Some would say the Vikings have had the worst off-season of any NFL team. Coach Mike Tice admitted that he scalped Super Bowl tickets. Arizona businessman Reggie Fowler's bid to become principal owner of the team fell apart after he failed to come up with the necessary capital. The franchise came out on the short end when it traded star wideout Randy Moss to the Raiders. Running back Onterrio Smith was stopped by airport security and found to be carrying vials of dried urine and a prosthetic penis used to beat drug tests; last week reports circulated that Smith faced a one-year suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy for a third time.
Some would say the Vikings have had the best off-season of any NFL team. For about what it would have cost to pay Moss over the next three years, they signed three leader-type free agents--nosetackle Pat Williams, cocky corner Fred Smoot and Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper--to substantially upgrade a defense that ranked 28th in the league last year. In the first round of the draft Minnesota got the speed receiver ( Troy Williamson of South Carolina) and the edge-rushing defensive end ( Erasmus James of Wisconsin) it needed.
"Oh, and we're a few days from having a new owner," general manager Rob Brzezinski said last Thursday, referring to Zygmunt Wilf, a New Jersey developer. (Fowler will be a minority owner.) "We've had a little action, haven't we?"
The Vikings had to do something. Tired of Moss's immaturity and selfishness, Minnesota went into the off-season with a two-pronged plan: get as much as it could in a trade of the wideout and rebuild a defense that had ranked no higher than 23rd in the past six years. For Moss the team got $42 million in salary-cap relief, Raiders strongside linebacker Napoleon Harris and the seventh pick in the draft, which it spent on Williamson, who averaged 19 yards a catch at South Carolina in 2004.
"Randy's time was up here," center Matt Birk said last Friday. "He wasn't happy, and it was showing. We're not a superstar offense anymore. It feels more like a team around here now."
Williams, the former Bill, is a particularly key addition because his presence will prevent opponents from devoting extra attention to Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kevin Williams. "When I looked at the film from last year, two things were glaring about our defense: We were inconsistent, and Kevin Williams was truly great," says Tice. "Offenses treated him like defenses treated Randy Moss, blocking him with two, three guys on almost every play. We need someone to take that pressure off him."
As the players split town after a minicamp last Thursday, some would say the Vikings are coming out of the off-season as the most optimistic NFL team. Says Birk, who is entering his eighth season, "I was just saying to Daunte [Culpepper, the Vikings' quarterback] the other day, 'This is the most excited about a season I've been since coming to Minnesota.'" ?