The Minnesota Vikings are one of the only teams in the NFL to hold the distinction of having their offensive line take almost every snap together.
Back in August, that seemed like crazy talk. Losing their two most vested veterans on the offensive line – center John Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt – in the preseason, there was plenty of buzz about the Vikings swinging a trade to add a veteran fill-in.
Instead the Vikings have stayed the course and, despite numerous injuries on both sides of the ball, the offensive line has remained intact. The same five guys have been out there every week.
If you go back to teams of recent vintage with the Vikings, the ones that have been successful (see 2009 and 2012) with the same five guys from opening day to their final road playoff loss, the same guys were there from start to finish.
Sullivan is happy for the success the team has had, but feels a sense of often being on the outside looking in on the success.
Asked if he felt a disconnect from the team, Sullivan didn’t mince words.
“Absolutely,” Sullivan said. “That’s just the way it goes, though. That’s part of being injured. You’re not involved in the day-to-day football process. That’s the insulation – the schedules. You’re not in meetings, you’re doing your physical therapy while the rest of the guys are in meetings. There’s a certain disconnect. But, at the same time, this happens and it can happen to anybody. You’re still part of the team and part of the organization, but, unfortunately, your time is spent dealing with an injury.”
When it comes to an injured starting quarterback, he is often on the sidelines during games helping his replacement. The flow of offensive line play is a completely different animal. They watch from afar as their replacements are going through. The band is playing, but it’s not the original group.
Each game Sullivan sees things that can be coaching moments, but there is something to be said about the fluidity of the 2015 O-Line 2.0 that makes him and Loadholt hesitant to be too forward about what they say to their teammates.
“That’s the tough thing,” Sullivan said. “You have to balance it. Do we speak to the other guys? Yeah, we speak to the guys that are playing still, but they have great coaches. Jeff Davidson is a great coach. Hank Fraley is a great coach. We’re not involved in the game-planning, so it’s tough to talk about what the specifics are ,what they’re doing against Seattle this week on a Wednesday with the install going in because I don’t what that stuff is.”
While Sullivan is always available to consult, the line of separation player and coach is pretty well-defined. The coaches have to deal with the five guys they’ve got. They don’t get to play the game of hypotheticals. It’s not that Sully and Loadholt are dead to them – they ask for input – but there is a professional distance that needs to be maintained.
“I leave the coaching up to the coaches,” Sullivan said. “If those guys come to us or if we notice something we’re watching, we’ll point it out to them. But there’s probably not as much interaction as most people think.”
The ability to keep a group of players together is as important among the offensive linemen as any group on the field. Nowhere is the repetition of practice more crucial to developing a rapport than on the O-line.
While the Vikings appeared to be in desperation mode when Sullivan and Loadholt went down during the preseason, the ability to keep the five current starters together and functioning as a unit critical to the team’s success.
“Continuity is incredibly important on the offensive line,” Sullivan said. “It’s a huge advantage to have five starters who have been in there consistently. I guess that goes to show you that we got our injuries out of the way early in the season. We’re missing two of the guys that started training camp, but offensive line play is about how effective you are and how you help your team win the game. That’s why it’s not measured in statistics. It’s more important to play well as a whole than as an individual player.”
Although being part of the Vikings’ 2015 ascent up the NFC standings is something Sullivan wanted and expected to be a major part of, he takes some pride and gratification that his player group has done enough to put the Vikings in position to control their own playoff destiny.
There is always room for improvement and the Vikings O-line is far from a finished product, but, as a group, they have showed steady improvement throughout the season and Sullivan knows they’ve played their part in the team’s success to date.
“They’re really playing hard,” Sullivan said. “Like any team, you take your lumps at times. That’s just the way it goes in a very competitive league. They’ve gone out there, competed really hard, played well and they just need to continue to improve. We’re in a great position at 8-3 and the offensive line needs to continue to work hard and get better.”