Why does character matter so much? It can be the difference between good and great.
Vikings vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman reiterated this in an interview with VU shortly after he was brought in to work with head coach Brad Childress in shaping the future direction of the team from a personnel standpoint.
“The reason why character is so important, at least in my opinion, is that when you’re in the foxhole and you go through ups and downs during the season, you know that those are the guys that are going to be with you and fight your way out of the foxhole,” Spielman said. “The bad character guys, one you’re going to have off-the-field issues with them, and, nine times out of ten a tiger doesn’t change his stripes, and eventually he’ll go back to the way he was.
“You have to build your football team, not only on talent, but you also have to have high-quality character football players just like you have in your front office and just like you have on your coaching staff,” he added. “Usually those guys with high character are with you so that even when you go through the ups and downs during the season, those are the guys you want behind your back fighting your way through the adversity when it hits.”
You can win with bad-character guys when things are going well, but they’ll kill you ON THE FIELD the minute adversity strikes. Often times, that’s the difference between being a good team and a great team.
That was the point Spielman emphasized: it isn’t just the negative publicity a bad character player generates with his off-the-field behavior, it’s the affect that bad character also has on the field.
The list of players jettisoned from Minnesota since Childress took over for Mike Tice is not a short one. There have been three significant personnel moves and a handful of others where character at least played a role in their departure.
QB Daunte Culpepper – When Culpepper was a young player trying to establish himself, he appeared to be a good guy. He said a lot of the right things and seemed to be everything you looked for in a franchise quarterback. From the outside looking in, that was even the assessment of Childress when he took the job. But fame, fortune and success seemed to reveal Culpepper’s character of late.
Money and material things became pretty important to Culpepper. Stories of Culpepper needing the entire floor of a hotel room to himself, multiple parking spots for his vehicle, lots of flashy bling around his neck, etc. became too prevalent. And his priorities would still appear to be out of whack.
Case in point: During his recent auto mishap in which he injured his non-throwing hand, Culpepper himself in his continuing bizarre e-mail communication through the media said: “The real problem is that the guy damaged my 1975 convertible Caprice Classic.”
That attitude, his involvement in the “Love Boat” scandal, his sole focus on money in initial conversations with Childress, his refusal to rehab under the team’s supervision, and essentially how things have played out for him on the field in Miami all speak to Culpepper’s character.
When healthy, he might be good enough to lead you into the playoffs, but in a game for all the marbles against a superb game planning head coach on the other side, is he the guy to lead you to the promised land?
Since leaving the Vikings, Culpepper started four games with the Dolphins. He completed 81-of-134 passes (60.4%) for 929 yards with 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions, while being sacked 21 times.
WR Koren Robinson – The Comeback Player-of-the-Year in 2005 after apparently defeating his demons, the Vikings had just rewarded him with a contract extension. He’d gone to the Pro Bowl as a kick returner for the Vikings following the season and was primed to be their go-to guy in the passing game. He averaged 26.0 yards per return on kickoffs with 7 returns longer than 40 yards, including one for a touchdown. His receiving stats were a modest 22 catches for 347 yards and 1 TD, but he was primed to become a 1,000-yard receiver in 2006.
Then came the incident during training camp: According to a St. Peter Police report, Robinson was clocked doing 104 miles per hour in a 55-mph zone in his 2003 BMW 760Li sedan. When the cops finally caught up with him in Mankato, his blood-alcohol content measured 0.11 percent.
“I couldn't be more disappointed than for him, than this football team and for this community than to have this happen,” Childress said at the time. “One of the mandates from the Wilf family is that this ship is run right. I'm trying to create a culture of accountability. You can't be driving when you've been drinking.”
Within a matter of days, Robinson was released and many were talking about how unfair it was to him.
The Packers picked him up and gave him another chance that lasted just four games until the probation violation for the incident in Minnesota triggered his second league-imposed suspension, this time for the entire year.
Robinson’s actions hurt the football team on the field. He was supposed to be the focal point in the passing game. They did not pursue other players during free agency or the draft. There aren’t answers for holes like that when you’re already in training camp.
