Injuries Cause Carousel on O-Line

The offensive line has had so many combinations this season because of injuries that is hard to keep up with them. But through it all, Chris Liwienski has been a pleasant surprise.

Red McCombs doesn't want to make any excuses. Dennis Green doesn't want to make any excuses. But the flood of personnel losses, with numerous injuries on top of them, hit the Vikings harder than most expected.

Many point to the retirement of running back Robert Smith as the most significant loss. And with the virtual disappearance of a steady running game, who could legitimately argue?

On top of the much-talked-about losses of former Pro Bowlers Randall McDaniel, Jeff Christy, Todd Steussie and Korey Stringer in just the past two seasons, the Vikings have been without David Dixon (calf injury), Corbin Lacina (calf injury) and Brad Badger (ankle injury) of late after losing Pro Bowl strong safety Robert Griffith — their best defensive player — for virtually half the season.

"Well, if we can stay healthy," Green said. "We have not had a healthy team this year. There have been some years where we have had less than 10 games of all players together. This year we are double just a year ago.

"What that means is this guy would start. Take Griff. Griff played one game. He played the Carolina game. … He's back after missing seven games. That is a lot of football. It's an attribute to Griff that he stayed focused, rehabbed, didn't get discouraged and was able to come back at that time. Lacina, we had to think, do we put Lacina on IR or will he come back? He's confident he will come back so we don't put him on IR. But now he's missed probably four games. That's your starting left guard. After a while it really starts adding up. If we can have some good fortune and keep the secondary healthy, that will be our starting lineup. But so far that hasn't been the case."

It was painful to watch as the Vikings offense struggled to find any semblance of consistency while they fought for their playoff lives at home against the Chicago Bears with an offensive line (from left to right) of Everett Lindsay, Calvin Collins, Matt Birk, Cory Withrow and Chris Liwienski.

Assistant head coach/offensive line Mike Tice is regarded as one of the finest coaches in the league, but he's not a miracle worker.

It's no slam against any one of these guys. Birk is a Pro Bowl center, and any one of the other players is potentially a legitimate starting-caliber offensive lineman in the NFL. But that they all would be on the same offensive line was never anyone's intention.

Lindsay is best served in a swingman role, spelling a starter occasionally. He can play virtually all five line spots, which is a tremendous asset, but is best inside at one of the guard slots. The highly challenging duty of left tackle really extends Lindsay to the limits of his ability.

Collins may or may not be a legitimate starter. He was for an Atlanta Falcons team that went to the Super Bowl following the 1998 season. However, he was a street free agent signed by the Vikings just over a month ago.

Withrow has some promise. However, he has played very little during the regular season and has primarily worked as a backup at center.

Liwienski has really done a remarkable job since being thrown to the wolves at right tackle following Stringer's tragic death in training camp. Liwienski has turned into a pretty good blocker, but the intention all along for him was that he would be their left guard, a far less vulnerable position than right tackle.

A vital and already heavily depleted aspect of the offense has perhaps been the hardest hit by injuries this season.

Liwienski a bright spot
If there has been a silver lining in the team's offensive inconsistencies this season, however, it would be the continued development of Liwienski.

He certainly isn't another Korey Stringer at right tackle, but he's developed into a quality all-around blocker.

"Chris is very dependable," Green said. "He's a guy that you never talk about because he always just does his job, very silently does his job. That's what he was able to do in the course of the ballgame. I think he continues to get better. He is a big, physical player."

Liwienski had a breakout performance, if you will, holding Michael Strahan without a sack on "Monday Night Football," but he isn't letting it go to his head. He still wants to get even better.

"I think it was a solid day, but definitely room for improvement," Liwienski said. "We were able to shut him out, which was a huge plus for us offensively. But we definitely have got a ways to go."

That attitude is one that a few others on the team would be well-served to adopt. There are those on this team with a lot more talent that simply don't push themselves as hard as a lunch-pail guy like Liwienski, and everyone knows who would top that list.

"Chris Liwienski at right tackle was very solid," Green added. "He's been that way all year. You never hear his named called. He likes it that way. He's just a low-key, big, strong physical player who held up and did an excellent job during the course of the ball game."

Looking ahead to the future, the Vikings would like to get Liwienski back inside, at left guard, next to Birk, where they originally intended. There, he has a lot of promise. Yet he remains humble and focused on still getting better.

"To say I have arrived would be a lie," Liwienski said. "I've got a ways to go."

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