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Skol, Vikings: Meet the Team That Keeps Losing Stars and Keeps Getting Scarier

Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterOctober 3, 2016

Everson Griffen during the Vikings' win over the Panthers.
Everson Griffen during the Vikings' win over the Panthers.Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Terence Newman has a question that must be answered.

At a spry 38 years young, he's the second-oldest non-kicker in the NFL. He's also a hairline connoisseur. Five years ago, the Vikings cornerback Bic'd his head for good. So after Newman shreds this visiting reporter for clinging on to loose strands—"Let it go, man! L-I-G! Let it go!"—he naturally moves on to LeBron James.

For years, the King strategically slid his headband backward to hide his peninsula.

"Now he has a full edge up here!" Newman barks. "What the F? … Tell a brother something!"

But, no, Newman's question is for that one non-kicker who's older than him: the golden boy himself, Tom Brady. Look it up, he insists. Seven years ago, Brady was going bald.

Now he's rocking Zack Morris locks. Lounged on a purple bench near the Vikings' practice field, Newman sits up in disbelief.

"Tell me he didn't do something!" Newman says. "What did you do? What type of black magic is this? You can't have one week, a hairline, where your s--t is literally gone right here and then two weeks later you have this perfect hairline with an edge up.

"What type of black magic is that?"

Brady and Gisele Bundchen, hair flowing in the wind, as they tan together in Italy. LeBron stuffing Andre Iguodala at the rim, headband-less, to bring Cleveland a championship.

Yes, this is the perfect symbolism for the 2016 Vikings. Instead of receding and disappearing forever, they're stronger than ever.

Minnesota's Winter Park practice facility should resemble a funeral. This team was pronounced dead two separate occasions: On Aug. 30, when starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater tore his ACL, dislocated his knee and put his NFL future in doubt; and on Sept. 18, when starting running back Adrian Peterson tore his meniscus and was placed on injured reserve.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 18:  Running back Adrian Peterson #28 of the Minnesota Vikings is helped off the field after an injury during the game against the Green Bay Packers on September 18, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Yet instead of gloom and doom and despair, here's Newman laughing about hairlines.

The haunting reminders don't shake him. Inside the locker room is Bridgewater's stall, but no Bridgewater. And in the players' parking lot, Peterson gingerly lifts himself out of an SUV with his leg in a brace. This indomitable, science-defying, Canton-bound face of the franchise may return later this season. He may not.

It doesn't matter.

The identity of this team has shifted.

These Vikings aren't just beating opposing offenses—they're obliterating them with a hostile "Skol" mentality. In back-to-back weeks, this unit mashed back-to-back league MVPs into helter-skelter rookies. Aaron Rodgers was sacked five times and posted a 70.7 passer rating, while Cam Newton was sacked eight times, threw three picks and posted a 47.6 rating.

As the hits accumulated, end Everson Griffen saw fear in those MVPs' eyes.

"They're getting hit," he says. "Body shots after body shots. And then they start seeing ghosts."

When all outsiders penned obituaries, the Vikings themselves never panicked.

"We have leaders," Griffen says. "We have leaders on this team who take their roles serious. We lead by example. And one way you lead by example is going out there and going back to work. Going out there and showing them that we still have 16 games to play.

"It's still the NFL, and we can win with the guys we've got because we have the team."

One by one, players here insist that this is what they expected and that they expect the dominance to continue.

Why not? They don't need black magic.

They've got the personalities needed to go the distance.

   

The Menace

Everson Griffen
Everson GriffenAaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Right around the time Newman was shaving his head, Griffen was self-destructing.

In a span of three days in early 2011, Griffen was arrested twice, once for being drunk in public and then again when he was caught with an invalid driver's license, fled the scene and allegedly assaulted a LAPD officer.

Griffen was tased and became a headline on TMZ.

"Immaturity," Griffen says. "Just immaturity."

The reason he's here? A menace on the field, instead of off it? Two events soon after completely redirected Griffen's life.

In October 2012, spontaneous artery dissection killed his mother. Griffen's then-fiancee, Tiffany, walked into the house and found Sabrina Scott dead in the stairwell.

"It was hard," Griffen says. "It's still hard for me, to this day."

Three months later, Tiffany gave birth to Greyson Scott Griffen.

On the spot, Griffen says, he grew up. He thought back to the "You're my hero" message his mother once wrote on his Facebook wall. She was always his hero. He needed to get his act together. For her, for his hometown of Avondale, Arizona, and especially for this team giving him second and third chances.

Free nights are now spent with his wife and two kids at the movies, bowling or playing at home.

"I didn't want to look back at my career and say, 'Dang, I wish I would've done that.' 'Dang, I wish I would've went harder.' 'Dang, I wish I would've put all my focus in on doing all the right things.' So I made that flip," he says. "Would I go back and change anything? Absolutely not. Because that made me the man I am today."

And that's one of the NFL's premier pass-rushers, a 6'3", 273-pound hell-raiser off the edge in Mike Zimmer's defense. In 34 games with the head coach, Griffen has 26.5 sacks. Week 3 was a one-man clinic in Carolina. Griffen haunted Newton with an assortment of moves.

Sep 25, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA;  Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) is sacked by Minnesota Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen (97) in the fourth quarter. The Vikings defeated the Panthers 22-10 at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit:
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

On one 12-yard loss, he bull-rushed left tackle Michael Oher directly into the quarterback.

