Note: I first published the following interview with former Vikings Marketing Director in 1996. I am still trying to locate my Mike Tice interview...but it seems to be lost. Remember people, back up your files!!!!
So just who has set the most Minnesota Viking records in the past three years? Warren Moon? Cris Carter? John Randle?
If you had guessed any of those three prestigious members of former and current Viking teams, you would have been far off base. Many fans forget the people behind the scenes at the Viking headquarters at Winter Park in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Names such as Frank Gilliam, Jeff Diamond, Nick Valentine, Bob Hagan, Lois Martens and Mary Ann Dallas mean nothing to the layman on the street but have everything to do with the success of our team in purple.
Add to this list the name of Stew Widdess, Vice President of Marketing/Business Development. In 1994, his first year with the Vikings, Stew helped the Vikings set a team-record home crowd in a 38-35 victory over the Miami Dolphins on his way to setting a franchise record for home attendance. Last season, a record crowd of 64,168 came to the Dome to watch the Vikings defeat the Packers 30-21. Thatís your record breaker, folks.
For forty-five minutes on a day when players were arriving for player development camp, I sat down with the former Dayton Hudson executive to discuss a wide range of topics.
VU: When you first took this job, did you have any idea what you were getting in to and how emotional selling the Vikings is? This has to be a big change from marketing department stores.
SW: The answer is none. I had absolutely no idea what I was headed for. Retail had been tough, Brian, as you well know, and I had been looking around anyway, contemplating to see whether I should consider doing something different.
I got a call from a friend of mine who said there was a job with the Vikings, and I said I donít know anything about it and at first didnít want to even bother interviewing. I did agree to sit down with Roger Headrick, and we met for about four hours at a restaurant out in Wayzata [Minnesota]. And listening to him talk made me think there were some things I could do to help the club, and I decided to try.
But the answer to your question is I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into. Other than being a fan like everybody else. I like sports of all kinds.
VU: You served as Chairman of the Skyway Committee for the Super Bowl XXVI Task Force. Did that help you prepare for this position and introduce you to the ins and outs of the National Football League?
SW: Well, you know what it did for me? It got me twenty-two tickets to the Super Bowl [laughter].
People from the NFL kept coming in to see me, and every time they talked to me theyíd say, ĎAre you okay? Do you have tickets to the Super Bowl?í And of course Iíd say ĎNo, Iím a little shortí [laughter] and so I ended up being able to buy twenty-two tickets.
Ah, you know, what I did for the Super Bowl was a special event. Iím very familiar with that, having done a lot of special events throughout my career as a part of retailing. And, you know, I basically just looked at what was missing, in my opinion, from previous Super Bowls. We had a chance to review everything that the previous Super Bowls had done. The thing that impressed me the most was there was no cohesive opportunity for the teams to have major rallies, to get all their fans together in one location and be supportive of the team.
That became one of the focuses of what we did in the skyway. We had the rally for the Washington Redskins in the IDS Center, and security actually had to close the doors we had so many people. We had a rally for the Buffalo Bills in the Pillsbury Center, and the floor was going up and down so much I was afraid we were going to break something. But it gave an opportunity for people who would normally disperse and go play golf or other things - you couldnít in Minnesota. So we decided that a party under glass made sense, and a rally before the game made sense. The idea was to give people a lot of opportunities to enjoy Minneapolis and to stay inside.
So in effect it was a special event as opposed to a football event. We had bands. We had entertainment throughout the skyway system. We had things going on for the entire weekend. But I think the one thing it did probably help me realize is that football is not much different from other things in that in effect. Itís entertainment and what you build around a game is as important as the game itself. So it probably helped me. If anything it helped me realize that what was happening in football was not a lot different than what I was doing in retail.
VU: Being a student in Minnesota, high school in Hopkins, college at Carleton, did you grow up a fan of the Minnesota Vikings?
SW: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I remember when Daytonís ran the ad with the Viking ship outside Met Stadium when they first came here. I used to go down to Parade Stadium, they had a game, probably a pre-season game - it was a long time ago, to watch them. The answers yes, Iíve always been a fan of the Vikings. I was very close to the University of Minnesota football, loved that and of course went to all of their games. But I guess Iíve always been a good fan of the Minnesota Vikings.
When I came back here from California, I was like everybody else. I assumed you couldnít get seats to the Vikings, and so I was not a season ticket holder. Much to my chagrin when I came in and found out we had a lot of tickets to sell.
VU: Youíve had some tremendous crowds at the Dome since 1994 when you took over. What did you change or implement to bring in those 64,000 plus crowds?
SW: Thatís an interesting question [pauses]. You know weíve done a lot around the game, Brian, to make the experience more fun. Iím not sure thatís what you would say has been a key factor. Weíve been lucky in that weíve played some pretty good teams. The Miami game was huge. Green Bay is huge all the time.
Last year I basically kept looking at the huge picture of the Dome that youíve seen on our wall [at Winter Park]. I kept looking at those blank spaces between the field and the stands and decided that we could probably put some more fans in there and that got us our biggest crowd ever last year against Green Bay.
But I think the key factor, quite frankly, is the team youíre playing and the quality of your own teamís play. Particularly in this market. We donít seem to have the loyalty that they seem to have in Green Bay, in Pittsburgh, in Denver and now in Kansas City, although Kansas City has come upon it recently, where thereís a hard core of fans whoíll come regardless. And that thereís enough of those to make sure the stadium gets filled.
Thatís been my biggest disappointment, quite frankly, an inability to get more people into the stadium than we have. Weíve had some real highs. We had our largest attendance in 1994. But for Minnesotans itís got to be a winning record, a team that they think is going to do well. Particularly with the sterile atmosphere at the Dome, which is what weíve spent two and a half years attacking.
Itís [the Dome] not a stadium, that given an inferior game, people will come down anticipating enjoying the game. Theyíd rather watch it on television. You know the greatest example of that is the Minnesota Twins. Theyíre really having a lot of trouble getting people in. Unless, in fact, theyíre going to be the World Champions or reigning World Champions from the year before.
Thatís been a big disappointment to me, but by and large, weíre adding the things in the Dome that create the excitement that will help turn the game into a major event. Thatís one of our key objectives in marketing. We obviously need help from the team. The teamís got to do well.
VU: Can you tell me about the partial-season ticket plan that you and Viking ticket manager Gina Dillon are bringing out this year?
SW: Ah, yeah. We had a meeting, and itís interesting because weíre going around the issue of what has worked well for us. Well, our sponsorships have continued to grow. We have doubled the sponsorships every year for the last two and a half years. And when we began to analyze exactly why some of the sponsorships had been going so high, we found out a lot of it was related to Green Bay tickets.
Thereís tremendous, tremendous interest in [the] Green Bay [game]. We could sell the stadium out twice. Iíve been holding off fan clubs from Green Bay who want to buy huge blocks of tickets. In the past they were able to do it. When I came here I said we better stop filling the stands with Green Bay fans and see if we canít get more Viking fans in.
Then the idea that Green Bay can become a hook, if you will, to help get other things done, like sponsorships, became real important to us. We decided this year to basically take Green Bay and put it into a five game package so that we have the first two games of the regular season, which are Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, and the last two games, Detroit and Indianapolis, coupled with the Green Bay game in a five game package. And to see if that isnít something that can get people to become at least partial-season ticket holders and come down to the Dome. If they like the Dome, my guess is next year theyíre going to go up to full season ticket holders.
It also gives an opportunity for us to go out-state. We did the Arctic Blast [snowmobile rally] in Ely, Minnesota, and I spent a lot time talking to the people up there about what it would take to get them to buy season tickets. They basically said ĎHey, weíd buy season tickets but we canít come to every game.í A lot of them are in the mining industry. The mining industry is twenty-four hours a day and the work schedule is not such that they can get off.
That really triggered a lot of thinking on our part. I thought if we can come up with three-game packages, which we have two of, or a five-game package, you know thatís attractive to them because they can come down for a few games and not have to miss games because their work schedule wonít permit them to do it.
So Iím hoping that itís going to help us tremendously out-state. One of our largest season ticket holder [bases] right now is in Sioux Falls, [South Dakota]. Happens to be a tour company, and itís not the same people coming every time. They [tour operator] buy the tickets, and then they get people in South Dakota who want to go to a few games and sell them on a individual basis.
I hope this helps to solve the problem we have of getting the base season tickets seats up to a high enough level that we can sell out every game. The objective obviously is to sell out every game, not just to sell out Green Bay or Chicago. But get every game sold out and get every game on television.
I donít think thatís ever going to happen until we get our season ticket base up. Last year it was 42,000. My guess is we need to get it up between 50 and 55,000 to be comfortable, and Iím hoping that partial-season tickets will be the start in getting that process done. Nothing else has worked particularly well, except for the Thunder Zone. And thatís almost the same premise where the same person doesnít have to go to every game. That you can pick and choose a few games. But the Thunder Zone bar [involved] takes the entire season [of tickets].
VU: You had bleachers at the Dome last year for the Packer game. At this time, do you feel you might have any more bleacher seating at the Dome this year?
SW: Well, we got a lot of heat [laughter]. You know, I tried to sell the tickets to the Viking fans, actually I got a lot of help from you, Brian, in selling them to the Viking fan clubs. We did not advertise other than on e-mail, and we still ended up with a few Packer fans [laughter]. There were some complaints about it.
But, yeah, I think the answer is if the game is sold out far enough in advance, I would probably try and do that because number one: it allows more people to get into the stadium, and number two: itís obviously more revenue to the club. And the only condition would be that Iíd like to figure out how to make it Viking fans [only] because theyíre [the seats] real close to the [opposing] team benches.
VU: Weíll work on that. There are ten board members that serve as owners of the Vikings. Who is serving as head of the audit/finance committee?
SW: The finance committee is Bud Grossman.
VU: Who is serving in charge of the public affairs committee?
SW: The public affairs committee is Wheelock Whitney.
VU: Has any progress been made into the NFLís request to have a controlling owner?
SW: I think theyíre working on a program and a plan now. The League has basically said that this year is the year that things have to be resolved. But Iím not aware of any specific plan.
VU: Can you tell me how the stadium issue, renovation or otherwise, stands at the moment?
SW: Well, we made a significant effort at the beginning of this legislative session to take our message to all of the key leaders of the legislature. Roger Headrick and I went with our current financial situation. Went with concept boards on both the idea of the renovation of the Dome to make it a better football stadium and the concept for a new dual purpose stadium which would move blocks of seats around to create a 42,000 seat baseball stadium and a 70,000 seat football stadium.
Rogerís been at this, frankly, since 1992, I think. He started talking to the Sports Commission. We did get a hearing. We talked to all the important leaders of the legislature. The answer we got back was basically, ĎYou have to wait until we solve the Twins situation.í And at this point weíre kind of waiting to see what will happen.
The Sports Facilities Commission is, I think, in agreement with us finally that the problems the Twins have are consistent with the problems the Vikings have. Both of us suffer from the fact that the Dome does not generate revenue and what ever revenue it does generate is all going to the Sports Facilities Commission.
