That the Vikings were under exponential microscopes came in the wake of allegations of criminal sexual conduct by several players after a boat cruise on Lake Minnetonka turned into what witnesses describe as an out-of-control sex party last Thursday. A lawyer representing the charter-boat company said the two-boat cruise that reportedly included about 15 Vikings players was paid for by cornerback Fred Smoot and one other person.
While only a handful of significant players were available for comment, few addressed the incident on Lake Minnetonka while most that spoke said the team would have no problem shaking off the distraction in order to focus on Sunday's opponent, the Chicago Bears.
Running back Mewelde Moore admitted he was on one of the two boats, but acted surprised when reporters asked about the sexual activity that was alleged to take place.
"That's crazy. Sex? Come on," Moore said. "I'm engaged, so … None of that. That'll get me in trouble."
When told by a TV reporter that he was on a list of attendees on the boats, Vikings safety Darren Sharper issued a denial. "They're lying," Sharper said.
Head coach Mike Tice was visibly upset. With his team already under scrutiny for a 1-3 start and failing to meet high preseason expectations, the off-field distractions were ill timed on several fronts.
"Zygi and I have spoken at length about this and we are certainly on the same page all the way through," Tice said. "The organization as a whole is on the same page."
Tice confirmed that the team ownership and upper management spent a great deal of time at their two-day retreat in Chaska, Minn., this week on team conduct.
"Timing is everything, and I think it's unfortunate because of how diligently the ownership has worked and how aggressive they've been making sure the public sees their attempt to create a better image," Tice said. "If you looked at it with clear eyes you'll see the ownership is intent on creating a better image and better standard with how we're operating."
Political leaders such as Dem. Dean Johnson went on record Tuesday saying the Vikings' behavior is unacceptable and indeed hurts stadium chances.
While some are suggesting a divisive locker room, several players said Wednesday that despite the disturbing news of the cruise on Lake Minnetonka, the distraction wouldn't get in the way of the team's focus on Chicago.
"It's not hard, it's our job," running back Michael Bennett said. "We have to prepare for what's ahead in Chicago."
The Vikings held another team meeting this week.
"Hopefully this time around things that are said in the team meeting will stay in the team meeting," said Tice, who was accused by unnamed players of considering quitting on the team when he held a meeting last week. "They understand where I'm coming from."
Players said they aren't angry at teammates for the alleged conduct that has disrupted this week.
"There's no anger at all," Bennett said. "We're here to play football. That's the main thing."
Said linebacker Keith Newman: "It's an extra distraction and it's extra adversity, but our focus has to be on Chicago."
As he does each Wednesday, quarterback Daunte Culpepper also spoke during the weekly press conference.
"The thing about distractions, you have distractions everywhere in the NFL. It is hard enough to win without distractions in the NFL," Culpepper said. "But distractions are things we have to deal with, we are going to deal with them and stick to business. That's what we are going to do; we are going to focus on the Chicago Bears. A lot of stuff is going to be said, a lot of stuff this and that. But we have to focus on the Chicago Bears, simple as that."
Culpepper was asked if he was on the boat. He didn't issue a denial, but didn't confirm his attendance, either.
"I have no comment, I will not comment on the whole situation," Culpepper said. "I am talking about the Chicago Bears. We are talking about the Chicago Bears, we are going to go out and try to take care of business and get a win. That's what we are trying to do. If you're not talking about the Chicago Bears, please don't ask me a question. You can keep asking, but I am just going to have the same response."
"I'm hoping this is home for me right now and hopefully it will be my home for the next five years," Bennett said. "I want carries, but I want wins first."
The trade deadline is next Tuesday.
Cornerback Brian Williams is likely to miss his second straight game with a sprained left knee. Receiver Nate Burleson is still a week away, Tice said, but this time it's his shoulder, not his knee.
Tice was asked Wednesday if he felt players were "leaving him out to dry."
"We'll see as we progress if they're leaving me out there to hang or not," Tice said. "I think that's the only fair answer I can give. We'll see as we progress through this week and Sunday and Sundays to come as to what the answer is."