Since leaving the Vikings, in four games with the Packers Robinson caught 7 passes for 89 yards.
CB Fred Smoot – After a chronic history of consistently sucking at cornerback, the Vikings spent big bucks to land Smoot as an unrestricted free agent from the Redskins in 2005. The Vikings signed him to a six-year contract worth $34 million, including a $10.8 million signing bonus. What they got out of him was two seasons of nagging injuries, mediocre performance and off-the-field distraction. Yet, according to Smoot, it was all the coaches’ fault and “nothing happened on that boat.”
Here’s the affect Smoot had from a football perspective in 2005: An ankle injury forced him to miss time in his first mini camp. A neck problem had him on the PUP list to start his first training camp. A knee contusion forced him to miss significant preseason action. He had to sit out portions of his first game with the team after cramping up. He was turned and burned and thoroughly toasted by Carolina’s Steve Smith in the team’s Week 8 contest, then he hurt his shoulder in that game. He re-aggravated the shoulder the following week. Then he missed Weeks 10-14 with a broken collarbone. He finished the year in a nickel role, unable to reclaim his starting job from Brian Williams. But because of Smoot’s contract, the team kept him and let Williams depart via free agency.
Last season wasn’t much better. He switched numbers from 27 to 21. He bulked up from 178 pounds to about 195. He tweaked his knee in mini camp. He pleaded guilty to his role in the boat incident. He was fined a game check ($82,352) by the league. He publicly ripped the previous coaching staff. He missed the team’s preseason opener with a “neck irritation.” He left the next preseason game after hurting his shoulder and then missed practice time the following week. Bruised ribs pretty much sidelined him the rest of preseason. He was able to practice the Thursday before the regular-season opener. Rookie Cedric Griffin started ahead of him in Week 3 in a disciplinary move by Childress. He suffered a concussion in Week 3 action and did not start the following week. Tragically, his half-brother was killed in an auto accident and he was inactive for Week 10. He came back and missed practice time with a groin injury. He then suffered an undisclosed injury late in Week 12 action. In Week 16, against Green Bay, the highlight of his Vikings career – a 47-yard interception returned for a touchdown. The very next week, he broke his jaw in five places during a one-vehicle accident near his home, missed the regular-season finale and finished the season on the NFI list.
Following the season, Smoot had this to say: “There ain't no room for Fred Smoot to be on the bench. I'm prepared to be a third corner at the end of my career, and we're not even close to that. That ain't what I'm paid to do. I'm one of the highest-paid corners in the NFL. Who wants to pay someone that much (to be a third cornerback)?”
Apparently the Washington Redskins, who signed him to a five-year deal worth about $25 million. In OTAs recently, David Elfin, of the Washington Times, reported that Smoot is expected to be the team's nickel back this season, with CB Shawn Springs and CB Carlos Rogers being the projected starting cornerbacks.
Smoot’s illustrious career with the Vikings: 25 games played, 102 tackles, 3 interceptions, 11 passes defensed and a many missed practices.
Other players jettisoned since Childress arrived include WR Marcus Robinson, RB Onterrio Smith, SS Willie Offord, OG Toniu Fonoti and MLB Sam Cowart. Character may have been a factor with some of these, as well.
Robinson went public with his criticism of Childress and assistant coach Darrell Wyatt. He was another guy who liked to work out on his own, continually missed practice time with stuff like neck, hamstring, knee and back problems, then occasionally flashed some big plays here and there.
Smith’s exploits are well-documented. He seems to like weed better than he likes playing football. His undependability let the team down again and again, robbed some other player of a roster spot while he was here and brought mostly negative publicity to the organization.
Offord picked up a DUI early in the Childress reign and has not played again since being cut by the Vikings in training camp last year.
At the end of the day, it is pretty rare when a known bad character guy changes enough to make it worthwhile. And the consequences, not just off the field but the affect on the field, are significant. The result is that the Vikings have passed on a lot of talented players since Childress came aboard, but in the long run, they might be much better off.