We do own the suites, which has been a issue. We built the suites. We spent about five million dollars to construct the suites. We pay one million dollars in rent to the Sports Facilities Commission out of our suite revenue, and the suites generate about two million dollars a year for us currently.
But the issues beyond that are the lack of club seating, the concession stands being too small and infrequent to handle the crowd, and the concourse being too small. Any Viking football fans having been in the stadium trying to get a hot dog or something at half-time know that its almost impossible. And that if you get in line, you end up watching most of the third quarter on the monitor next to the concession stand.
Both the Twins and ourselves need to have revenue that weíre currently not getting. Weíre in about the same position with regard to an inability to compete. For the Twins, obviously with Major League baseball. With us, not having enough cash coming in to compete effectively for free agents. And to keep the players that are key for us, down the line. That problemís only going to get worse.
So we think that like the Twins, within the next year or two there has to be some kind of solution. The legislators have listened. They have not turned a deaf ear. They understand our problem. They basically are saying at this point, ĎWait until we solve the Twins problem first.í So thatís where we stand.
VU: Where do you stand in comparison to the other teams in the league?
SW: Well, weíre 30th out of 30 teams in rent paid. In other words we pay more rent to play in the Dome than any other team in the league. We are currently twenty-seventh in local revenue. And what is most of the revenue in the National Football League is shared. So that the TV, which is the bulk of it for example, is shared with the thirty teams.
The differential gets down to local revenue, what you can generate out of your stadium. Weíre currently 27th out of 30 in local revenue. And the teams below us, we think, are Houston, who has made an agreement to move to a new stadium in Nashville, [Tennessee]; Tampa, who are going to get a new stadium; and Indianapolis.
In all three cases theyíre going to improve their positions, and weíre going to be left at the bottom of the league in local revenue. And itís local revenue thatís allowing teams like Dallas and San Francisco to sign free agents and to plug in the holes in their teams to create Super Bowl champions. We need to be able to do that.
VU: What would have to take place in order for the Vikings to leave Minnesota?
SW: Thatís a tough question. I donít think any of us want to leave Minnesota. I donít think the owners do. Certainly the people on the staff donít want to leave Minnesota. So I think the issue is how we work it out within the confines of either the Dome or a new stadium. A new dual-purpose stadium.
VU: Let me rephrase it a little. What would have to take place to keep the team here?
SW: Well, you know, either a new dual-purpose stadium or a renovation of the Dome. And the question right now is what type of renovation? If we were to go back to the Dome and do something, what type of renovation would make it effective for us and make it a revenue producer? And thatís a real issue.
The Sports Commission has consistently said they want to spend 50 million dollars to renovate the Dome and that they realize that there are some problems. The 50 million dollars really will not do much more than change the concourse, add some rest room facilities which are needed, add some concession stands and create a small stadium club by moving the press box to the upper deck. It will not generate enough revenue, in and of itself, to allow the team to be significantly affected and allow us to be more competitive.
So I think if itís going to be a renovation of the Dome rather than a new stadium and the Twins get their stadium, obviously itís designed to be a baseball-only stadium, then there would have to be fairly significant renovation of the Dome to allow it to generate revenue.
Then thereís the additional idea that right now the Dome is supported in its operation, pretty much by the Vikings. We paid the Commission in 1995, the last time I had actual figures, about 6.1 million dollars in revenue. The Twins paid 1.7 million, the Gophers paid about 600,000 [dollars] and there was about 2.8 million dollars of miscellaneous which would be concessions and other events. So the Vikings are the primary supporters of the Dome.
Thatís why one of the things the legislators have said is, ĎLetís just give the Dome to the Vikings and the Twins.í Well, if they did that it wouldnít alter our situation, without there being more revenue streams coming in, because they need us to support the Dome, to keep the roof up. Weíre kind of in a tough position in relation to this whole stadium issue.
VU: In your opinion, has Dennis Green gotten a fair shake from the fans and the media?
SW: The answer to that is no. Dennis has not always handled things well. I think the club has not always handled things well. I think we need to improve our handling of public relations. And we have made a lot of strides in doing so. Youíll never see a Ďno commentí on any issue that arises from the club any more, at least as long as Iím here.
Dennis has made some mistakes. But heís apologized for those mistakes, and he really has changed his life. I mean, Dennis today is different from Dennis two years ago. Heís married to a wonderful lady that we all like very much. Heís got a wonderful daughter. And heís as proud a papa as there is.
There were a lot of issues. Itís interesting; the investigative reporter that did the story on Dennis was the same investigative reporter that did the recent article on [Twins owner] Carl Pohlad. And the paper made, I think, a classic mistake from an editorial standpoint, in having the two beat writers participate in the investigative reports.
There were a great many innuendoes. There were a great many issues raised to which there were two sides to the story. And only one side appeared in the article. So the answer to me is I donít think Dennis got a fair shake at all.
The original story on Dennis ran when he was out of town. The reporters came to me and said ĎWe want to talk to Dennis.í As we do in all cases, I said, ĎGive me a list of questions so I can get him prepared,í and they refused to do it. Finally, at the eleventh hour, they came in and agreed to tell me what the story was about. When I heard what it was about, I asked that they delay the story so that we could respond. We wanted to respond but we wanted adequate time to do it, and you canít do it if youíre going to press at three oíclock the next morning. And we honestly werenít given that opportunity.
So I think Dennis never got his side of the story out. I donít think we handled it particularly well, but I donít think the news media handled it particularly well either. Dennis is, however, a little bit of a different person today. I think heís much more comfortable with some of the media today than he would have been in the past.
The public takes their cue from the media, and thatís one of the problems that any public entity such as ourselves has to deal with. No amount of advertising, no amount of self publicity can be strong enough to overcome a hostile press. And I think Dennis has had that ever since the article has appeared. Heís been judged and sentenced without ever having his side of the story coming out.
VU: Well Dennis does more charity work than, I think, any other Viking coach has done in the past.
SW: Dennis is very strong in charity. He pushes the players to do charity work, community work. Heís active in a personal basis in the community. But he still has this situation where the press is still somewhat mean spirited towards him. And I think, you know, the criminal part of it all, the difficult part of it all, is heís very well liked by his players. Heís very well liked within the organization. And we canít get his personality out into the press.
Iíve started having season ticket holder meetings as a way of at least getting our best fans who are our season ticket holders, both get them involved with the club and give them a chance to ask the tough questions. ĎWhy did you let Jack Del Rio go?,í which came up often when we did it last year, and we respond to that.
And we talk about our situation and we talk about public relations, the media and so on, and invariably the people leave the luncheons in a pretty good state of mind and with, by the way, an open conduit to the club. The last things I say to them is ĎYouíre like owners of the club. You pick up the phone and call me if weíre doing something that you think is crazy.í And give them a chance to listen to the clubs explanation.
Thatís worked really well. Iíve had a lot of calls from season ticket holders. Weíve gone through about 600 season ticket holders so far. Weíll start them again shortly and continue them to try and have a communication that isnít done through the prism of the press where sometimes it can get distorted. I think ultimately Dennis and the organization as a whole have got to get in the playoffs and win a game to get the monkey off our back. And, uh, weíre working hard to try and make that happen, believe me.
VU: You had mentioned the Arctic Blast earlier. How did that go over this past winter?
SW: Fabulous. Fabulous. I think over 2,000 snowmobiles. You know the first one a year ago really opened up my eyes. Because when you get up into northern Minnesota, people arenít colored by the media in Minneapolis. And theyíre great supporters, you know.
If thereís a difference between the Twins and ourselves, for example, is we bring many more people in to games from outside the metropolitan area and from outside the state than baseball does. You canít buy a hotel room in Minneapolis the night before a Vikings game is on. We sell on an individual ticket basis 30,000 tickets in Iowa and 30,000 tickets in Wisconsin. So we could sell out one entire game with people from Wisconsin and Iowa. And we do not go to the public on games with Green Bay, so they are Viking fans that are coming to other games. It really has opened my eyes.
We followed it up this year with a Draft Party in Fargo [North Dakota] that was patterned off the Draft Party we did here at the Mall Of America that weíve done here for several years. The nice thing about the Draft Party in Fargo is it coincided with the all the flood problems they were having there so we had eighteen players, cheerleaders, and former players and a few staff people along. We sent four of them to the hospital to visit with the kids, and the rest of us went and worked on the dikes. And I gotta tell you, do you know who the hardest worker was?
SW: Bud Grant. Bud was a hit both in the snowmobile ride in Ely and in Fargo. And the people love him up there. They love the Vikings up there. Itís great for us to get into that environment after you feel so sheepish about opening the paper everyday to see what shot youíre gonna get from a columnist or something. To be up there and get that kind of warm reception, it really is fun and weíre going to do a lot more out-state.
VU: A month or so ago you told me about the possibility of a Viking caravan traveling to the Dakotas and western Minnesota. Is that still in the works?
SW: Weíre working on it. I think itís going to be a little more limited this year than I had envisioned it just because of the timing and because of the need to find a sponsor. With our economic situation, just about anything we do we try and find sponsorships. But itís something I want to do every year.
You know, Iíve watched the Twins the last two years, and I think what they do out-state is outstanding, far better than what the Vikings have ever done in taking their show on the road, if you will. We canít do it to the extent that they do it and as many locations, but we can certainly do it in the key cities. It may not be as aggressive this year, but next year Iíd like to get it all the way up to Winnipeg, [Canada]. Iíd love to take Bud Grant up to Winnipeg. You know we sell 2,000 tickets in Canada. And probably try to take it as far south as Des Moines, [Iowa], and begin to build an audience in southern Iowa.
VU: Nick Valentine, the Viking Finance Director, lurks on our e-mail discussion list. Do any other Viking staff have e-mail capabilities?
SW: We have e-mail capabilities in the public relations department. Oddly enough, a gal named Kari Olivadotti, and youíll recognize the name because Tom Olivadottiís one of our coaches, sheís a graduate of English and in between jobs, so I had her involved in helping us getting up our own pages on the Internet. And Iím looking around now, I think Iíve found somebody. Iím going to go back and talk to the league in May about the whole issue of the Internet and each clubsí use of the Internet. And we will have somebody who will be available, both to post our own pages and then to pick up e-mail and respond.
VU: Is the staff aware of our efforts through the Viking Underground and Viking Fans On-Line and if so, how are those efforts received at Winter Park?
SW: Oh, I think the staff is very much aware of it. We were proud of the award [NetGuideís Best Personal Web Site Of The Year] that was won by Dan Hildreth. So the answer is we are aware of it. You know, the more people we have talking about the Vikings and the more support we have for the Vikings the better off we are. I think thatís critical to our success long run.
I consider us a public entity. Weíre like an utility company. Everyoneís got an opinion on the Vikings. The more involvement we allow people to have with the club, similar to what you and I are doing right now, I think the better off we are. The more people understand what the clubís position is, what our problems are, what our opportunities are, I think the better off we are.
I really couldnít be more encouraging of whatís going on now on the Internet. We get a lot of ideas. I tell you, Nick, he has the fastest printer here [laughs]. Heíll bring in things that come off the e-mail list and weíll talk them over. What I need to do is set up a way to respond quickly and become a part of the discussion. But I certainly encourage it.
