Tony Sparano calls himself a “no-nonsense” coach. He says it without a hint of nonsense.
There appears to be very little nonsense in Sparano’s approach – with the players in the film room, on the field, and with the media. He has his way of doing things, much like head coach Mike Zimmer, and wants his players to have his techniques engrained and second-nature.
For the success of Sparano, the offensive line and even the team in general, one of the most important players is left tackle Matt Kalil. After a strong rookie season, Kalil has had his share of ups and downs, but Sparano was starting to see some of the new techniques take hold as Kalil participated more in the offseason practices the last few weeks before minicamp ended last week.
“We didn’t have him in the beginning, but we kind of had him here toward the end,” Sparano said. “Each day he started to have a little bit more success and feel a little bit better about himself and has bought into what we’re asking him to do. I’m excited about where we are with him.”
In addition to adding Sparano as the new line coach, the Vikings brought in several new players to compete for spots on that line. Alex Boone will be the starting left guard. Andre Smith is competing for the right tackle spot. And rookie Willie Beavers is competing for a roster spot.
For Kalil, 2016 is a watershed year. He’s playing under the fifth-year option in his rookie contract and hoping to prove he is a worthy starting left tackle for the long haul.
“It’s exciting,” Kalil told Viking Update earlier this month. “I thrive on competition and I think we have as much talent on this line right now as we’ve had at any time I’ve been here. I like to play under pressure, so, if anything, knowing that this is the final year of my rookie deal is only going to make me play better to prove that I belong with this group. It’s a good thing.”
If Kalil really does enjoy playing under pressure, Sparano could apply some more.
“I’ve coached a lot of different personalities and that’s one thing about being a head coach in this league is you have them all and you’ve got to get used to coaching them all and know how to push their buttons,” Sparano said. “I started to figure out through these OTAs in the offseason how to push some of Matt’s buttons to help him. I think he feels that. My impression is that football is very important to him and he set a standard for himself that he wants to get back to, and we need him to get back there quite honestly. We talk about it constantly, he and I, and I just try to reinforce the positive things each day that we’re out here with him.”
As a rookie in 2012, Kalil played well and provided promise for the future that the left tackle spot wouldn’t be an issue. But since then he has encountered his share of struggles and frustration, some of it due to injury. It reached a boiling point in 2014 when he exited TCF Bank Stadium and was frustrated with the barbs directed his way by a fan.
When Sparano was hired, he started studying the play of his new offensive linemen and that included Kalil. Perhaps he studied no one harder because of the position that Kalil plays.
“I’ve gone back far enough to watch Matt play and I’ve seen him play at a pretty high level. Sometimes we can get lost with fundamentals,” Sparano said. “Sometimes we can get lost with those things and kind of get into one way of doing things. There’s a lot of ways to get things right here. We’re just trying to get him back to some of those fundamentals.”
Sparano has seen progress in the few weeks that Kalil was able to practice, but he also knows that Kalil will be tested as much as anyone in practice and in games. It’s the nature of the left tackle position.
“One of the things is that he plays against the best player on the field every day. Even out here at practice he plays against a pretty good darn good player out here every day. That’s a hard job that they have,” Sparano said. “When you come out and you’re a rookie – I don’t care where you’re drafted or how you’re drafted or any of those type of things – there’s a curve that you’ve got to go through. Playing that position, I don’t want to liken it to the quarterback position, but playing left tackle in our league is pretty hard. You go through some growing pains.”
Kalil has had his. It’s now Sparano’s job to minimize those going forward. If he can do that, Kalil could be around for a second contract and many years to come.null