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Offseason notebook: Vikings' gut check time

For the Minnesota Vikings, it was a different kind of trouble. Unlike the franchise's all-too-public dirty laundry, this was something hidden from the rest of the NFL.

A quiet chaos.

As the torrid 5-1 start of 2004 hit the sludge of midseason, the disease of mute lips had set in. Linebacker Chris Claiborne and defensive tackle Chris Hovan – two emotional compasses – had lost their bearings. And before head coach Mike Tice had even discovered it, the Vikings had gone flat and given up 99 points in three consecutive losses. Suddenly, when he needed a voice of leadership on defense, Tice was greeted with a symphony of crickets.

A mortal flaw had been exposed. On a team that had an offense burning rocket fuel, an emotionally comatose defense was dangling along for the ride. By the end of the season, the Vikings would give up 395 points (26th in the NFL) and backpedal into the playoffs as the worst defensive team, at least statistically, in the postseason. It should sound familiar. Had Minnesota not been knocked out of the playoffs on the final play of the 2003 regular season, it would have earned the same title of Worst Playoff Defense.

There's a pattern in there – start 2003 and 2004 a collective 11-1 on the strength of the offense, then finish a collective 6-14 on the failures of the defense.

"I've spent a tremendous amount of time looking at why 6-0, 3-7 [in 2003]? Why 5-1 and 3-7 [in 2004]?" Tice says. "Clearly, we know how to run a training camp, because we come out of training camp as hot as anybody. Where we lose the consistency is right in the gut – in the middle."

Realizing the lack of defensive leadership was no small revelation, but it came at a tremendous price. In 2004, Minnesota's defensive shortcomings wasted quite possibly the third-best statistical performance by a quarterback in the history of the league. Beyond Dan Marino in 1984 and Peyton Manning last season, you would be hard pressed to find a year better than Daunte Culpepper's in 2004: 41 total touchdowns against 11 interceptions, 5,123 total yards (4,717 passing, 406 rushing) and a 69-percent completion rate.

Complement those numbers with a solid defense and the Vikings might have been measuring their place in history with Roman numerals rather than watching the Eagles do it in their place. It's a hard lesson to learn, but one that apparently has been taken to heart.

While the trade of mercurial receiver Randy Moss has grabbed all of the attention in NFL circles, there is an underlying buzz surrounding the Vikings, who have added more key defensive pieces than any team in the NFC.

"Moss being gone is a big relief," Bears head coach Lovie Smith said. "Make no mistake though – Minnesota has gotten a lot better. Some of the defensive moves they've made, Mike Tice has done a great job with that."

Despite losing Moss, Tice has added no less than five key pieces to the opposite side of the ball and firmly elevated the Vikings into the driver's seat in the NFC North. Chicago still is in the midst of a rebuilding project, while an already sagging Green Bay will sorely miss safety Darren Sharper and the pivotal starting guard combination of Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera. Even Detroit – which may boast the NFC's best core of young talent – is on the verge of a preseason quarterback debate between Joey Harrington and Jeff Garcia.

Within the division, though, few signings have been more important than the Vikings' nabbing of cornerback Fred Smoot and Sharper – two players who will make Minnesota's defense grow exponentially in aggression. Paired with cornerback Antoine Winfield, Smoot and Sharper give the Vikings something they've never had: the ability to play consistent man coverage, while piling defenders into the middle of the field and designing more blitz packages.

That's a scheme that should only enhance blossoming defensive ends Kevin Williams, Lance Johnstone and Kenechi Udeze. Add the acquisitions of nose tackle Pat Williams and linebackers Sam Cowart and Napoleon Harris, and Minnesota finally has some strong personalities to propel the team.

"How are they going to mesh – that's the key," Tice said. "I'm not [demanding] 100-percent attendance in offseason, but I think guys need to be there for a good part of the program, because that's where I think they gain the respect and leadership of a team. [The offseason program] doesn't start until April 4, but it will be exciting to see how guys fit together."