The thing that impresses me the most when we travel around the country and play a game is the number of Viking fans in each area. I think itís wonderful.
VU: Since youíve been here at Winter Park, what has been the most memorable home game for you?
SW: Thatís a good question. Well, Iíd have to say that it would have been last yearís Green Bay game just because of the largest attendance in [franchise] history, and weíd done some things to make it so. Winning the game, by the way, was a big help too.
But, you know, there have been a lot of games that have been a lot of fun. We have done a lot surrounding the game to make the whole experience more fun. We added tailgating down on Washington Avenue. The Plaza parties have been huge and are going to get bigger because weíre going to expand them this year. We have a VIP tent in place which is something I stole from Kansas City and that has worked out very well. But I think every game is enjoyable for me.
Obviously, Iím like any other fan. I would like us to get by the first round of the playoffs and Iíd like that to be a home game. So Iím really hoping that weíve put together a decent enough team this year. That not only are we going to get into the playoffs, but those games are going to be at home.
VU: Finally, Stew, is there anything youíd like to say to the members of the Viking Underground and Viking Fans On-Line?
SW: Yes, I do. We need vocal fan support. Those of you who are in the Twin Cities understand that the media is not always on our side. And sometimes itís difficult for the club to step up and try to counter what we consider either misleading information or false information or inadequate information where the entire story isnít told.
We need others to step up and support us in that way and thatís where Viking fans everywhere and particularly Viking fans who are associated with the Internet become important to us. We need supporters. You know itís tough for us to get up on a soap box and say, ĎHey, theyíre not as bad as everyone is making them out to be.í We arenít, but sometimes if you say it yourself, people tend to discount it.
This is an organization thatís cohesive. The staff is cohesive; the players and the staff are more supportive of each other now than I think weíve ever been. The chasm, if you will, between the organization and the players and the coaches, weíre all working together.
Last year I instituted a pizza party every Friday. And the entire organization goes down and watches practice Friday morning in order to support the team and have the team understand that everyoneís behind them. But to make sure that we all understand that weíre about football. That our objective is to field a great football team that is going to win the Super Bowl. And thatís been fun. Itís fun for the staff. I think itís fun for the players. And I know itís fun for the coaches because a lot of them have commented on it to me. So weíre a fairly cohesive organization.
We need people outside; we need Viking supporters outside to help us improve our position with the media, to get our message out. Iím always grateful when thereís a letter to the editor thatís supportive of the team that appears unsolicited by the club. We donít always do things right. But the one thing I will guarantee you is that we always have a reason for what we do and weíll always respond to people who call and want to talk to us and want to know why weíre doing this or that.
Itís important that Viking fans everywhere feel like theyíre close to the team and have a understanding of what the teamís doing, both our problems and our opportunities.
So I guess that the one thing Iíd like to say is that youíve been a great help in the past. I encourage you to get more involved in the future and to be supportive. Weíre all about trying to win a Super Bowl. I think thatís what everybody is about. I think thatís what the fans want. I know thatís what all the Viking fans on the Internet are pushing for, and we will do it the best way we know how, in a way thatís economic within our ability to deliver the results that people have to have.
But we need support. Too often thereís a siege mentality thatís created by the way weíre treated in the media. I donít think itís healthy. I donít think itís good. Iím not sure how much we can do other than be open as we are now to counter it.
This is a good team. Itís a good organization. Dennis Green is, in my opinion, a great coach who has done some things with teams that probably shouldnít have made the playoffs. I donít think anybody in their right mind, looking at what happened last year, would have said we should make the playoffs. But we did and you have to say that was great coaching.
Dennis was aggressive beginning with that Oakland game after we lost the battle in Seattle. He made a decision that we had to change if we were to survive. He was really aggressive after Seattle in coaching that team to a win over Oakland and playing Brad Johnson and bringing in Leroy Hoard that took us all the way to the point where we started getting banged up again.
I think Dennis Greenís a great coach. I tell you, I have talked to players and Iíve talked to the coaches around here, and everyone is supportive of him. Everyone is supportive of him. We need that kind of support from [Viking] fans on the Internet. We need other people to speak up for the club, not just the club trying to defend itself or trying to get points across that would put us in a more positive light.
You know, Iím doing an annual report right now on our committee relations activities because I think it will surprise people. We donít do things in the community purely to create a better image for the club. We do things because we think itís right to support the community that supports us. The Viking Childrenís Fund every year for the last two and a half years has increased its grant making and is at the highest level in its history this year.
Dennis Green pushes the players and encourages the players to get out into the community. A lot of that is done in the inner city in mentoring programs and school programs in ways that donít normally get a lot of publicity.
This year at least Iíve decided Iím going to do an annual report that will outline exactly what we do in the community in hopes that people will understand that weíre about a lot more than just fielding a football team.
And to try to get the fans to understand that the players on the team are human beings and that weíre all dedicated to one cause, and thatís to win the Super Bowl.
ďOur Son, the Football StarĒ
Originally posted September 2, 1997
Last week the Viking Underground brought you the only coverage to be found on the ĎNet on the Viking Kick-Off Luncheon. For that matter, you couldnít even find mention of it in our illustrious Minneapolis media coverage.
In our continuing effort to bring you the best, most positive, insightful and truthful Viking coverage anywhere today, the Viking Underground now brings you another exclusive: an interview with starting defensive back Corey Fullerís mother, Alice Fuller-Bates, and step-mother, Matrena Davis-Bates, to bring a unique perspective to our understanding of a professional football playerís life.
This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Alice and Matrena, and they had a ball with it as well. After reading the interview youíll have to ask yourself, where can I find two bigger Viking football fans and prouder mothers than these?
VU: When did you first realize that Corey was good enough to play professional football?
AF: I never really thought that far. He always wanted to play and I supported him. But I guess I realized he had the potential when he started playing at Rickards High School, [Florida]. He did very well. (Corey had 36 tackles, 11 passes defended and 3 interceptions in 1989.)
VU: Take me back to Draft Day 1995 and describe that day for me from a parentís perspective.
MD: Nervous, anxious. It was very difficult waiting. I canít imagine how the parents of those drafted in the 5th through 7th rounds handled it. Corey was the 55th pick, and boy was I glad it was over. Of course, he was watching the TV in the bedroom, and no one went in there but William Floyd of the [San Francisco] 49ers. The rest of us were praying in the living room!
AF: I was anxious and praying he would be drafted. After his name was called there was a lot of hollering and tears of JOY! It was a great day!
VU: Who was the first person from the Vikings to contact Corey after he was drafted?
AF: One of the defensive coaches. Canít remember the name. It was so chaotic in the house at the time.
VU: What were your first impressions of the Viking organization and coaching staff?
AF: I thought they were a fine organization, very professional, and the absolute BEST, because they drafted my son.
MD: I thought the same. Everything went smoothly and Corey left that night for Minnesota. I have always been a fan since the days of Tarkenton, Page and Rashad and the hail-Mary passes, but of course, since then, the Vikings are my number one team!
VU: One constantly hears how young players sign for large dollar, multi-year contracts, then invest their money unwisely and foolishly. How has your family approached this subject with Corey and how is he preparing for life after football? Has Viking Player Relations Coordinator Leo Lewis assisted in helping Corey make post-football plans?
AF: Coreyís business and investments are his own. However, he has been constantly reminded that there is life after football, and he needs to prepare for it.
VU: What do you hear from Corey about Coach Dennis Green?
AF: He has stated that he likes Coach Green, but he rarely talks to me about the coaches.
VU: Dennis Green has his hands full with Corey and Orlando Thomas, two very talkative players. What advice do you have for the Coach on how to handle these two?
AF: If he needs to, all Coach Green has to do is tell Corey that he is going to call Alice Mae.
MD: Thatís all it will take. I know! He is very mannerable and respectful, especially of his mother.
VU: During Coreyís rookie year he forced fumbles from Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders. How did those two players respond to Corey after the games?
MD: I love it. I donít know about Barry, but Emmitt did not speak to Corey after that game. Corey mentioned it, but it didnít bother him in the least.
VU: How did the family celebrate Coreyís first touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1995? I missed it entirely, being in Moscow at the time.
AF: We were very proud, but it would have been better if we had seen the game.
VU: Corey has been nicknamed ďPokeyĒ after his incident with Frank Winters of the Green Bay Packers last year. As parents, how did you discuss that topic with Corey?
AF: I tried to explain that sometimes you have to walk away in the face of adversity and disregard what people say to you, even though it makes you angry. It is hard for Corey to do sometimes, but he is getting better, I think. (Smile)
MD: I expect him to get angry, even though he talks rather frequently! But I ask that he not be so obvious with retaliatory actions and not in front of the ref. He has a handle on it now. (Praying as I say this. Smile)
VU: Any comment on the spitting incident at Tampa Bay with Trent Dilfer two years back?
AF: ďBoy, I know you didnít do that, because I raised you better.Ē
MD: Alice and I were at that game, and we couldnít see what happened. But I was surprised and very pissed off at Dilferís remarks that Corey would be accused of that type of reaction. He told me that he didnít do it as he was in his [Dilferís] face ďpolitelyĒ requesting that he throw the ball his way, and I think Trent may have gotten too close!
VU: In Coreyís football career including high school, college and professional, which single individual has been his greatest influence and guiding light?
AF: I donít recall a particular mentor. He always worked hard and respected his elders.
MD: I canít recall one either.
VU: Corey has been recognized throughout his college and professional football career for his community involvement. Can you tell us why ďgiving backĒ to the community is so important to Corey?
AF: Corey gives back to the community because he got where he is due to community programs and dedicated people willing to help. He wants to return the favor. We were poor and appreciated any help we received.
VU: Have you had a chance to witness games at the Metrodome? If so, how have you found the crowd and atmosphere?
AF: Yes, [at the Dallas game in 1995] the crowd was great and the game was very exciting.
MD: It was my first time to Minnesota and a professional game. I wonít count the Buccaneers. There were shakers [pompoms] in each seat at the Metrodome, and the crowd was hyped. We could not talk after the game due to all the screaming, especially when Corey ran down Emmitt. I loved it!
VU: What has been your favorite Viking game to date? What has been your least favorite Viking game?
AF & MD: The [Dallas] game was our favorite. Our least favorite was the game against Green Bay [12/22/96] which resulted in a $30,000 fine!
VU: Can you share a football embarrassing moment with us about Corey that he would rather not have anyone know about?
AF: During one of his high school games, Corey ran a touchdown to the wrong end zone!
MD: I guess he didnít want anyone to know. I didnít even know! (smile) He didnít do anything embarrassing while playing in Daytona Beach the year he lived with me.
VU: How did you discover the Viking Underground web site and what do you like about it? How do you find the fansí reactions being posted in the Purple Thoughts area and do you find their opinions pessimistic, optimistic or right on target?
MD: I am always in CNNSI, and one of the posts listed the Viking Underground site. Of course, it is bookmarked for life! I enjoy the fan remarks. Most are very positive and criticism is constructive. Iíve never read anything derogatory.
VU: Have you ever disagreed with a refereeís call against Corey?
