Back in June, when the Minnesota Vikings announced their training camp schedule, the first thing that stood out was how short the time in Mankato was going to be – just 10 practice days over a 12-day span, making it the shortest training camp period in the history of Vikings.
After Tuesday morning’s early practice (8-10 a.m.), it will all be over for the players’ time in Mankato.
But it will be far from over in the bigger picture of things. The Vikings will play their first preseason game Friday against the Cincinnati Bengals. It will be a homecoming for Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, who was Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator before being hired by the Vikings to be their top dog.
On Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning, the Vikings and Bengals will conduct shared practices. Back in June when the announcement was made, both Zimmer and Lewis made the rare pre-game practice schedule sound like it would be nothing but rainbows and unicorns.
On the subject of heading back home to his previous employer, Zimmer said in June, “I think the joint practices will be great for our young team, especially at that time of training camp. Having such a great relationship with Marvin and the Bengals organization, it makes it a perfect fit for us to practice there.
Lewis chimed in the same sentiment, but brought up the silent elephant that will be in the room, saying, “Our past experiences with joint practices have been good. You put yourself on the field with another team and let the competitive juices flow a little bit. It’s great that we could work this out with Zim.”
From the sounds of things, it’s almost made to sound like the players will join hands in a 200-man circle after the second practice and sing “Kumbaya.”
Realistically, that isn’t going to be happen. In fact, you could make a pretty safe bet that there will be blood.
The Vikings have a history of dust-ups during these joint sessions. Back when everyone was having training camps at colleges, the Vikings scheduled joint practices with the Saints and Chiefs. New Orleans held training camp in nearby La Crosse, Wisc. In the late 1990s, the Vikings and Saints scheduled joint practices.
At just about every practice, players who had worked under fiery head coaches Dennis Green and Mike Ditka, respectively, were sick of hitting their own teammates and delivered a few heavy hits on guys in different colored jerseys.
Fortunately, both Green and Ditka downplayed the situation, saying that boys would be boys and that it was to be expected.
In 2004, when the practice ended, Mike Tice and Dick Vermeil were the head coaches and the practices that resembled a gang fight more than a shared practice.
In two practices on a hot Mankato Friday in 2004, five sideline-clearing brawls took place during the dual sessions, one of them prompting the mild-mannered, often tearful Vermeil to fly into a rage, yelling for his players to kill what was deemed a cheap shot by a Vikings player on a Chiefs player.
Later, then-Vikings head coach Mike Tice said those types of things just happen when players frustrated with the grind of two-a-days (they still meant something back in 2004) get a chance to let off a little steam on somebody other than their teammates.
Vermeil had a different opinion.
“It breaks the whole continuity of what you’re here for,” Vermeil said after a three-fight night practice. “That’s ridiculous – a bad reflection on me and everyone else.”
Vermeil and the Chiefs never came back to Mankato. Nobody has. From the looks of things with ground now broken on the new Vikings headquarters and training facility, nobody ever will.
The problem that seems inherent with the joint practices is that, while the two head coaches may go out for dinner together at least once during the Vikings stay in the Queen City, most of their players have no such familiarity, respect or bond.
Both of them haven’t lined up against an opponent since their ignominious playoff exits seven months ago. The Vikings lost on a missed chip-shot field goal in a game the offense and defense was convinced it would win and played well enough to win.
The Bengals’ story was even worse. They scored a go-ahead touchdown in the final two minutes and looked to have their playoff monkey taken off their back with a win over hated rival Pittsburgh. Instead, personal foul penalties on Vontaze Burfict and Pacman Jones on the same sequence of a play gave the Steelers 30 yards and enough to knock them out.
Both teams are most sincerely upset how their seasons ended – with home losses that each were convinced they had won with only a few seconds left on the clock.
Instead, they got into their own cars after the game and were truly angry, while their opponents partied on the bus and celebrated on the plane heading home to do it all again the following week.
Neither the Vikings nor Bengals have made contact with bad intentions since. They will this week in preparation for their preseason opener Friday night.
There will be Friday night lights when the NFL cameras are rolling. But, try as their head coaches might to avoid it, don’t be stunned to hear about Wednesday and Thursday afternoon fights when only localized sideline cameras are rolling.