One game doesn't make a season, but first-year head coach Mike Tice has this team heading in the right direction.
After a 5-11 finish last season, it was time to make some changes. Tice bit the bullet and made those changes. Better than half — 28 players in all — the team's current roster consists of players who were not with the team a year ago. Even the most avid follower of the team needed a roster to know who was who during the preseason.
It's still going to take some time for things to come together, especially on defense, where at least 8 of 11 starters are new from last year. But the early returns seem to indicate that Tice and the personnel people in the organization have made some solid moves.
The number of changes made during the offseason meant a lot of uncertainty heading into the season. But so far, most question marks they had appear to be playing out favorably.
The Kleinsasser move — Tice's first personnel decision upon taking over the team was to move Jimmy Kleinsasser from fullback to tight end. For the first time in his career, Kleinsasser is getting his hands on the ball and catching some passes.
As an in-line blocker, he's been nothing short of dominant. You would expect Tice to know tight ends, having been one himself, but he was really onto something with the Kleinsasser move.
Kleinsasser has made the running game go. He's taking on defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs and absolutely burying them with regularity. No. 40 has made watching a tight end block fun again.
"Kleinsasser [has been] outstanding, not only catching the football, but also blocking," Tice said. "He [has] dominated the edge, which is something we're really excited about. When Jimmy is on the field we're a better football team."
The Moss meter — Another of Tice's early edicts was "The Randy Ratio." While the concept of getting the ball to Randy Moss on 40 percent of the team's passes has gotten lots of attention, getting Moss the football early and often was a no-brainer. Moss is still going to draw continuous double-teaming, but the mindset instilled is that offensive coordinator Scott Linehan will dictate to the defense what they are going to do, not the other way around.
Challenging a star — Tice's challenge to quarterback Daunte Culpepper was for him to become a better student of the game. He has.
Letting C.C. go — Letting Cris Carter "retire." C.C. was a great player, but he had clearly become a negative influence in the locker room. His clubhouse lawyer routine had worn out its welcome in Minnesota. His departure has enabled the natural leaders (i.e. Culpepper) to step up and be leaders without always having to defer to the elder statesman.
Carter's exit from the game was sad, but from the team's perspective it has truly been an example of addition by subtraction.
Cap management — Tough as it was, not re-signing a lot of high-priced veterans has also been very prudent. The Vikings miss Robert Griffith's leadership and they might miss Kailee Wong's athletic ability on defense. But with all due respect, they have not missed Orlando Thomas or Ed McDaniel, who are both currently out of football.
The coordinators — Asking Willie Shaw to coordinate the defense was a great move. They're not there yet, and he still may lack some horses, but Shaw's unit has already shown signs of coming together.
"We'll be better in the fifth game than we were in the first," Shaw said after the opener. "They're young, but they played hard. We'll get to where we want to go."
Equally impressive has been Linehan, who is the best offensive coordinator the Vikings have had since Brian Billick, along with the entire staff that Tice assembled.
It's a terrific mix of youth, experience and personality. They're all great teachers, and the staff has much better chemistry than the many Denny Green staffs that always still included his buddy, Richard Solomon. Nobody on Tice's staff, not even his brother, has their job because of cronyism. They all earn their keep based on their own merits.
Biekert factor — Nobody has ever made such an immediate impact than the addition of middle linebacker Greg Biekert, who is a huge advocate of Shaw's scheme.
"I spent two years with Willie in Oakland and really thrived in this defense, really loved the style of defense. He plays really aggressive," Biekert said. "It's really a player-friendly defense. It makes it good. We have a lot of young guys on defense and as soon as they pick this up, their athletic ability is going to show on the field."
The addition of Biekert is already making those around him better. Henri Crockett has been extremely productive on the weak side. And the younger prospects are learning the game from the finest of mentors.
"I'm all smiles about Biekert," Tice said. "He's picked things up very rapidly and he's a great combination with Crockett in there. Now if we can just get our young Sam (strongside) linebackers to play at the level that those two guys are playing at, or will play at, then I think we'll have a nice linebacking crew."
The addition of Biekert enabled them to shift rookie Nick Rogers over to the strongside spot, where he will compete for playing time with Patrick Chukwurah, a player Tice committed to getting on the field more often. As the season progresses, the coaches would like to see one of those two step it up a notch. Both show a lot of promise and potential.
The highly versatile Jim Nelson is now the top backup in the middle.
The C.C. replacements — D'Wayne Bates is the real deal and a very legitimate complementary receiver to Moss. Given his productivity to this point, it appears their contract offer to Bates was a good value pickup.
Ditto for Derrick Alexander, who provides another legitimate downfield threat opposite Moss. Like virtually all their free-agent pickups, they didn't break the bank to land him.
The non-moves — Some of the best moves are the ones you don't make: Not moving Matt Birk from center to left tackle, not giving up on placekicker Doug Brien, and sticking with right end Lance Johnstone. Tice is known to be emotional and impulsive, but he's done well to sleep on things and consult with others on his staff before pulling the trigger on some moves.
Sticking with Talance Sawyer was also a good move. Many had written Sawyer off after two somewhat undistinguished seasons as a starter at left end. Tice got Sawyer to move inside and buy into a new role as a situational player. Sawyer has probably found his niche.
Bringing back Moe Williams in favor of Travis Prentice. Williams has played a significant role in the running back rotation. Picked up in a dubious and somewhat puzzling personnel move prior to last year's season opener, Prentice is currently unemployed after being cut by the Texans.
Defensive free agents — Virtually all of the free-agent pickups on defense — Kenny Mixon, Corey Chavous, Lorenzo Bromell, Crockett, Ronnie Bradford, Chuck Wiley and Darius Holland — have been just what they were expected to be. Mixon is a solid, all-around anchor end. Chavous is a tough, physical, well-schooled veteran at left cornerback. Bromell has kicked it up a notch, rotating in with Johnstone in the season opener. Crockett and Bradford have both been solid. Wiley and Holland are solid role-type players, as well.
None are sure-fire Pro Bowlers, but they are all solid football players who understand and play within the scheme.
Youthful moves — Choosing youth and potential over experience and other cap-cost moves have also turned out just fine. Chukwurah, Tyrone Carter and rookie Brian Williams over Lemanski Hall, Robert Tate and Kenny Wright have proved to be the right moves so far. Tate is with Baltimore and Wright is with Houston, but neither looks like they'll come back to someday haunt Tice. Hall hasn't caught on elsewhere yet.
Rookie bonuses — The Vikings coughed up some bonus money for undrafted free agents, too. It paid off when they had five of them – Jack Brewer, Nick Davis, Kelly Campbell, Shaun Hill and Jeremy Allen (practice squad) — make it. Brewer shows some promise at free safety. Davis is an explosive and exciting return man. Campbell should have been drafted. Hill and Allen are solid developmental-type prospects.
Tice brings a thorough, direct, progressive approach to the team.
"Players will be coached hard," he said. "We will not run away from the mistakes. We will correct the mistakes as coaches and as players will accept the corrections. The players will because this is a great group that we're working with. We're very fortunate to have the players we have."
The jury is still out in a couple other areas, but the biggest disappointment still remains the prolonged holdout of top pick Bryant McKinnie, something out of Tice's hands.
All The Right Moves?
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