AF & MD: Yes, many times. They see more penalties than we do! (Smile)
VU: Did you ever try to influence Corey down a certain path other than football?
AF: No, whatever he wanted to do, as long as it was right and legal, I supported him. I encouraged sports to keep him busy!
VU: Is Corey any different off the field than on?
AF: Not really.
MD: No, he is just a bit more talkative!
VU: Any advice for mothers whose sons want to be football players?
AF: Support them, but encourage them to complete college. An education is much more important.
VU: Have you ever feared that, God forbid, Corey could suffer a serious injury on the field?
AF & MD: All the time. Which is why education is so important. We look at pro football as a temporary career because it can end on any given play.
VU: What is Coreyís favorite pre-game meal?
AF: Iím not sure what he has taken a liking to since he has been a Viking.
MD: Iím not sure either, but I would think any meal with chicken is okay.
VU: Any sibling rivalry in the family?
AF & MF: No, not any more. Coreyís brother passed in 1992. He was also good in football.
VU: Which football players did Corey pretend to be growing up?
AF: None that I can think of. Corey really didnít watch much football on TV.
VU: From a parentís perspective, what are Coreyís goals in football and life?
AF: Corey recently told me that his goal is to play as long as he can contribute to the game, and when it is over he wants to build a home for troubled youth. Probably because his younger brother died tragically after becoming involved with the wrong crowd.
VU: So what has Corey bought you since joining the Vikes?
AF: A new car [Infiniti Q45] and paid some of my bills. He is such a good kid!
VU: What are your thoughts on the state of NFL ownership in regards to demands for new stadiums and teams moving from city to city?
MD: I think that cities with NFL teams should try to keep them there if at all possible. The owner should try to be more considerate of the fans.
AF: Whatever is best for the team should be the primary concern, usually staying where they are.
VU: Where do you see the Vikings finishing this year?
AF & MD: Number one. Division champs!
With the Vikings winning with defense in Sunday's tilt with Jacksonville, I take you back to July, 1996 when I interviewed then defensive coordinator Foge Fazio.
ďWhen you come into the presence of a leader of men, you know that you have come into the presence of fire, that it is best not uncautiously to touch that man, that there is something that makes it dangerous to cross him.Ē Woodrow Wilson
You are the defensive coordinator in charge of some of the biggest, meanest, fastest, baddest defensive players in all of professional football. You are responsible for walking up to the likes of 280-lb John Randle to inform him that his missed tackle during a scrimmage cannot be tolerated when the real season begins, August 31, against the Buffalo Bills. Question for you, my readers, is could you do that with out shaking like a leaf as your voice crackles in fear? Answer? Thank the Viking Gods above for Foge Fazio who has the respect and admiration of the entire Viking defense. Foge speaks and the players respond. I met with Coach Fazio earlier this week in his office at Winter Park where he was preparing for the opening of training camp, July 15, in Mankato, Minnesota. The Viking Underground and the Minnesota Vikings are happy to present another in-depth interview to its most loyal fans world-wide:
VU: Ed McDaniel is back. Can you sleep a little better at night this summer because of that?
FF: Well, you know, Eddie did cause us a lot of sleepless nights when he got hurt on the third day of practice at training camp [last year]. Seeing him out there at mini-camp and other practices weíve had so far, itís a good feeling to have him back.
VU: Will there be any significant changes to defensive alignments or schemes this coming season that you can share with the readers?
FF: Well, we have basically the same starters that we were planning on going into last year with, the same guys if Eddie comes back. Our backups are going to be awfully young and inexperienced. We did lose a lot of backup players. But because we have a core of people that have been together for at least a year now under our system and two or three years under a system that was basically the same, weíre going to have a few little wrinkles. Maybe a little different blitz here, a little different coverages there, but basically itís going to be about the same.
VU: I was able to spend a little time with Jeff Friday, Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach, a few weeks back. While watching Jason Fisk work out, I observed that the players just go through one rep at each station. For the benefit of the readers, could you briefly discuss the Viking regimen and philosophy in the weight room?
FF: Well, number one, you mentioned Jason Fisk. Hereís a guy thatís self-made. He came in here as a seventh round pick. And he has really worked himself into the position that he might be the starter come this season. He will be starting nose tackle right off the bat. Now somebody [may] come and beat him out, but he made the team simply because he spent many, many months in the weight room in the off-season, many hours of training.
What we try to do in the weight room for the defensive guys, naturally, weíre looking for strength, especially in the defensive lineman, a little bit of bulk. Our defense is predicated on speed and agility, so we donít try to lose the agility part of it, the flexibility part of it and also the quickness part. That is also very important. And a lot of the reps that they do are the explosive type.
If you watched them, they really try to be very explosive in coming off the ball. So thatís basically [how] we try to build our defense in the weight room and the techniques they use in there are pretty close to what weíre looking for.
VU: After the Dallas playoff loss last season, many fans pointed blame at a perceived weakness at linebacker and a lack of depth at linebacker. What, if any, adjustments will you make or have already made at the linebacker positions based on that playoff loss?
FF: Well, I think that when that happens when they run the ball, itís not only the linebackers. Itís the safety support, itís the nose tackle, and maybe the defensive end going too wide. Thereís a lot of reasons, missed tackles. Weíre going to work, naturally, on our tackling and to be in the right positions. Those things that are very correctable.
As far as the linebackingís concerned, Jeff Brady had to play almost every snap. Dixon Edwards had gotten hurt, missed a lot of games and the back-ups had to play. This year Dwayne Rudd, who is a legitimate number one draft choice, will come on and spell some people and be able to back up people.
So weíve addressed that issue and with Eddie McDaniel being there, now our linebacking core is getting a better and better look, you know, as we go along. We also signed Ron George, who started last year for the Atlanta Falcons. [Heíll] give us some speed and quickness, and he also fits into our mold. So where last year we had three starters, and when Eddie went down, we really had to scramble around and move people.
Our back-ups were kind of young and inexperienced but now Pete Bercich has been with us. Heíll be a pretty good back-up player, and Ron George will be an excellent back-up player and also Dwayne Rudd, so [we] have five, six guys now that are legitimate NFL linebackers.
VU: As a coach, do you get more satisfaction from developing an unknown player like John Randle into a star or developing a high draft pick such as Fernando Smith into the star player everyone expected him to be?
FF: Well, uh, we always look at it when youíre coaching a young guy that he kind of reflects what youíre trying to do. Sometimes we get credit for developing a player when we shouldnít [get credit]. Of course, we get blamed whenever they donít develop.
I donít care if heís a number one draft choice or a free agent. You get a lot of satisfaction when you see the guys execute the techniques of the game, which is very important. When they execute the techniques of the game, when they follow the defensive patterns and are in the right spots and doing the right things, executing the game plan, itís a rewarding satisfaction that coaches get no matter, again as I said, whether heís a first round pick or a free agent. It means a lot to you.
VU: Can Tony Williams be that next John Randle? (Tony Williams has been nicknamed ďLittle JohnĒ because of his Randle-like intensity)
FF: (laughs) I donít know. I have been coaching for a while and thereís not too many John Randles. Itís hard to project that. He does have a high motor. They both came, you know John came from a small program, although Tony came from Memphis State which is a Division One team. They both have high motors. Johnís a little big bigger than Tony but Tony has the same quickness and motor. Itís just a thing weíve got to wait and see.
VU: Will Tony stand cocked-stanced at nose with his perceived inability to be that two-gap nose tackle?
FF: Our nose tackles arenít really two-gap guys. We have cocked them because we felt that they can get in a lane and be able to run and chase the ball and get into their lanes and keep their gap. Weíre a gap control team and sometimes being cocked like that, you can get into a gap a little bit better. Sometimes itís hurt us but, again, weíve got Jason Fisk who was coming on pretty good last year at the end. Weíve got big James Manley, and, hopefully, he might be able to develop also.
VU: How will you get around John Randle being doubled- and tripled- team again this year?
FF: My first year here, watching it, we had Eddie and usually Eddie is on the same side of Randle. We shot Eddie in the gap a lot of times in-between a center and a guard. And what theyíd do with John, theyíd have a center and a guard on that side double-team him. The center was looking for him all the time if John got past the guard.
What we did, we shot Eddie in there a couple of times and that made the center a little bit conscious of ĎHey, I got to be careful, heís coming.í That gave John a chance to go one-on-one. We feel if John goes one-on-one against somebody and the quarterback holds the ball a split second, Johnís going to be in the guyís face. Thatís what weíre hoping.
VU: How is Orlando Thomas and when will he be back to full strength?
FF: His rehab is going very well. Of course, you donít know until you get out there. The same with Eddie. We were planning on, maybe in the early pre-season games, playing Eddie maybe a few snaps just to get warm and let Dwayne Rudd take the rest of them. Then maybe towards the end [of pre-season] let Eddie play a quarter or so. With O.T. weíll probably just keep him out of the first couple pre-season games, and in scrimmage, of course, heíll just be an observer. Maybe if we get into that fourth or fifth pre-season game, next to the last or last game, [weíll] try to get him a few shots. We want him to start that first game of the year.
VU: I attended the first mini-camp back in May, and I came away very impressed with one individual, Stalin Colinet, the defensive end out of Boston College. Could you comment on Colinet and where you see him fitting in this season?
FF: Yeah, we liked Stalin. He is a big, rugged guy who has good practice habits, good motor, Heís a type of guy you could play inside if you had to. We have him as a defensive end right now, but he did play inside and maybe could back up John Randle even if we had to because he has the kind of the body and temperament of being there.
I expect him to play from what Iíve seen in mini-camp. Of course you put the pads on and have a little competition and see what happens, but right now based on what we can go on, we like him a lot.
VU: Is one of the reasons you picked up Torian Gray in this yearís draft that he can play equally well at both free and strong safety, given the injuries in defensive backfield at present?
FF: Yeah, I think if we have a weakness, we donít have an experienced, I should say, guy whoís played in the NFL as a back-up corner or as a safety. We have O.T. whoís an excellent free safety and Robert Griffith who started every game last year for us at strong safety, got hurt and missed a couple games. But you know we donít have Harlon Barnett who was a bonafide starter in the league as a back-up or Alfred Jackson who backed up as a corner. We donít have those guys or Vanhorse who played in the league as a corner.
All of our backups are unproven guys so Torian Gray whoís a high round draft choice, second round same as O.T. was, hopefully he can come in here and provide us some back-up positions. And weíre going to play the safeties a little bit different this year. Weíre going to let them both be free and strong, so it shouldnít be much of a problem there.
VU: You have a lot of young defensive talent on the team this year. Sometimes, even on the practice squad, thereís just not enough game time to go around. Will you be sending anybody to the World League next year to help development as the Vikings have done with offensive players Brad Johnson and Everett Lindsay?
FF: I have no idea about that. Thatís so far off, itís pretty hard for me to comment on that. But I could see if a James Manley doesnít get enough time this year that he could be a candidate, just off the top of my head. But it would be something that we would have to look and see.
But right now, I think that if we do carry eight or nine defensive lineman, theyíre going to get a lot of playing time in the pre-season, I promise you that. James Manley, Tony Williams and Stalin Colinet, Duane Clemons, those guys will be out there a lot in the five pre-season games and will get a lot of practice time.
