Jennings sees progress, promise and change

Greg Jennings reflects on the state of the Minnesota Vikings, where they’ve come and where they are going.

For a team laden with young players, Greg Jennings is one of the elder statesmen in the Minnesota Vikings locker room. This isn’t his first rodeo. He’s played on a Super Bowl champion and he’s played on teams with losing records. He’s seen the ups and downs of the NFL and has become a veteran leader by example.

As it pertains to the 2014 season, Jennings sees promise in the long-term, but promise that went largely unfulfilled in the short-term. He doesn’t allow injuries to be used as an excuse, because every team has injuries to some extent. For the team and the coaching staff, finishing 7-9 would be an improvement over last year, but not enough improvement for Jennings’ liking.

“We had the expectation that we could get the job done and we didn’t do that this year,” Jennings said. “There are a lot of teams in this league that have guys on I.R. – starting guys on I.R. – a plethora of them. They’ve had a lot of injuries and a lot of adversity that they’ve had to overcome. You either overcome them or you don’t.”

One of the reasons Jennings sees for optimism is Teddy Bridgewater. Jennings has seen some of the best the game has produced over the last quarter-century – from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers – and he sees the progress that Bridgewater has made in his first season as a stepping stone to bigger and greater things.

“He’s the youngest quarterback that I’ve played with,” Jennings said. “His maturation process has been leaps and bounds from his first start to last week. He’s trusting different things when making decisions. He’s throwing the ball with confidence and different things like that. Even the way he carries himself into and out of the huddle. You’re seeing the growth. There’s still a lot more growth that he will have, but he’s already grown a lot as quarterback and he has a bright future.”

One of the reasons the Vikings signed Jennings in free agency in 2013 was due to his natural leadership skills. Not only is he a high-character player who is active in the community with numerous charitable organizations, he is an on-field leader on game day and in practice and is respected by his teammates as a player who leads by example and naturally has younger players follow him.

That is no coincidence. The Vikings knew they were undergoing a youth movement and needed key veterans to serve as coaches on the field. Nowhere has that been truer sentiment than at wide receiver. Jennings is in his ninth season, which is more time served than the other four wide receivers on the roster combined. Jarius Wright is in his third season, Cordarrelle Patterson and Charles Johnson are in their second year and Adam Thielen is a first-year pro.

Combine that with a rookie quarterback, a rookie running back (Jerick McKinnon) and no skill-position player other than fullback Jerome Felton with more than four years of NFL experience and the Vikings are one of the youngest teams in the league. They’re learning on the fly but are growing together as a team.

“We’re definitely developing and growing as a group,” Jennings said. “There’s a lot more progress we can make, but there’s a huge window of opportunity that we can seize. Sometimes I feel like guys feel the window is a lot bigger than what it is, but it’s all about how you go about it. The guys in this building, the guys in this locker room, they believe in what they can do. It’s a matter of trusting and believing what your counterpart is going to do. I think that comes with time and experience playing together.”

The Vikings have had their share of disappointment in 2014 as they have changed over to a new offense under Norv Turner and a Mike Zimmer-inspired defense, but he doesn’t see the team as being far off from making some legitimate noise in the NFC and making a January run that has been missing in Minnesota since 2009.

“Being in this league, I’ve had seasons like this – losing those close games and you’re just on the brink,” Jennings said. “I don’t think we’re far off, but I think we’re far enough that we’re in the position we’re in right now. Saying that, we have a lot of work to get done because every team tries to get better every year. That’s just the nature of this game. You’re striving to get better each and every year because you know your opposition is going to do the same. We have to develop the mindset to make sure that we’re doing what we can individually to help our team as a whole.”

Having been in the league for almost a decade, Jennings knows that, while the players are a band of brothers every Sunday, when a season ends, there is no guarantee of anything. Since 2010, the Vikings have had three different coaches and players come and go with regularity.

He’s aware that his spot on the roster isn’t guaranteed. He’s due $8.9 million next year and the team could potentially save $3 million against the salary cap if he doesn’t return. As he and his teammates prepare for the final days of their 2014 season, he has taken the time to let his teammates know how much they have impacted his life as a Viking, because he knows the NFL can be a cruel business and that a lot of the players he has come to know may not be around next season – potentially himself included.

“You look around and you see the guys you’ve been with for a while and you know that next year this locker room is going to get a facelift,” Jennings said. “There’s always change. There will be some guys who come back, but you’re naïve to believe that everyone is going to return. You cherish moments like this, because you let guys know how much they mean to you personally, because a lot of guys who are here now won’t be here next year. It’s the nature of our business.”

For a team trying to develop young leaders on both sides of the ball, Jennings has been a player many of them aspire to be. Respect isn’t given; it’s earned. And Jennings has earned the respect he receives by quietly leading by example. For that reason, Jennings should be back in 2015 because he offers more than a mere salary-cap bottom line reflects.

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