we have to have our young guys that haven’t been through some situations like this to really focus in on their jobs and when the whistle blows we have to focus on what we have to do and not worry about anything else,” Greenway said.
“… We’re not going to carry around a poster board trying to tell them to stay focused. The reality is we’re all grown men in here and you’ve got to do your job. When the lights turn on, show up and play.”
It was easier said than done last week with cameras filling the locker room and satellite trucks lined up around the facility, but if the Vikings can pull out of the malaise and come out of their first five games with two or three wins, there will still be a chance to save the season.
“Our league has seen a lot of changes. There was a time where there was a penalty if the crowd didn’t quiet down, and then it went to you can’t incite the crowd to be loud, and then I think over the years offenses have gotten better with silent snap counts being under center or in the shotgun,” he said. “… Make no mistake about it, though. The noise challenges you with regards to your communication. It challenges you over the course of the game so there is not an immediate effect but it can have a building effect.”
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.