After humble beginning, Liwienski entrenched with Vikings

By Bill Williamson

Knight Ridder Newspapers

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Chris Liwienski, a leader of a new-school Vikings offensive line, stood with a tree-trunk left leg firmly on a stool in the locker room. He allowed himself to journey back to a time when he wasn't so cozy in the work environment.

In 1998, Liwienski and center Matt Birk, now another rock of the line, were rookies on a murderer's row of offensive linemen. Birk was a sixth-round pick and Liwienski a practice-squad player for much of the season.

Their primary duties during that 15-1 season were easily defined: Stay out of the way. The Vikings' line of Randall McDaniel, Jeff Christy, Korey Stringer, Todd Steussie and David Dixon was considered one of the best of the decade in the NFL. Birk and Liwienski were practice fodder.


"We didn't have much of a role on that line," Liwienski said. "We didn't say anything, we got yelled at a lot, and we cried ourselves to sleep."

Liwienski stood and laughed at the memory. In less than five years, he has gone from a bottom-of-the-barrel prospect whose main job was to hold blocking pads to being an anchor of a revitalized line that is expected to play a major role in a Vikings turnaround.

"Back then, I was predicting a two-year career for myself," said Liwienski, who was cut by his hometown Detroit Lions during the summer of 1998 after being a seventh-round draft pick. "I didn't see this coming."

Vikings coach Mike Tice did. Tice was the Vikings' offensive line coach until he took over as head coach in 2002. Tice long had plans for Liwienski. This year, he found the opportunity to implement them.

Other than improving the secondary, Tice's primary free-agency goal was to find a suitable right tackle so he could move Liwienski to left guard, his natural position. Tice has gushed that Liwienski playing left guard enables him to have his "dream line."

To make his dream come true, Tice signed free agent Mike Rosenthal from the New York Giants and slid Liwienski to left guard, replacing Corbin Lacina, a smaller player, who was not re-signed. Liwienski was supposed to start at left guard in 2001, but he was moved to right tackle when Stringer died of heatstroke on the second day of training camp.

Liwienski quickly settled in at right tackle. Perhaps the highlight of his unexpected stay there was shutting down Giants defensive lineman Michael Strahan in the midst of Strahan's NFL record-breaking season for sacks.

However, now that he's in the spot where Tice envisioned him, Tice believes Liwienski and the team are benefiting.


"Chris makes our line better where he is," Tice said. "He has been one of our best linemen for two years and at left guard, I think he can be great. He can be one of the elite."

Liwienski, 6-6, 325 pounds, is dominant at left guard because he is solid as both a pass protector and run blocker, Vikings offensive line coach Steve Loney said. His improved footwork, gained from playing right tackle, helps in passing situations, and his size and strength, combined with good hands, help him in run blocking.

"Chris is a hard worker who has come a long, long way," Birk said. "We came up together, and to see the success he has had on the field is a good feeling for me."

Sandwiched between Birk and second-year left tackle Bryant McKinnie, Liwienski can double-team with Birk on runs up the middle or combine with McKinnie to protect quarterback Daunte Culpepper's blind side.

"I do see a difference working next to Chris this year," McKinnie said. "Having him there gives us some extra manpower, and that's always good. We can do some good things with our size. The whole line is better with him at left guard."

Liwienski said he was comfortable playing right tackle, but he does believe the line has improved with his switch to guard.

"We're getting to the point where someday we think we could perhaps be as good as the 1998 line," Liwienski said. "I never thought I'd ever be able to say that."



(c) 2003, Saint Paul Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.).

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