It may still be more than three months until the Vikings start playing their 2010 season for real, but there is a growing undercurrent at Winter Park during the second week of organized team activities (OTAs) that the Vikings are on to something big.
With stars like Antoine Winfield, E.J. Henderson and Cedric Griffin on the mend, Brett Favre giving all indications that he's going to come back for another season and the recent court ruling that said the NFL can't suspend Pat Williams and Kevin Williams for the first four games of the season while their appeals process plays itself out, the Vikings have gone from a team with some question marks to a team that may be setting itself up for its first return to the Super Bowl in 35 years.
While the process is starting off slow – players working primarily on regaining their conditioning regimen and most veterans taking part in just a portion of the early practices – one player who found himself in the middle of the action this past week was veteran linebacker Ben Leber.
Splitting his offseason time between San Diego and Minnesota, Leber said that this is one of his favorite times of the year, as the batteries start to get recharged in preparation for another season. The players have been off on their own the better part of three months and Leber said it has been a lot of fun seeing the familiar locker room faces back at Winter Park and getting back to work.
"It feels great," Leber said. "This time of year is always kind of fun to get back in the swing of things. You get working out with the guys and messing around. That's a part of the game you really enjoy – hanging out with the guys. It's a lot of fun and isn't really too much like work."
The Vikings return all 22 starters from last season, a rarity in the NFL, and have a solid core of veteran leaders on both sides of the ball. Leber said there has been a growing familiarity with one another, especially on defense, where the same unit on the defensive line and the linebacker corps are beginning their third year working as a cohesive front seven. He said the same is true for the offense, where the principal pieces are all returning after having a year with Favre at the helm. He said there is a sense of shorthand on both sides of the ball – the familiarity is breeding a culture of winning that all expect to continue in 2010.
"It's just fine-tuning things," Leber said. "At this point, given how many of the guys have been together for a while, it's not just installing the basics, but work on the details. We can review the things that we did bad from the year before and get a chance to work on them out here."
Leber said that the feeling around the Vikings locker room among the veterans is that the window of opportunity for winning a Super Bowl is staring them in the face. They have improved steadily over the last four years, going from 6-10 to 8-8 to 10-6 to 12-4. They have gone from playoff contenders to division champions to within a big play or two from going to the Super Bowl last year. That has served as motivation to the players that the next logical step in their upward progression is there for the taking.
"It feels good to have all the pieces in place," Leber said. "I think everyone understands how important this year is for us. To have all the things fall in place as far as personnel goes is a great feeling."
It isn't just the players that have that sentiment. Despite their success, the Vikings haven't had the coaching staff raided by other teams looking to make a change in their fortunes. While Leslie Frazier has been a candidate for other head coaching positions, he remains with the Vikings. Just as the players have grown together as a unit that has been maintained over the last three years, the same is true for the coaching staff, which Leber said is just another reason for the Vikings to be optimistic about their chances in 2010.
"It's very rare for teams to come out with new coaches and a new coaching staff and be successful," Leber said. "I think we know the more years that we're in it together, the better we're going to be. Another year under our belt – the whole staff and the players together – should lead to success."
It will be three months before the Vikings begin that quest and another five months to see if that goal will be realized. But few teams enter the 2010 season as locked and loaded as the Vikings, and Leber believes that the only way to rid themselves of the sour taste of the end of the 2009 season is to take it to the next step in 2010.
"We had a good season last year, but nobody in that locker room was satisfied with it," Leber said. "We set high goals for ourselves because we knew we had the people to get the job done. We got close, but close doesn't matter in the NFL. All that matters is winning a championship. That's what we play for. A lot of guys would give up their paychecks if they can get that ring. It's the goal of every player to win a championship and we're convinced we have the players here to accomplish that. That journey starts now and everyone is ready to get it started and achieve that goal."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Leber anticipates successful season
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