Isn't That Special?

The Vikings showed a much stronger commitment to improving their special teams play the past few years, a theory reinforced Tuesday by signing special teams ace and restricted free agent Heath Farwell to a one-year, $1.4 million contract.

One of the failings of the Mike Tice era of the Vikings was the perceived lack of attention paid to special teams. On both the return and coverage teams, while the Vikings had some standout players, it was never viewed as a necessity to keep players on the roster specifically for their special teams ability. It seemed as though every year there were different return men and Tice would go back and forth about playing starters on special teams when the Vikings were struggling.

It has become clear that the Brad Childress era has been a different story. The Vikings have paid special attention to the special teams portion of the game and that point has been reinforced over the last year or so. Last year, one of the few Vikings free-agent signings was linebacker Vinny Ciurciu, who is viewed as a special teams ace. The Vikings also gave punter Chris Kluwe and long snapper Cullen Loeffler contract extensions.

That process has continued this offseason with the signings of Thomas Tapeh and Benny Sapp, both of whom are viewed as strong special teams players, and Maurice Hicks, who is seen as the first true return specialist the Vikings have had in a decade. The commitment to special teams was evident Tuesday as restricted free agent Heath Farwell, the Vikings' top special teams tackler over the last couple of years, agreed to the tendered offer from the team.

Concerned that the team might lose Farwell to free agency, he got tendered at a $1.4 million slot, which combined with a second-round draft pick that would need to be returned as compensation if someone else signed him to an offer sheet, proved to be enough to scare off potential competition. Farwell signed his contract Tuesday.

While coaches are quick to tell you that there are three facets to the NFL game – offense, defense and special teams – most of the attention on draft day and during free agency has been on the first two, not the last one. The Vikings are showing that the current regime pays much more of a premium on making sure the special teams are truly special instead of a hodgepodge of players who aren't starters but roster spots looking for playing time.

* New cornerback Benny Sapp, who signed a one-year deal Tuesday, said he expects to get the chance to compete with Cedric Griffin for a starting job. He was scheduled to meet with the Packers today, but clearly that meeting was cancelled. He had previously had visits with the Browns and Lions.
* From the "If It Quacks Like a Duck" Department comes this: the rumor/conspiracy crowd got quite a bit of play out of the announcement last week that the Texans had signed Jaguars backup QB Quinn Gray to a contract. The belief was that the signing would open the door to the Texans trading Sage Rosenfels to the Vikings. Earlier this offseason, the Vikings had discussed a potential trade for Rosenfels, but were offering a third-round pick and the Texans wanted a second-rounder. When asked to address the rumor, coach Gary Kubiak shot it down bad, saying that the team's 2007 season would have been completely shot down without Rosenfels when starter Matt Schaub got injured, adding, "I think my philosophy has changed. I've become more of a three-quarterback guy."
* James Hall, the Rams free agent defensive end who visited the Vikings last week, re-signed with St. Louis – inking a two-year deal. He had been released by the Rams at the start of free agency.
* The Panthers signed former Vikings guard Toniu Fonoti Tuesday.
* The NFL is going to move the start time of the Thursday night season-opening game from 7:30 CST to 6 p.m. CST because the game will conflict with the final night of the Republican National Convention in the Twin Cities. It is expected that Republican presidential nominee John McCain will be accepting his party's nomination at or about 9 p.m. local time and the league is looking to avoid a conflict.

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