VU: How close is Duane Clemons to actually starting?
FF: Well, heís done a lot of things in the off-season that have looked pretty good. Heís put some weight on; heís up to the 280ís now. Heís been here a lot working out, [but] he still needs a lot of work on his strength. Heís quick and heís smooth and heís got pretty good speed; he has good lateral movement. But he has to continue to work on his strength, to take a beating in there every day. If he can hold that 280 weight like he is right now, I think heíll be a guy who will, you know, play a lot. We lost Marty Harrison who played over 55% of the snaps last year. He shared them basically with Derrick Alexander, and Derrickís the type of guy who canít go every snap. He takes a beating, heís a high motor guy so we expect Clemons to be one of the guys in there.
VU: A few years back we saw Buddy Ryan , then defensive coordinator of the Houston Oilers, go after the Oiler offensive coordinator and blows were exchanged. How well do you get along with Brian Billick, the Viking offensive coordinator, and do you have a good working relationship on game day?
FF: Brianís a true professional. He studies the game; heís really into it 24 hours a day, twelve months out of the year. You canít say enough about Brian as far as his preparation, his competitiveness to win, and weíre all in this together.
I have no ego problem. I donít think Brian has an ego problem. Sometimes when you have ego problems like what you mentioned happened in Houston, those things can happen. As long as Denny Green is the head coach here, I don't think anybody is going to have a problem as far as the team is concerned. Denny really lets the coaches coach. Heís well prepared, you know where youíre at with Denny, the players know where they are.
The coaches sit together in that staff room, and we discuss what the game plans are going to be. We know going in whatís going to happen. Iím sure if Brian looks and he sees a guy wide open and they run it for a touchdown, heís going to put his chin strap on and say ĎLetís go offense, weíre going to drive down the field and score.í If the offense turns the ball over, we say ĎThatís what the defense gets paid for, and letís go out and stop them.í We have that kind of attitude.
So we have never had any problem like that. I donít even foresee it. I donít think it would ever happen. Plus heís too doggone tall to swing at. [laughs]
VU: What would be a bigger victory for you: a playoff win where the defense gives up a lot of points or a regular season victory over the Packers where the Viking defense holds them scoreless?
FF: I would rather win a game any way you could win it. I was head coach in high school and in college, and thereís nothing more exciting than winning a playoff game or a bowl game. I donít care what the score is.
If Green Bay scores 20 and we score 21 or somebody scores 40 and we score 44, Iím happy. It doesnít make any difference. This game is a long season and when youíre in it as long as weíve been in it, youíll see everything happen. Weíve seen 3-0 games, 3-2 games, the game at Detroit two year ago on Thanksgiving Day that was like a 44-40 game [44-38]. Of course we lost that one. Nobody was happy.
VU: Well, the refs helped in that one.
FF: Yeah, nobody was happy after that one. Iím sure Brian and the offensive guys feel the same way. You go in the locker room and you lose 44-40, nobodyís hooting and hollering. Theyíre all down. Whether youíre Cris Carter and you catch twelve balls or youíre Robert Smith and you gain 180 yards, youíre still going to be down. Or if we go in and we lose a game 7-6 or we lose the game 3-0 on an intercepted pass or we have five interceptions and they donít gain any yards youíre still down, no oneís hooting.
Itís a team game and thatís what I like about football. I think that thatís important. In basketball maybe a guy score 45 points and he might be happy, or in baseball a guy hits three home runs and he might be happy. But football is not that way.
VU: Orlando Thomas and Corey Fuller are, should we say, very chatty players on the field. How have you adjusted your coaching over the years to handle players who have a lot of fire in the belly?
FF: Well, I kind of get fired up and I might say a few things during the course of a game or the course of practice. We always have a saying Ďas long as its not a distraction to the individual or to his teammates.í Being that all the guys on the team know how O.T. and Corey are and knowing how I am, sometimes in practice thereís a few words and shouting going on or even in the course of the game. As long as its not a problem with the intensity or the distractions that come along with it, Corey knows that and so does O.T. and the other players [as well]. They know to button it up if we have to. But right now it hasnít been a distraction.
VU: When you were a kid playing football in the backyard, which defensive player did you emulate and why?
FF: Oh man, [laughs] itís been so doggone long ago. Some of the guys, naturally as I grew up in Pittsburgh, in those days the pro players, a lot of them were going both ways and I was a big Pittsburgh Steeler fan. I played center and linebacker and they [Steelers] had a guy named Chuck Terengelo (sp?) who played, not too many people remember, and watching the other teams come in and seeing Chuck Bednarik. [Click here to read how Chuck Bednarik flattened Frank Gifford in 1960.]
You know, he was like the last of the two-way players in pro football. When I was getting a little bit older and going in to junior high and high school, he was like the last of the two-way players. Actually he didnít play for the Steelers [Eagles] but there were a lot of the players that the Steelers had in those days. Even when they played the Cleveland Browns, I used to know a lot of their players by name too. It was a big rivalry. And watching those guys, of course I didnít know if I was going to be a defensive player or a offensive player back in those days.
I liked Otto Graham. He played for the Browns. He was a quarterback and I liked to be the quarterback. Jimmy Finks, believe it or not, he played for the Steelers. I liked him a lot too and the way he played the game. He was the quarterback way back in those golden days of football.
VU: How has Dennis Green helped you in your career to date and what attributes of Dennisí would you take with you if a head coaching position becomes available to you?
FF: Well, uh, one thing when I was at the Jets and we [coaching staff] got let go, we all had time on our contract. Denny called me and I never even thought, you know. We were all looking for what jobs were going to be open. I didnít even know there was going to be an opening here. And he had called me and said to meet him down at the Senior Bowl which was the next day, and I walked in and he offered me the job and I accepted. And some of the other guys said, ĎHey, thereís a lot of other jobs open.í I said ĎHey, the man called me, and I didnít even have to ask him.í
So that was reassuring and then when Tony Dungy left, he made me the defensive coordinator which was I thought a good thing on his part to keep the continuity. He expressed complete belief in what I was doing and doesnít interfere. Heís very knowledgeable both on offense and on defense, and I think thatís very important. Heís very well-prepared throughout his organization, in training camp and the mini-camps, and off-season. Heís very highly organized. And Iím going to keep all that stuff just in case [laughs] I ever get a shot.
I think Denny creates an atmosphere, a very positive atmosphere on the practice field, in the class-room where the player knows, ĎHey, every opportunity is given to us to be successful.í And Denny provides that, heís the leader. Again, heís very knowledgeable in the special teams, defense, offense. Gets very emotional before the games. But right to the button, you know, no B.S. The players know where heís coming from. Heís consistent in handling them, which I think is very, very important. And he has tremendous credibility with the players because of his background and his knowledge. I think that if you can establish the credibility with the players that he has, I think youíre going to be O.K. They respect him and they like him.
VU: One of your teammates at Pitt was Mike Ditka. With Ditka coming back to the league this year as head coach at New Orleans, do you have any special advice for him?
FF: No, [laughs] you know Mikeís been away for maybe four years but heís been in that booth. I know that when Mike became head coach of the Bears, I became the head coach of the University of Pittsburgh. He called me and he said ĎOnly in America, that a Slovak from the steel mills of Aliquippa [Pennsylvania] and a Italian kid from the steel mills of Coraopolis [Pennsylvania], their sons can become head coaches of their alma maters,í He wrote that in his book in fact. [Click here for actual Ditka quote.]
Mike was such a hard competitor. I remember in high school, we didnít play them in football because they were a lot bigger high school, but we did play them in baseball. And boy, heíd be playing shortstop and I remember his brother in center field made an error one time. Mike turned around and almost chased him right out of the ball park [laughs].
You didnít want to tangle with Mike Ditka. This guy was a tough competitor and a great student of the game. And itís no nonsense with him. Tough guys are going to be the guys that make the team. If youíre not tough, if youíre a B.S.er, if you shy away, you ainít going to be there very long. He will get the most out of his talent. He had good talent with the Bears, no doubt about it. But he developed those guys and they played his style of football.
VU: Speaking for John Randle, which quarterback in the league would he most like to sack?
FF: Knowing John Randle, I think he doesnít care who it is. In fact, in practice if he was allowed to sack our guy, he would. And I know that watching him in the drills, you know we have dummies up out there and we go through drills where they avoid the blockers and get up and sack, he even enjoys sacking that doggone dummy out there too.
VU: Will there ever be another defensive NFL MVP or is there just too much focus on offense and scoring?
FF: I donít know. Itís pretty hard nowadays for a defensive player to be dominant. You know, if any one had a chance at it, I guess maybe L.T. [Lawrence Taylor] in his hey-day. But then of course, they adjust the blocking schemes. You can always, you know, take one guy out of the game.
Ronnie Lott was tremendous. I know we had him in the twilight of his career [Jets], but he was still a great ball player. And, um, itís pretty tough, like I said. You know, you can double-team Randle. Reggie White, you can double-team him, stay away from him, you know. I guess that whenever Alan [Page] won it, I guess he still had the other Purple People Eaters out there. Maybe they couldnít concentrate too much [on Page] then Jim Marshall would have got them or somebody else might have pumped up and got them.
But I think itís just too hard for one guy, even a great cornerback. You know how many balls are thrown Deionís [Sanders] way. Heís an outstanding cornerback. Even when Ronnie Lott was playing free safety, how many shots do you get, you know? The gameís close and theyíre running the ball a lot. You make a lot of tackles, but he had a tremendous amount of interceptions. I think itís kind of hard. I think the focus is on the offense.
VU: A tough schedule awaits this year with three of the first four games on the road. Will those first four decide the fate of the remaining 12 games?
FF: I donít know. We had the same thing last year. We came out 5-1 but we lost four in a row. I think the schedule is such that you got to go with the old clichť Ďone at a time.í
VU: Monday night, December 1, Green Bay comes to town. How can the fans help the team during that game, and just how badly do you expect to destroy the Team Formerly Known As The Super Bowl Champions?
FF: Well, any time you play on Monday night home or away, itís kind of like an extra juice. The players, they know it. They know itís the only time their counterparts, their colleagues, the other NFL players, [have] a chance to watch. Everyoneís watching and they know that. Not only their parents and stuff like, that but they know that the epitome of NFL football is to play that night.
And being that itís home and being that itís Green Bay, itís going to be a wild, woolly affair like it always is. Like Iíve seen it the last two years here and hopefully that our guys will win the game somehow, some way. We expect to win it and hope we can pull it out again.
VU: Do you hope to get the crowd more behind you this year?
FF: Well, I think the crowd here is just like any where else. I mean, I remember when the Steelers won four Super Bowls, and I was coaching at Pitt. This is in late Ď79 or Ď80 and opening game was against Houston. We [Pitt] had played on a Saturday and had an open day, and so I went to the game. I sat in the stands and they were playing the Houston Oilers, their dreaded rivalry.
The Steelers jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but at half-time they were losing 17-10. You would have thought [laughs] they were playing away. The fans had turned on them in one half, and that was the opening game after they had won the Super Bowl the year before.
