Things going better for Vikings this year
Not as many question marks heading iinto 2003 season
By Bill Williamson
Knight Ridder Newspapers
A year ago today, the Minnesota Vikings, desperate for defense, brought in linebacker Greg Biekert. He didn't take long becoming the leader of the defense.
A year ago today, the Vikings were resigned to starting the season without left tackle Bryant McKinnie, the player drafted to be the cornerstone of the offensive line for the next decade.
A year ago today, the Vikings were uncomfortable with their kickers, wondering if Doug Brien was the right man for the job.
A year ago today, Mike Tice was preparing for his first season as an NFL head coach, and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan was preparing for his first NFL game.
"A lot has changed in the year," Tice said Monday. "I like where we're at right now a lot better than I did a year ago."
On Monday the Vikings began practicing in earnest for Sunday's regular-season opener at Green Bay.
The Vikings finished 6-10 last fall and have missed the playoffs the past two seasons while winning a total of 11 games. Before the past two years, the Vikings had made the playoffs in eight of the previous nine seasons.
"There's a confidence about this year because everything has gone well so far," safety Corey Chavous said. "There haven't been any distractions, and the focus has been on improving. There is a good mindset here as we approach the first game, which is crucial mentally."
The Vikings aren't making any promises, but they enter the season with Tice feeling a lot more comfortable and with a calmness and stability that were missing last year.
Plenty of questions remain about this team; it has an unproven defense, and quarterback Daunte Culpepper is coming off a mistake-filled year. But they have fewer holes to fill this season than last.
The Vikings did not have to trade or sign any key players this week. They don't have any holdouts. Their kicker, Aaron Elling, is young and inexperienced, but he is coming off a solid preseason. Tice and his coaching staff have experience in their roles.
"We have fewer questions that we are asking ourselves," center Matt Birk said. "Last year there was a newness and uncertainty. That is all gone. We feel we have a maturity as a team that we didn't have going into last year."
Tice said his players last season might not have believed in themselves. The Vikings opened the season on the road against the defending division champion Chicago Bears and found themselves leading 20-10 at halftime.
When the Vikings reached the locker room, Tice sensed that his team was surprised to be handily beating the Bears. Perhaps still unsure of themselves, the Vikings let the game slip away by giving up 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter in a 27-23 loss.
Tice said his team has a different personality this season, more self-assured and hungry to prove itself.
"The attitude is right," Tice said. "This is a very focused team right now. We will be arriving at the game better than we did last year."
The Vikings set their five-player practice squad on Monday: OTs Adam Goldberg and Adam Haayer, RB Larry Ned, WR Ben Nelson and CB Horace Willis. Goldberg (Edina), Haayer (Forest Lake) and Nelson (Anoka) all grew up in the Twin Cities ...
CB Ken Irvin practiced with a plate in his shoe, and he should be recovered enough from his dislocated toe to play Sunday. Brian Williams will start, and Irvin -- barring any setbacks the rest of the week -- will be the nickel back ...
Rookie Eddie Johnson caught Tice's eye during practice by booming at least five straight punts with hangtimes well above five seconds ... Two more WRs changed their jersey numbers, with rookie Keenan Howry choosing 82 and Kenny Clark taking 89.