The Vikings already opened the season with a four-game suspension to left tackle Bryant McKinnie, but the four-game suspensions to their two starting defensive tackles that were announced Tuesday brought a new element. Pat and Kevin Williams already appealed their cases to the NFL, which still handed down a suspension for violating the league's policy on anabolic steroids and related substances. The new twist is the Williamses and the NFLPA are challenging the validity of the suspensions in federal court on the grounds that the NFL didn't properly inform the players that the dietary pill StarCaps contained the banned substance Bumetanide.
"I can't say I've ever been a part of anything like this. It's definitely kind of a roller-coaster because one day they are out, one day they are in. It's just speculation. I think that's the hardest part is it's all speculation," said linebacker Ben Leber.
"It's not a distraction to us. Not to be jerks, but the media guys, you guys are the ones that create the distraction," defensive end Jared Allen said. "Because it's always, we've got another question about it, we've got another this about it. We're just trying to play football."
Leber and Allen weren't alone in trying to sort through the myriad media questions surrounding the on-again, off-again suspensions. The media contingent has been increasing at Winter Park this week, although still not reaching the levels seen during the Vikings' 2005 boat scandal.
Still, with more media come more questions about things that have more to do with chemistry and legalities than football.
So how do the players keep the distractions to a minimum?
"It's not that difficult," Leber said. "We understand the situation if they're not in there; we obviously understand what it's like when they are in there. We go out to practice, it's no different. Just two different faces and our attitudes and our mentality doesn't change at all."
Head coach Brad Childress had addressed the team on Wednesday morning, when the players returned from two days off after a win against the Chicago Bears that gave them sole possession of first place in the NFC North with four games remaining. At midday Wednesday, Childress said he wasn't holding out hope that the Williamses legal attempts would be able to put them back on the field this weekend.
On Thursday, after the two Pro Bowl defensive tackles had won a temporary restraining order in Hennepin County court against the suspensions, Childress had to address the team again.
"That was a little different because I don't think he anticipated that either," receiver Bobby Wade said of Childress' Thursday address. "But it was just real quickly in a team meeting again, like, ‘This is where we're at with it and until it changes we'll just ride it out.'"
"Just about this is the reality and you can't change that as of right now and the guys behind them need to be prepared to play. The young guys sitting behind them, too, should be excited about this opportunity. Look at it optimistic instead of it being so bad. And for us as a team we're moving forward. You have to be able to do that, especially for where we're at and what we're fighting for."
It didn't matter if the player was on offense or defense Thursday. If he was a recognizable face, he was asked about the situation and seeing the Williamses back at practice.
"It feels pretty good to get those guys back. I really don't know the situation or anything like that, but just having those guys around, they're two leaders on this team," running back Adrian Peterson said. "Those guys always are in good spirits. They always fill the locker room with excitement."
Even Ellis Wyms, who is expected to start for Kevin Williams if the players' suspensions are eventually upheld, joked about asking Pat and Kevin if they enjoyed their vacations. But even while the players were trying to make light of the situation there was a serious message.
Is NFL taking too strict of a stance in this case with a product that didn't list among its ingredients the banned substance that brought on the suspensions?
"I think the league is kind of too tough on us sometimes," Wyms said. "I don't think the other leagues have as tough a policy as we have in this league. Those guys aren't doing anything to try to gain an unfair advantage. Those guys are just taking something to kind of help them with their weight.
"It's kind of sad how the league kind of attacks us and fines us and kind of takes from their livelihood. Those guys work hard to earn their salaries, and for something silly like that to even threaten taking money out of their pocket or threaten hurting us in a playoff run right now, it's just silly and stupid to me. I guess it just brings a little bit more attention to it, and guys have got to be a little bit more careful."
Wyms hit another key point – if the Williamses are allowed to play on Sunday while the legal battle drags on in court, the suspension would ultimately carry over into the playoffs if they eventually lose their legal challenges.
"It is a concern whenever we don't have those guys. We know we're a lot better defense when those guys are on the field, so whatever time we may or may not have those guys it makes it a little harder on this defense," Wyms said. "But we think we've got the people in this room no matter what happens to make sure we continue to win and make sure we continue to stay on the path of getting in the playoffs and we'll see what happens from there."
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said he tries not to contemplate that possibility and just work on getting his players ready for the upcoming Detroit game on Sunday. And maybe that preparation alone is enough to keep the players' minds off the topic when the media isn't asking them about it.
"I don't worry about it at all," Peterson said. "We're not really making that a distraction unless you focus on it and make it one in the locker room. You have a job to do and everything goes so fast within a day. We're ripping and running all day. We would love our guys to be here with us and take the field with us, but we have guys that come in and fill those guys' spots too. We've just got to keep our focus and continue to take it one week at a time and we're going to be alright."
"I don't even know what's going on on a day-to-day basis," Leber said, "so it's kind of stupid for me to sit there and speculate what's going to happen down the road."
Maybe Wade put it best.
"I don't know exactly how it works. It's a complicated issue but I don't much care as long as they're around."