So itís like anything else, I think. If you play hard and you show youíre trying and youíre out there playing hard and youíve got some victories under your belt and youíre very competitive, I think the fans see that. I think what the fans donít like is if youíre not competitive and you lose some games you should have won, those always happen. Thereís always games that somehow the other team steals. Weíve stole a few games ourselves.
Itís a situation now because thereís so much importance placed on a team to win the Super Bowl, that if you donít win it, if youíre not there, then everyoneís disgusted about it. Being that Green Bay won it and that their fans are rubbing in our fansí noses that they won a Super Bowl and that they want to get back in it, I think our players realize that and they [will] play hard. Theyíre going to play hard even if nobodyís at the game.
But they love football. Out of fifty-three guys, I would say that ninety-nine percent of them are really out there to win the game. Because they love football.
A Viking Underground Exclusive Interview with Brian Billick
ďThe more detailed and specific a game plan can be laid out for a player, the more he can perform with confidence and efficiency. The way we install and practice our game plans with the Minnesota Vikings has been very helpful in providing me with the information and tools I need to do a job more properly. Coach Billickís detailed and comprehensive approach is one of the reasons we have been able to produce the record amount of offense we have over the last few years.Ē
Warren Moon, former Vikings Quarterback
from Developing an Offensive Game Plan by Brian Billick
In 1993 Brian Billick took over the Minnesota Viking offensive coordinator role. By seasonís end the offensive attack was averaging 351.7 yards and 21.6 points per game. In 1994, with eight new starters, Billick led his unit to third place in the NFL in total offense and second in the NFL in pass offense. In 1995, Minnesota set a team season record for points scored with 412, and his offense ranked fourth in the league with 5,938 yards. Last season, with a young quarterback accounting for 55 percent of total snaps, Billickís offense went into the playoffs as one of only three teams in the NFC to be ranked in the top five offensively in the past three years.
For forty minutes on a day when the main topic amongst Minnesotans was sandbags and floods, I sat down with the former BYU tight-end to discuss the upcoming season at length.
VU: The month of April starts out with April Foolís Day. On April 1 this year a radio station in Indianapolis reported that a trade was in the works with the Vikings in which the Colts received Robert Smith, James Manley, the Vikingsí first round pick and second round pick with the Vikings receiving Marshall Faulk, Tony Siragusa and Indyís third round pick. Did you hear about this gag and would the Vikings have considered it?
BB: No, I didnít.
VU: Do you think the Vikings would have considered that trade at all?
BB: Oh, you know, thereís any number of combinations and scenarios you could throw up. Whether that was actually proposed or not I couldnít say. Iím not privy to that information sometimes. Just to back up, weíre very hopeful of signing Robert Smith. Robertís history has been a unique one. Obviously a little injury-prone. Thereís no question he is a viable talent in the NFL. Had he been able to continue and finish the year along the same vein that he started the first eight games, thereís no doubt in my mind he would have led the league or been second in the league in rushing.
I know thereís frustration on the part of some fans and certainly no more than we coaches in the terms of the potential that Robert holds, but obviously heís not been able to take a whole season through fruition. So, itís an ongoing process that we have to evaluate. How far can we go with Robert, how far can we attempt to extrapolate his abilities to stay healthy versus, what are the other available options?
Coming into this draftís a perfect example. We signed Leroy Hoard. Weíd very much like to have Robert with that one-two punch. That would be a viable running game going into this season. This is a draft year with a unusually large number of good running backs. Not necessarily the top two or three picks in the draft, but you could see as many as five, six, seven backs go in the first two rounds, anywhere from mid-first to the end of the second. Thereís some good quality backs.
We have to make a quantitative decision of do we take one of these backs with our first or second pick, foregoing Robert with the idea that heís not under contract, he has had an injury problem, or, what we prefer to do is have Robert under contract because what we believe is that he can have that full season. And address some other needs with those picks. The problem is that Robert has to show his commitment to us as well, preferably before the draft, so that we donít have to make one of those types of decisions.
So, those are the types of scenarios weíre always dealing with. A trade possibility, whether that was viable or not, youíre asking the wrong guy. Those are some intriguing names, certainly, and you consider anything thatís brought up but that by no way means we have given up on Robert Smith. We are, in fact, anxious [to have him]. And I, as the offensive coordinator, am looking forward to having him back this year, if indeed, we can get it done.
VU: Turning to your offensive front line, how important was it to resign Randall McDaniel?
BB: Well, you always, you have to start the free agency process, the evaluation of talent process, with who is absolutely mandatory to this organization from a player standpoint. Randall McDaniel, thereís no question, is the best guard in all of pro football. I think thatís quantitatively documented in terms of the Pro Bowls. No matter how many coaches you visit with, they would love to have Randall McDaniel.
The problem you always face within the organization is then you have to put a dollar figure on that, and itís not a matter of just what are we going to spend but what are you willing to spend within the entire paradigm of what else you need on the club. The players and the fans have to recognize itís not a matter of spending the $41 million dollars on the cap. We will do that.
The question is, who, where, do you take that money from? If Randall McDaniel signs a $3.3 million contract, then that means those dollars have to come somewhere else within the club out of somebody elseís money, someone elseís pocket so to speak. So thatís the dilemma that you face. From a football standpoint you have to keep a player the caliber of Randall McDaniel. From an organizational standpoint of what Randall brings to the community, what heís meant to this team, it would have been extremely unfortunate [to have lost him]. Although it can easily happen and it does on several teams. It would have been extremely unfortunate to lose someone of Randallís impact, both on the organization and the community.
VU: When you found out that Jeff [Diamond] had signed Randall, how did you personally celebrate it? Did you jump into the air, yell out a window?
BB: Yeah, Iím pretty reserved that way but thereís just a real sigh of relief for just the reasons I noted. The fact that we feel like the offensive line is a good, solid offensive line, it is a relatively young line that is now with every year becoming more mature. The fact that theyíve worked together now for an entire year and have a certain functionality about them and the ability to communicate with one another and know one another, itís just a positive. If you take any of them out of the mix, that loss changes that equation. It changes that balance, and itís nice to not have to address that during training camp.
VU: Everett Lindsay is playing in the WLAF this spring. What plans do you have for Everett this year at the center spot or will he be backing up at the guard/tackle position?
BB: Well, we feel pretty good about our starters across the board. Obviously everybodyís gonna have a chance to impact the starting lineup. Everett Lindsay is someone who started for us a number of games his rookie year, thrown into the pit so to speak, and equated himself quite well. What Everett has to prove in the World League, not so much prove, maybe not the right word: One, he has to prove that, indeed, heís healthy and can get through a season, even a quasi-season like the World League. Thatíll be important for him. Secondly, to kind of get back into a football framework, frame of mind, and ability to function within a framework of a team because heís been out of it for an extended period of time now. Ah, thatís gonna be very important for him.
When he comes back to training camp, we have to make sure that we as coaches understand heís been through a ten game season now. And weíve got to make sure we donít put so much on him in training camp that we hurt him or step back in terms of what heís been able to accomplish in the World League coming in with us. We could have ourselves a very viable [player], what appears to be backup now, but thatís not to say Everett couldnít put himself in a starting role somewhere down the season, particularly due to injury.
VU: Korey Stringer has been playing at around 340 lbs. Are you happy with the weight that Korey plays at?
BB: Koreyís proven he can play at that weight and above. Experience tells us that an athlete of that size and that build has a much better chance of getting through the season healthy and extending his career if he can get his weight down. Korey knows this. The biggest concern is injury. He can play at that weight; heís proven it. Can he hold off the injury? Can he play effectively at the end of the year when fatigue sets in? When you carry that extra weight, thatís all a factor. From an ideal situation, yeah, we would like, as would Korey, I think, to get his weight down. But can he play at 340, 350 pounds? Yeah, he can.
VU: Has he gained any quickness since his rookie year?
BB: Itís hard to say. You know Korey is really quite a good athlete and is so powerful and so strong, once heís got his hands on a defender, heís got him. And thatís a great attribute to have at tackle. Itís hard for me to quantify, to say if heís any quicker. He was pretty quick when he came in for a man that size. Heís certainly gained more experience. And youíve got to remember how young Korey was, coming out as an underclassman. [He] would just be coming out this year, actually, in normal circumstances. So anything he has is above the curve or ahead of the learning curve so to speak. His best football may very well still be ahead of him.
VU: When Randall McDaniel does finally retire, would you see Todd Steussie stepping in as the leader of the offensive front line?
BB: Yeah, that group is a group that certainly there will be a leader who will emerge but itís [a line] that tends to be very close knit and works together from the standpoint that there doesnít necessarily need to be one definitive guy. Randallís not a particularly vocal individual, although he certainly leads by his example and leads by his performance. Ultimately, a leader, thatís the only way he really can lead - via performance. Jeff Christy, by nature of the position, has taken on a great deal of leadership qualities because of the nature of what he does, the line calls. And the guys rely on him in that way.
Obviously if Randall were to leave, Jeffís role would be even more increased than it is even now, and he has kind of taken on a leadership role of that group, as well. Although in terms of the heart and soul of the group, the anchor of the group, yes, certainly Todd with his abilities, his experience now, I could easily see Todd with his mental approach to the game, with his toughness, his work ethic, I could see Todd kind of absorbing more of that role.
VU: A person like Steussie, who gets involved in the community as well as the team, must be a joy to coach?
BB: Oh, absolutely, heís one of the few guys we have who stays here year round. He has a home and makes his home here year round. And for obvious reasons, during the winter thatís a hard thing to get players to do, particularly players from a warm climate area, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, California, Arizona. Those are awful nice places to be in January and February. So when you have someone of Toddís playing ability, his caliber, his commitment to the team, stay here year round and then, thus, be a part of the community on a day-to-day basis, itís a real positive for the organization and for us as the coaching staff.
VU: Who do you think will be your starting tight end this year?
BB: Well, you know [when] we came out of [the season], we rotated the tight ends in a number of ways. Hunter Goodwin, I guess, came out as the most identifiable starter for us, had a tremendous rookie year. Youíd like to see that kind of quantitative leap in ability and in experience take him to that next level. Andrew Jordan, weíve had a lot of hopes in his first couple of years. [He] showed a lot of promise, struggled a little last year, but is one of the best workers, so I can see Andrew exerting himself this year.
The tight end position is an interesting one, in that, being a former tight end myself, obviously I lean towards that. We have to have 50 or better receptions from that position, not an individual necessarily, but from that position. We had that every year up til last year and it made a difference for us. It made us put more pressure on the outside receivers. It limited the quarterback in certain aspects. So one of our goals this year is to clearly establish the tight end position as that viable receiving position. And the best way to note that is, again, weíre talking between 50 and 60 receptions on the year.
VU: From the following list which answer best describes Texas standout Hunter Goodwinís size A) a Texas BBQ B) a stallion C) a cattle ranch D) the Alamo?
BB: Well, I tell ya, heís a stallion from the standpoint that he is a much better athlete, an all-around athlete, than a lot of people know. They think of Hunter, he was a tackle at [Texas] AM, coming in as a heck of point-of-attack guy for us. You can quantitatively measure the difference in our running attack and what we were able to do from that Oakland game on, when he and David Dixon were inserted into the lineup. So people think of him in that capacity.
