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Like Redskins, Vikings don't lack for drama

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2010; 12:05 AM

There are plenty of NFL teams with superior records and better playoff prospects. But relatively few can match the Minnesota Vikings and Washington Redskins for melodrama.

The plot lines of two of football's leading soap operas converge Sunday at FedEx Field. The most qualified expert analyst for this matchup might be Susan Lucci.

The Redskins began training camp with a high-profile standoff between Coach Mike Shanahan and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth over Shanahan's insistence that Haynesworth pass a conditioning test before practicing. Then the team took another turn in the national spotlight with Shanahan's pre-bye week benching of quarterback Donovan McNabb late in a game and the variety of explanations provided for the move.

The Vikings won't be upstaged by anyone in the drama department. They arrive in town with Leslie Frazier coaching his first game after taking over for the fired Brad Childress. Quarterback Brett Favre is still talking about how much (or how little) football he has left to play as he awaits the outcome of an NFL investigation into his off-field behavior. And wide receiver Randy Moss's second stint with the franchise is now a fading memory after just four games.

Everyone in the Vikings locker room is trying to figure out how things went so wrong in what was supposed to be a Super Bowl season.

"For anybody to tell you it doesn't affect them, they're lying," said former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann. "Like the situations in Washington with Albert and Donovan, other players are asked about it. It becomes a pain in your neck. It's the same thing in Minnesota with Brett or Randy or whatever else. Football players are like anyone else. They want to come to work and feel good about things, and they'll be more productive. That kind of constant drama makes it much tougher."

Familiar with notoriety

It's nothing new for either franchise. The Redskins have changed coaches and remade the roster with headline-grabbing transactions regularly over the past decade, failing to recapture their Super Bowl glory days of the 1980s and early '90s under Joe Gibbs even when they brought back Gibbs as their coach.

The hiring of Shanahan, who won two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos, and General Manager Bruce Allen last offseason was supposed to usher in a new era of stability and more traditional NFL decorum at Redskins Park. But, with Shanahan's handling of the Haynesworth and McNabb situations, the team's maneuvers have remained prime topics for debate by the army of commentators who scrutinize the NFL.

"You try to make lemonade out of lemons," said cornerback Fred Smoot, who had two stints with the Redskins and one with the Vikings over nine NFL seasons. "But my whole career, it was different defensive coordinators, different head coaches, different teammates all the time, always starting over. All I knew was change. There was always something happening. . . . I wanted to have continuity. Neither of those places has had that for a while."

The Vikings have had their share of off-field turbulence in recent years. Former coach Mike Tice was fined $100,000 by the NFL in 2005 for his role in selling his Super Bowl tickets. The same year, former Vikings running back Onterrio Smith was stopped at an airport security checkpoint and found to be carrying a device, called "The Original Whizzinator," designed to evade detection in drug tests. In December 2005, four Vikings players were charged with misdemeanors after alleged lewd behavior aboard a cruise boat. Smoot, who was among the players charged, pleaded guilty in 2006 to disorderly conduct and being a public nuisance on a watercraft.

Since 2008, the NFL has been attempting to enforce four-game suspensions of Vikings defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams for testing positive for a banned diuretic contained in the weight loss product StarCaps. The case remains tied up in court. This season, the league is investigating Favre after a report by the Web site Deadspin that he sent inappropriate electronic messages to former New York Jets employee Jenn Sterger when both were with the team. Favre faces possible discipline under the NFL's personal conduct policy if the accusations are substantiated.

Favre had what he has called the best season of his career last year, after he was lured out of his second retirement from the NFL by the Vikings. Childress drove to the airport personally to pick up Favre, who threw 33 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions before finishing fourth in the league most valuable player balloting and leading the Vikings to the NFC title game. They lost in overtime at New Orleans.

'Coaches usually go first'

This year, Favre agreed to play another season - his 20th and, he vows, final season in the NFL - after three of his teammates traveled to his home in Mississippi during training camp to urge him to make up his mind. But he has played like the 41-year-old grandfather that he is, laboring through a series of injuries while throwing 10 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions. He is the NFL's 32nd-rated passer and the Vikings have a record of 3-7.

"Whether you like your coach, get along with him, agree with what is called, not called, you still have to play," Favre said at a midweek news conference. "I think it would be easy to pass the buck off on the next player or the next coach or the past coach. It's the way this business works. The coaches usually go first. The players, you can't get rid of everybody right now. You wouldn't field a team."

Vikings owner Zygi Wilf dismissed Childress on Monday, a day after a lopsided loss to the Green Bay Packers, and elevated Frazier from defensive coordinator to interim head coach. After unsuccessfully interviewing for other NFL head coaching jobs in recent years, Frazier gets his chance Sunday.

"I don't know if I felt a sense of gratification or reward when you consider the circumstances," Frazier said during a news conference last week. "I just know that we have some work to do with our players. I care a great deal for them. I care a great deal for this organization and I want us to be successful."

The Vikings have played all season without injured wide receiver Sidney Rice. They traded a third-round draft choice to the New England Patriots for Moss but then Childress abruptly released him. Childress informed his players of that decision a day after Moss followed a one-catch showing in a Halloween loss at New England with a postgame monologue that praised the Patriots and questioned Childress's coaching decisions. There also were reports that Moss was critical of the food served to the Vikings players after a practice.

Childress's ouster was far from surprising after multiple reports that he had lost the support of Vikings players.

Childress publicly criticized a three-interception performance by Favre during a defeat at Green Bay this season and reportedly had a heated practice-field exchange with wide receiver Percy Harvin.

"He knows football," said Smoot, who played one season for Childress in Minnesota. "What he fails at is the day-to-day relationships."

Theismann said he faults the entire Vikings organization, not Childress alone, for this season's unraveling.

"You don't show up to training camp, how do you expect to succeed?" said Theismann, an analyst for the NFL Network. ". . . Football players will take as much autonomy as the organization allows. I don't blame Brett. If you want to blame someone, blame the Minnesota Vikings. They gave him free rein."

Theismann said other NFL teams, including the Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders, have been more dysfunctional than the Vikings and Redskins in recent years. Better times could be ahead for Shanahan and the Redskins, said Theismann, who also could envision improvement for the Vikings if they retain Frazier and move on without Favre.

"Mike is strong enough to be able to build what he wants to build in Washington," Theismann said. "Leslie could do the same thing in Minnesota if they keep him in that job. It will be a different organization without Brett. This time, he simply can't come back. The president could fly Air Force One down to Mississippi this time, and it shouldn't matter."

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