Minnesota's Sense of Purpose Quickly Sacked

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 30, 2006; 4:54 PM

Offseason Roundup: Minnesota Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings seemed like a resolute organization with a clear understanding of what it wanted to accomplish when owner Zygi Wilf fired Mike Tice as his coach just after the 2005 season ended, then moved quickly to land Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress as Tice's successor. Childress was one of the few enticing head-coaching candidates during an offseason in which so many teams were looking for coaches and had to settle for second-tier options, and the Vikings finally seemed to have a sense of purpose and direction after wandering aimlessly so often during Tice's tenure and becoming a national punch line following the October boat cruise that produced allegations of lewd behavior by several of the club's players.

The Vikings today hired Rick Spielman, the former general manager of the Miami Dolphins, to replace Foley.

It didn't last, of course. Wilf, at the urging of NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, also decided to hire a front-office chief and the Vikings, after being unable to get highly regarded Eagles executive Tom Heckert when he was promoted to general manager in Philadelphia, went with Fran Foley, the San Diego Chargers' director of pro scouting. Foley lasted a little more than three months before he was fired. Vikings officials found his management style to be abrasive, and he acknowledged inaccuracies in his resume after they were pointed out in published reports. Foley contended he was wrongfully terminated and has taken his case to arbitration through the league.

In between Foley's hiring and firing, the Vikings made a series of questionable player moves under their new brain trust. The most significant of those was trading quarterback Daunte Culpepper to the Miami Dolphins for a second-round draft choice.

Childress began his tenure by saying positive things about Culpepper. Still, the relationship between the team and its one-time star quarterback continued to deteriorate. Culpepper reportedly asked for a reworking of his contract and the Vikings refused. Culpepper was coming off a serious knee injury, and he was facing misdemeanor charges -- later dismissed -- stemming from the boat cruise. The Vikings began shopping Culpepper and found a taker in the Dolphins.

But did they do the right thing? As recently as the 2004 season, Culpepper was one of the sport's most productive quarterbacks. If he regains that form and takes the Dolphins to the Super Bowl, the Vikings will look foolish for having gotten only a second-round pick in return for him. The Vikings now have traded two franchise-caliber players on offense in the past two offseasons, with Culpepper following wide receiver Randy Moss out of town. Couldn't the organization have found a way to work with one or the other?

The Vikings began winning last season when Brad Johnson took over as their starting quarterback, and they'll rely on him again this coming season. He demonstrated last season that he still can manage a game effectively. But he's no longer a quarterback who can go out and win a game for his team when the running game isn't working and the defense isn't at its best.

The Vikings signed free agent tailback Chester Taylor, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens, to be the centerpiece of their running game, and won their "poison pill" battle with the Seattle Seahawks by signing guard Steve Hutchinson. The Seahawks had named Hutchinson their transition player, giving them the right to retain him by matching any contract offer he received in free agency. The Vikings, however, came up with a contract clause -- called a poison pill -- to prevent the Seahawks from matching their offer. Hutchinson's seven-year, $49 million deal would become fully guaranteed if he was not the highest-paid offensive lineman on his team. Since Seattle had left tackle Walter Jones, the Seahawks would have to give Hutchinson, in effect, a guaranteed contract to keep him. They balked at that, and the Vikings got their man.

The Vikings' tactics were widely criticized within the league, but they'd operated within the letter of the law. The Seahawks gained a measure of revenge by using a poison-pill contract to pry away wide receiver Nate Burleson, a restricted free agent, but the Vikings got the better of the exchange.

Foley oversaw a mixed bag of a draft in which the Vikings had four of the first 64 selections. They got Iowa linebacker Chad Greenway, who's likely to be an immediate contributor, in the first round, and Texas cornerback Cedric Griffin midway through the second. Their other two second-round choices, New Mexico center Ryan Cook and Alabama State quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, weren't as well received by league observers.

The improved defense that was supposed to make the Vikings a top NFC contender last season -- a status they never reached -- lost cornerback Brian Williams when the team first used its transition-player tag on him, then rescinded it. Williams signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a free agent. The defense still has the potential to be solid, and on offense the running game could be powerful with Taylor operating behind an offensive line beefed up by the addition of Hutchinson. But the passing game, minus Moss and Culpepper, is less than dynamic, and even if the Vikings manage to sneak into the playoffs, it's unlikely that they will be one of the final teams left standing.

Around The League

Tailback Ricky Williams participated in practice with the Toronto Argonauts on Monday after the Dolphins granted him permission Sunday to play this summer for the Canadian Football League team. Williams signed a one-year contract worth about $240,000. The Dolphins needed to give their blessing because Williams remains under contract to them even though he was suspended by the NFL for the entire 2006 season for a violation of the league's substance abuse policy. . . .

Tim Hasselbeck served as the New York Giants' backup quarterback last season behind Eli Manning. The Giants had been searching for an experienced quarterback to at least push Hasselbeck for the No. 2 job, and they got one Friday when they signed Rob Johnson. The former Buffalo starter has not played in the NFL in two seasons while recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery. Giants Coach Tom Coughlin drafted Johnson while with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1995.

Johnson joins Hasselbeck, Jared Lorenzen and Josh Harris in a competition for what's likely to be two roster spots. The Giants have been considered signing Jay Fiedler, the former Miami starter who's coming back from shoulder surgery, or Tim Couch, the former top overall draft choice by the Cleveland Browns who's attempting to return to the NFL following arm problems.

The Giants also released cornerback Will Peterson, a former starter who missed the final 13 games of last season because of back troubles. . . .

Putting a team in Los Angeles isn't the only project to which Tagliabue is devoting time and energy before he leaves office. The outgoing commissioner also is doing everything he can to broaden the sport's global appeal.

Tagliabue is pushing the league's franchise owners to play more regular season games outside the country. The Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers played in Mexico last season. There was consideration given to playing a game this coming season in London, but it wasn't put on the schedule. Now the owners are discussing the possibility of playing two games abroad per season beginning in 2008. The matter was talked about during last week's meeting in Denver, and the owners are to take up the subject again in October -- when Tagliabue is scheduled to be in retirement.

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