What that belies is his overall athletic ability. Heís probably as fast a tight end as we have on the club, has excellent hands. So the only thing thatís really limiting him right now in terms of being that all-around tight end is really experience. Itís not like weíre trying to take just a point-of-attack tight end and trying to see if thereís things he can do down the field. He has the athletic ability to do that. So if he can get experience from a comprehensive stand point, you could be seeing one of the top tight ends in the NFL.
VU: Hunter plays hard and was involved in several training camp fights with Jeff Brady last year in Mankato. Has he been able to keep his head on the field to this point?
BB: Well, thatís something that Denny Green in particular has always stressed that we canít tolerate. Just the lack of focus, the lack of professionalism, what that represents when an athlete reacts in that way. But itís a very fine line. This is a very aggressive, combative type of profession. And you ask the players to walk a very fine line and maintain that mental attitude, that aggressiveness and assertiveness but keep it right at a point where it doesnít spill over after a play.
Itís something that Hunter has to work on, something that weíre consciously working with him on. Mike Tice, in particular last year. And as the season progressed, Hunter had the good sense not to let it spill into a game. So when you see that, you begin to recognize thatís something heíll be able to deal with and control, and I doubt that weíll have a lot more instances like that from Hunter.
VU: How is Robert Smithís knee doing?
BB: In talking with the doctors and the trainers, they feel extremely good about how his ability to come into training camp from day one and be one hundred percent.
VU: Has he been doing just light running drills at this point?
BB: No, I think heís actually been more assertive than that. Robert doesnít train here in the off-season. Heís back in Columbus [Ohio] going to school and fulfilling other requirements that he has toward that. But Robert has always been a diligent trainer. From what I understand heís ahead of schedule and should be ready to go by training camp.
VU: James Stewart, howís his leg looking?
BB: Again, heís someone who has responded very well to the training, should be ready to go here in this mini-camp and into training camp one hundred percent. Heís another one that obviously, itís time for him to stay healthy. Itís time for him to see what his abilities and potentials can provide for us. And weíre looking for a big training camp from James.
VU: With the signing of Leroy Hoard and the eventual signing of Smith, do you plan on using a two back set at all this season?
BB: Well, we were in a lot of two back last year. We were in more two back last year than we have been at any point since Iíve been here. The problem with the two back that people have to consider is, when you have two backs, you only have one ball. And if you give it to Robert Smith, Leroy Hoard has to be a blocker. If you give it to Leroy Hoard, Robert Smith has to be a blocker.
Now thatís not to say they canít do that, but if youíre talking about x-amount of snaps that you want to put an athlete through, the idea of having a Leroy Hoard and a Robert Smith, the positive is that they can balance each other. No one guy has to take the entire load for a very long sixteen game season. So to use them up in that lead back capacity, you might not be using them at their optimum level of efficiency. Although having them both in the backfield is something we would do.
Certainly, having Chuck Evans and now a Harold Morrow, and we used Chuck Evans in that capacity a lot last year, we increased our two back offense by a good 20 percent last year having Chuck Evans in the backfield. And Greg DeLong to a certain degree, even though heís a tight end, is more in the H-back or full back capacity. The two back mentality, whether it be a Greg DeLong or Chuck Evans or an Amp Lee and a Robert Smith or a Robert Smith and Leroy Hoard, will account for probably close to 50, maybe even 60 percent of our attack.
VU: You have an exciting season approaching in the quarterback department. My contacts at Florida State tell me that Brad Johnson wants to show everyone that he is ready to earn that big contract he signed last year, as opposed to a certain Lions QB, and has been working out alone on the FSU campus. To what extent have you and quarterback coach Ray Sherman been working with Brad during the off-season?
BB: We work with Brad extensively. Brad in his first five years here, no one spent more time here in the off-season doing more than Brad Johnson. But Brad has reached a point, both in the terms of his status as a starter, his knowledge of the system. As we alluded to, this is a very long season. You have to have a very specific program in the off-season as to how you want to progress. Athletes can actually do too much. Particularly with the quarterback, you can throw too much.
We have three, three-day quarterback schools beginning in the beginning of March up to training camp. We have one in April that weíre about to do here on the 14th, 15th and 16th of next week. And then weíll do one prior to mini-camp. And each is designed with a specific task of working out, throwing, working into that familiarity with your receivers, going over different aspects of the offense. But it still gives the players enough time off so that they come into training camp fresh.
So we have a very specific program with Brad that weíre right in the middle of. Brad is constantly receiving tapes and contact from us. Brad is one of those athletes you donít worry about where he does his training because you know heís going to train. Heís very diligent about it. Heís not someone that you have to have here and have to constantly monitor it, much like Warren [Moon]. Warren was a meticulous trainer and Bradís taken on those same qualities and will be in great shape when he comes to training camp.
VU: What single thing impressed you the most about Brad last season?
BB: People donít understand just how difficult it is to come in and perform at the level Brad did coming off the bench to do so. For him to accomplish what he did, if you take Bradís 300-some odd throws, which accounts for better than 55 percent of our attack last year, and you extrapolate that over the entire 565-some odd throws that we took.
In other words, if you were to take Bradís eight games and extrapolate that out to an entire season, and I don't think thatís a far-fetched notion, and itís not like taking a guy that performed well in two or three games, and say ďOh, well, if he did this over 16, this is what it would amount to.Ē He had good games, he had not-so-good games, so itís a representative picture over what he might do over the entire season
Youíre looking at a 4000-plus yard, 31 touchdown, only 27 sack and 18 interception year. That would have ranked clearly in the top four or five in the league last year. That would put Brad in the top ten of all-time years in the history of the Vikings, only behind the two that Warren had in Ď94 and Ď95. So you can see where our excitement comes from.
And for Brad to have done that, in many instances where the game plan was really wrapped around Warren, Warren goes down, and Brad comes in and has to execute [Warrenís] game plan, not that thereís a huge amount of difference, but one that maybe wasnít built with necessarily with his strengths in mind. And to come in and win the games that Brad did and then to be in and out as a starter, to have the run of starting games that he did as we were able to wrap the offense more around him, I think, is a real indicator of his talent. And I really think we have one of the good, possibly great, young quarterbacks in the game right now.
VU: Was there any thing last season that did disappoint you about Brad?
BB: You know, Iím so close to Brad, weíve been together since day one here, that itís hard for me to verbalize those. There are any number of things that as a coach, yeah, you wish you could have back with regard to certain throws. It also applies to calls I may have made, so itís not simply geared towards Brad. Brad remained tough, positive, confident, executed the offensive level far beyond my expectations, and I had pretty high expectations of Brad, more so than probably anybody. I just really donít see any negatives. I know the Dallas game was a disappointment for him. Some people point to that.
And with regards to Bradís contract, Bradís already earned that contract. Just by what heís done with this organization, heís paid his dues. Weíre not a benevolent organization here that just hands out money because theyíre good guys. Brad earned that contract. Now whether he lives up to it, or earns the next contract, weíll find out, but heís earned every dollar of that contract he got. People will look at it and think that we overpaid for Brad. I think by yearís end, people will look back and say, ďBoy, theyíre stealing from this kid. They got him for a bargain basement price based on what he was able to do.Ē
So there are positives from both standpoints. I donít see any negatives for Brad. I really donít. Coming in, I just think heís going to have an excellent year for us. Obviously there are going to be some ups and downs. There are with quarterbacks but Brad has proven that heíll handle those well.
VU: Did you work out Randall Cunningham today?
BB: Yeah, sure did.
VU: How was your assessment of him?
BB: Looked great. Physically, I donít think thereís any question that Randallís in great physical shape. He threw the ball very effectively. He has the athletic skills heís always had. Now obviously at the stage heís at, 32, 33, whatever it is exactly, you know, heís not what he was at 25, 26. But heís still quantitatively better than 90 percent of the guys in the league, probably in terms in of his ability to run around and make something happen. I hope that we can get that done.
I think [the Vikings are] the right fit for Randall. I think Randall thinks itís the right fit for him. Obviously the finances have to be a factor, based on whatever opportunities he may have, but I think heíd be an excellent addition for us to work in conjunction with Brad Johnson. He understands clearly that Brad is the starter and that he is here simply to give us veteran experience if something should happen to Brad.
VU: What kind of teacher do you think he would be for Brad?
BB: I think heíd be excellent. Now Bradís been around some pretty good people. Some different personalities from Sean Salisbury to Warren Moon to Jim McMahon. Brad is at that point in his career [when it comes time] to assert his own personality. He doesnít need a lot of mentoring as he did early in his career. But to be around a guy like Randall Cunningham whoís been in the Pro Bowl, whoís had a certain level of success, who has a very positive, upbeat outlook on life, as does Brad, I think theyíll get along real well and learn a lot from each other.
VU: Last year after observing Jay Walker at mini-camp and training camp, I personally predicted heíd be the third quarterback over Chad May. I came away very impressed with him. How has Jayís development been this off-season and could he feasibly be the No. 2 guy this year?
BB: He could. Like everybody, when you bring someone in with that lack of experience as your number two guy, you worry. And many teams are in that predicament. But my biggest, oh what am I looking for, my biggest..., the most positive aspect about Jay Walker to me is that he certainly brings all the attributes you look for in a quarterback. Heís got size, extremely mobile, excellent athlete, quick release, accurate, strong arm, extremely intelligent.
Jay has a unique background that heís never been able to spend time with an organization for any extended period. He went from pro baseball to Long Beach State. They drop the program, he goes to Howard, immediately raises the level of that program from a mediocre .500 team to 9-2, 9-2, back-to-back championship seasons. Goes to New England, makes that ball club, learning another system. Then goes to the World League to enhance his skills, learning another system. Then comes back, ends up here with us. Hereís another system.
So itís my hope that if Jay can get some continuity of coaching, not to say he wasnít coached well before, but just the same coach over a period of time, that heíll really be able to build on his attributes as a quarterback. Work him into the system that heís with, and all the potential that he shows physically and mentally will come together in a combination to be a true NFL quarterback. And I think he shows signs of being that.
VU: Will we see any turns at QB this year from David Palmer?
BB: Ah, not necessarily, no. Weíve got to inject David into the offense some way. Injuries have been a bit of a problem for him. Thereís a number of different ways we might do that. Weíve got to get David focused on a particular position where he can contribute to the offense, let alone throwing him in for a couple of snaps as quarterback on the goal line or run the option or something of that nature. Certainly if he can establish his place on the offense on a more consistent level, to the point where he becomes comfortable with that, yeah, it could expand to that in a unique situation. But the plans right now obviously are to get David functioning on a regular basis within the offense in a traditional role.
VU: Any more throws by the magic gloved hand of Chris Walsh this year?
BB: (Laughter) Gloved or ungloved? Well, itís a test. Weíll give him another try out on it. And see if Cris wants to, if Cris Carter wants to see if we can do that again. Weíre not a big gadget team, but I know Iíll hear about it all year from Chris, wanting another shot at it.