The Vikings are already targeting an impact replacement for Moss, eyeing USC's Mike Williams or Michigan's Braylon Edwards with the No. 7 pick in the draft (or a possible trade into the top four, if necessary). Minnesota also could stand pat and take one of the marquee running backs, then address the receiver position with the No. 18 overall pick. All are luxury scenarios now that Tice has addressed what he felt was the true virus – a lack of fortitude.

"Darren Sharper – natural leader," Tice said. "It looks to me that Napoleon Harris has some leadership skills. The first thing Harris did when he came to us was getting all the numbers of our linebackers and call them. He wanted to say, Hey, let's go, let's pick it up.' "

Tice admits it's a small start, and change will have to be proven on the field. But for now, the chorus of crickets has been swept out. And Tice is hoping the silent and torturous midseason slump has gone with them.

WIND SPRINTS

  • Despite signing Gus Frerotte and having traded for A.J. Feeley only a season ago, there are plenty of indications that the Miami Dolphins' new regime – and head coach Nick Saban, specifically – isn't simply doing due diligence with quarterbacks in the draft.

Working out and sitting down with Utah's Alex Smith and Cal's Aaron Rodgers is one thing, but arranging similar meet-and-greets with Auburn's Jason Campbell and Akron's Charlie Frye is quite another. Miami has done extra homework on all of the top quarterbacks, and Saban doesn't sound opposed to loading up at the position.

"You go right back to saying who has the best value long term for the organization," Saban said. "I think that's the approach we have to use in this draft. And then from there, you make adjustments and do the things you can do. Just because you bring a good player to a team on top of another good player, both still have value to your team. But maybe you need to do something with one of them to strengthen your team in another place."

  • There is some quiet drama surrounding Chicago Bears kicker Paul Edinger, who could be cut by the beginning of next season if he can't get his head on straight.

Once promising enough that the Bears matched a five-year, $7 million offer sheet from the Vikings in 2003, Edinger has fallen off significantly – and quite mysteriously – in the last two seasons. After converting 69 of 86 field goals (80 percent) in his first three seasons, Edinger has dipped to a 68-percent conversion rate since, including seven missed attempts from 30 to 39 yards.

Far more frustrating about Edinger's plunge is his age (he's only 27) and that he has one of the best distance legs in football, hitting 13 of 19 field goals from 50 or more yards in his career. Now the Bears are contemplating finding a replacement for Edinger in the draft or waiting for a quality veteran to shake loose in training camp.

"I can't say [we've given up on him], but you have to go on what has happened two years in a row," Lovie Smith said. "And Paul hasn't kicked as well as he needs to the last two years. Last year, I didn't really bring anyone else in. He was the guy. Now that we have a year, we have to go on that. We're trying to win a championship, and we have to get more production out of that position."

  • While there was clearly no love lost between Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren and former team president Bob Whitsitt, it was interesting to hear Holmgren take a veiled jab at his former cohort last week.

While talking about Seattle's ability to retain the cornerstone trio of tackle Walter Jones, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and running back Shaun Alexander, Holmgren credited new vice president of football operations Mike Reinfeldt, suggesting indirectly that all of the signings couldn't have been accomplished under Whitsitt's watch. It was Whitsitt's firing that paved the way for Reinfeldt's hiring.

"When we were able to get Mike Reinfeldt back, hiring him back in, then I felt better about our chances," Holmgren said. "He had dealt with the agents before, dealt with these guys before and he's very good at his job."

  • An NFC general manager suggested late last week that if Alex Smith suffered a precipitous drop in the draft, the Washington Redskins could grab him with the ninth pick, or possibly attempt to move up a few spots if it appears Arizona would select Smith at eighth overall.

That would be a surprise, considering Washington is committed to bringing back both starter Patrick Ramsey and backup Mark Brunell, despite their struggles last season. And Redskins coach Joe Gibbs didn't sound ready to give up on Ramsey while attending the owners' meetings in Maui last week.

"Go back to [former Redskins quarterback Mark] Rypien," Gibbs said. "People forget that I went through a nightmare with Mark for a while. He turned the ball over eight times in seven games or something like that and we benched him. We did a lot of drills with him and eventually we got through some of those things and then all of a sudden, he took off. Patrick needs to do the same thing. He needs to continue to improve and take off."