VU: We know you have two great receivers in Cris Carter and Jake Reed. This coming season who do you see filling in the No. 3 spot in three receiver formations?
BB: Well, we hope to have Qadry back, but, obviously with the advent of free agency, thereís a real chance that we could lose Qadry. If thatís the case, Chris Walsh has deserved a shot, obviously, and has proven very useful to us and very productive when he has been in to play. Tony Bland is a young man that was with us under the developmental squad that has a tremendous amount of physical skills very similar to Jake Reed at this point in his development. And there have been some off-season acquisitions, as well as the [upcoming] draft. That could be a place for us to address that need.
VU: Two seasons ago, the defensive coordinator, Tony Dungy, coached the game from the press box. Last year, Coach Fazio joined you on the sidelines. Did that create any adjustment for you, and how would you describe your relationship with Foge during a game?
BB: Ah, we really donít have that much interaction. Foge and I get along very well, as did Tony and I. Calling a game from the press box or the field, thereís pros and cons to both. I know some people have questioned why I do it from the field. Iíve done it from the field since Iíve been here. Thatís something Denny and I are very comfortable with. Oddly enough, the people that have been most critical of that within the profession, thinking that you can only call the game from the box, are now on the field because of the communicator and are doing that.
You might also note, that as you visit and talk to people like Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs and Norv Turner, these are all people, that in a clinical environment would say, yes, calling from the box is a perspective thatís probably best to call a game from. But they all did their best and most productive play calling as head coaches on the field.
So the advent of the communicator, more than anything else, the quarterback communicator, is whatís brought most coordinators down onto the field. And a majority of coordinators are now on the field, offensively. Defensively, itís a matter of preference. Tony preferred to be in the box. Foge, I know a lot of defensive coordinators prefer to be on the field, to judge, particularly from a defensive standpoint, to get the feel of the game, judge the emotion of the defense, and the pacing of the game. And thatís personal preference.
You really donít have much interaction with one another on the field, so itís kind of a moot point as to one being, one or the other. But Foge and I get along very well, work very well together.
VU: In the upcoming draft on April 19 are there any specific offensive areas you will try to address or will you just get the best person available regardless of need?
BB: Thatís kind of a misnomer. You always want to get the best athlete available. And in the first round, maybe even in the second round, that can be quantified to where thereís some very distinct differences between this position or that. By the time you get to the third, fourth, fifth round where itís hard to quantitatively say, is the lineman or the receiver available truly the 175th best player available or is he really the 180th? You know what Iím saying?
So at that point it tends to fall a little bit more to need, as to what you need, whether it be a receiver or quarterback, a DB or lineman. And you can pretty much talk yourself into saying, ďYeah, the 200th rated player on the board really is a lineman as opposed to a wide receiverĒ if thatís what your need is. In the early rounds youíve got to go with the best athlete available, regardless, and thereís always enough needs across the board that youíre gonna get somebody that can help you.
VU: If you could draft one running back from this yearís college draft, who would you pick?
BB: Oh, gosh, thatís, I don't know that you could bring it down to a particular running back. Guys like [Corey] Dillon from Washington, [Byron] Hanspard, [Jay]Graham at Tennessee, youíve got some excellent athletes in there. Davis, Troy Davis from Iowa State is very impressive. I mean, you have a nice diversity of big, strong, physical backs that have a great deal of speed. So, to quantify which one, weíll probably have to wait for the draft to see, if indeed, we take one. And thatíll answer your question directly. But any of those show, like I said, you could see anywhere of six to eight backs, which would be inordinately high, six to eight backs go in the first two rounds.
VU: A quarterbackís not a need this year, but who do you see going as a top-rated quarterback?
BB: Oh, I think that [Jim] Druckenmiller is pretty much established as the top quarterback prospect this year, particularly with [Peyton] Manning not coming out. You could see him in the first round. You could see him in the second round. I think youíll see, similar to last year, really the last two years, that thereís one or two guys whoíll go relatively high. Then thereís some guys that were expected to go [high] but all of a sudden drop into the third, fourth, fifth round. I think youíll see that this year. I think youíll see Druckenmiller go high. You could see, say, a Pat Barnes from Cal go in the second round.
And then, depending on just how the way it falls, you could see a guy like Jake Plummer, go in the third round or drop to the fourth or fifth round. Brad Otton from USC could be in the third round, second round, drop fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh round. So, as it was last year, you had two guys taken in the second round, everybody else dropped into the fourth round, and there were a couple guys in the sixth, seventh round. Itís not a particularly big year for quarterbacks. Thereís no, certainly not one marquee, top-five pick.
VU: Any college tight ends stand out for you?
BB: [There are a]Number of good college tight ends. [Tony] Gonzalez from Cal is gaining a lot of ground. [David] LaFleur from LSU is an excellent athlete, an excellent all-around, point-of-attack tight end. Those are the two most prominent ones that come to mind.
VU: Many analysts pick the Packers to repeat in the NFC this coming season. Except for Hank Stram. He says that the Packers have seen their receiving corps depleted and donít run the ball as well as they would like. Who do you see emerging as the top three NFC teams this coming season?
BB: Well, I think obviously, youíve got to look at the Packers as the reigning Super Bowl champs. Youíre the champs until someone knocks you off. Theyíve got balance, theyíre very well organized, excellent coaching staff, outstanding organization. Thereís no reason not to think theyíre not going to be one of the top teams.
Obviously you have to go with the past history of teams like San Francisco and Dallas. Itís always premature to eliminate teams of that caliber from the upper echelon, although, clearly they are in transition and thatís something we will see as the season progresses. But Dallas, regardless of the transition they go through, when you talking about a Michael Irvin, when youíre talking about an Emmitt Smith and an [Troy] Aikman, you still have the core of an outstanding football team. As long as Steve Young and Jerry Rice are on the same team, theyíre going to be outstanding. So, [the teams] are going to have to reestablish themselves in that upper echelon, and theyíre certainly capable of doing it.
[Then] you have teams like ourselves and Philadelphia and Carolina. Although [Philadelphia and Carolina] had excellent seasons last year, I think they would be clumped in that [second] level. I think San Francisco and Dallas may have come back into that level with the rest of us. These five, letís say, are teams that will be scrapping around with one another to push ourselves into that next echelon. And I think weíre in that echelon. I think we deserve it. Four out of five years in the playoffs.
I think I read in one publication, not that they tend to know, but, I read one that struck me as being fairly accurate. [It describes us as] a team with, a playoff caliber team that does not have a lot of apparent weaknesses, that is able to move into the next echelon if their young and up-and-coming quarterback has the type of season that last year boded and if our running attack via Robert Smith and a Leroy Hoard can maintain itself through the entire sixteen games. And I think thatís a very accurate assessment.
VU: At the end of last season the local media had you in as a shoe-in for another job. Can you briefly describe that experience and has that disappointment strengthened you in any way?
BB: Well, the nature of the position is that opportunities come along. Iíve had people approach me in varying degrees every year since Iíve been here about a head coaching position in the college ranks. Some intriguing, some not. The Fresno State job was one in particular because of being from California. The familiarity with who they play and what theyíre about was very intriguing to me.
When they contacted me, I set some very clear cut parameters as to what the circumstances would be that would get me to leave this position which I enjoy very much. You canít work for a better guy than Denny Green. I love what I do. I love where I live. My family loves Minnesota. So these are all factors that have to come into it. Unfortunately Fresno was not able to meet the total criteria that I had set.
So it really wasnít as much of a disappointment. It was a interesting experience, and any time you go through that experience, you learn something about yourself. Any time you have to verbalize yourself and put what youíre about up in front of somebody or a group of people, it tends to force you to clarify your position on some things and think about some things that are kind of in the back of your mind until theyíre brought to the forefront, in that circumstance.
But I love the job I have. I love working for the Vikings. Being an offensive coordinator in the National Football League is a very coveted position. Thereís only a handful of them, and I feel lucky and fortunate to be one of them.
VU: Whatís Brian Billicksí goal this year?
BB: Well, you have to be careful about the goals that you do want to set for two reasons. One, you may be limiting yourself too much and not setting the bar high enough. On the other end, you may be setting it at a level where you donít have the physical abilities to back it up and may be putting players in a positions with unreal expectations [of them].
I think, as we alluded to before, I think we are a solid playoff caliber team. We are fighting and scratching and doing everything we can to take ourselves to that next echelon. I think people are beginning to realize just how young a football team we are. And with every year, that experience will begin to pay off.
This off-season was an example in that we did not make a lot of huge free agent signings but only in the sense that we signed our own. Had anyone signed Randall McDaniel, they would have hailed that as ďtheĒ signing of their off-season. As the major addition to their team. All we did was maintain something we have. Jeff Brady, the same way. Getting Leroy Hoard signed back, hopefully Robert Smith. So weíve tried to focus on maintaining our own, of signing our own.
If we can do that, I think we are very much a playoff caliber team. Weíve proven that we can play with the best and can beat a Green Bay Packers. We have to be able to continue to do that. I think specifically, offensively, if thatís the nature of your question, I donít want to be self-serving here, but only three teams have been in the top five in the NFC offensively for the last three years in a row: Green Bay , Minnesota and San Francisco.
So I think weíre in pretty elite company in that regard. I see no reason that we will not maintain and be in that company again this year. And weíre going to have to be in order for us to succeed in the level we want. And take it a step further. Two of the last three years, weíve produced more yards and more points than in the history of the Vikings. And I think this team, if we can stay healthy, keep our goals in front of us, that thereís no reason this team isnít capable of breaking its own records.
VU: Finally, is there anything you would like to say to the great Vikings fans of Viking Fans On-Line and the Viking Underground web site?
BB: The bottom line that I try to communicate whenever I do anything of this nature or on a radio show or TV show is that Iím above all else a fan. Have been since I was a kid, like most of your patrons out there. I obviously want whatís best for the Vikings. The comments, even sometimes the criticisms, come from the fans who genuinely want whatís best for the Vikings. Iím constantly getting mail.
I enjoy it. I enjoy it when people recognize me, when Iím out in public, when I go to a movie or out to dinner. People come up, and I will say this, in the five years that Iíve been here, Iíve never had anybody come up that wasnít positive, upbeat, wanted the best for the Vikings. Now, yeah, maybe they want me to throw more, or run more or do more specials or throw more screens or hand the ball off to Robert Smith more or throw the ball more to Jake or whatever it may be, but thatís just being a fan and I love that. And I enjoy that and I try to propagate that as best as I can.
From that standpoint, I hope the fans can stay interested in what weíre doing, keep a high energy level for the Vikings, be realistic and see what is going on with regards to the Vikings, with regards to the youth that we have and some of the financial limitations that we have that do exist given the size of the market. And that weíve had some success. Over four of the past five years in the playoffs, there are any number of teams that would kill to get to that level, that would love to reach that level. Maybe our fans have become a little used to it. Weíre kind of a victim of our own successes.
If we can build on that [success] and if they will continue to generate the enthusiasm that I know is out there for us, we do feed on that. When we are home and the fans can get rockiní in the Dome, that that is a major plus for us.
And if we can build on that and they stick with us in that regard, I think weíll have the kind of season everybody wants.