"A power rush," he says. "He was kicking back hard. So I just used my speed to get on top of him."

On a 1st-and-19, Minnesota showed eight rushers at the line of scrimmage, dropped two and the confusion allowed Griffen to leak free and lasso Newton into an errant throw that was intercepted.

And when Oher did wash Griffen out of a play, Danielle Hunter rerouted Newton's scramble with pressure, and Griffen recovered, hustled down the line and got the sack. This was exactly what Jared Allen used to preach when he was an immature party animal. This was the kind of sack Griffen wouldn't have gotten his first two seasons.

"It's always about your motor," Griffen says. "Playing at that high intensity is what it's all about."

Here's the injury news most outsiders don't realize.

Bridgewater is out. Peterson is out. But the Vikings have a new Griffen this season. Half of last season, he gritted through painful capsulitis that irritated his shoulder. His labrum rubbed up against his rotator cuff, and Griffen had recurring stingers. Now, the defensive lineman who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.66 seconds is healthier and more focused than ever.

"We're mentally tough," he says. "We hate losing guys, but it's the next guy up. You have to go on. This is our job. We still have 13 games to go. We can't get ahead of ourselves. We still need to be a tough-minded football team and just go out there and be disciplined."

Clutching a cellphone that features a picture of his kids in the background, Griffen pops up and heads into the weight room.

Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer walks by with one more nugget.

"You know," Priefer says, "he was the gunner on the punt team one time. And a very good one."

Newton probably has an idea.

    

The Fighter

Terence Newman
Terence NewmanBruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The 38-year-old holds his hands out for display.

His knuckles, to this day, are blotched with scars.

Forever the pipsqueak growing up in Salina, Kansas, Newman was bullied. And bullied. And bullied. Then one day, Newman decided he'd had enough and started throwing haymakers back. He left his haters bruised, bloodied and battered at the playground. He didn't win all his fights from that day forward, but he won way more fights than he lost.

"Being the small kid," he says, "people think they can come up and just bully you. Sometimes you just haul off and smack somebody. And they go, 'Oh s--t. Oh s--t!' I just started hauling off and punching people.

"Either you're going to show up or you're going to show out."

Then he got to playing Pop Warner football. His helmet didn't fit, his thigh pads hung to his knees and his kneepads hung to his shins. But when he drilled an opposing running back one day—the biggest kid on the field, by far—he realized the fighter inside of him could be harnessed on a football field.

It's now been that way for 14 seasons. Monday night will be Newman's 202nd career game.

Minnesota drafted Xavier Rhodes (2013) and Trae Waynes (2015) in the first round to serve as long-term shutdown corners, but due to injury (to Rhodes) and growing pains (Waynes), Newman is still starting. He's seen it all, played through it all and is the ornery fighter this defense needs.

When he's not ranting about a hairline—"You're not fooling anybody. It's time. Come to the club!"—Newman is sharing war stories.

They're the stuff of legend.

In 2014, with Cincinnati, Newman was stricken with a virulent flu strain the second-to-last game. In the locker room that night against Denver, he couldn't stop throwing up. Newman lost 10 pounds over the next two days, and his temperature rose to 105 degrees. He'd eat breakfast in the morning and puke it right up.

He couldn't hold anything down. The Bengals kept sending him home sick.

"I thought I was going to die, man," he says. "I threw up constantly. Getting up out of bed, you're just sore. You have no energy. You get out of bed, take a couple steps and you just want to lay on the ground."

He missed Week 17 and, somehow, played 51 snaps in the Bengals' playoff loss to Indianapolis.

"Would I sit at home or would I be out there with my brothers?" Newman says. "They want me to play. I want to play."

In 2010, he played through torn rib cartilage. Newman needed to take Toradol simply to get through meetings. Re-enacting the pain here, he leans over and grunts, "Ughh…"

"You're just trying to get comfortable, and it's hard to breathe."

Before games, doctors injected him with different numbing medicine that he says "ate" his skin. Yes, ate. Newman lifts his shirt to display the permanent brown scar trainers shot into.

Yet he never thought twice about it all. If his mother could work two jobs—a shift at Tony's Pizza and whatever else she could find to put food on the table—he could fight his way through elementary school and suck it up in the NFL.

And, oh, there's the time he tore his groin in 2011. During training camp, Newman jumped to break up a pass, and his legs landed in an awkward, stinging split. Initially, he thought it was only a sprain, so he played through it, and the pain worsened to a point where he literally couldn't lift his leg to run.

Newman had surgery, missed two games, returned.

If anybody can appreciate the Vikings' opportunity in 2016, it's him.

Dec 10, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive end Brian Robison (96) talks to cornerback Terence Newman (23) against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Vikings 23-20. Mandatory Credit: Mark J.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

At Winter Park, he's taking players young enough to be his son into the film room. He's teaching them how to decode and jump routes. Like Charles Woodson into his twilight years, Newman can still fool quarterbacks with his wit. Last week, he undercut a Newton pass for a pick. And whether it's hairlines, telling rookie Laquon Treadwell "He's the young bull!" or lamenting how refs officiate now as opposed to the early 2000s, Newman sounds like the village elder.

Ah, yes, he longs for the days when teammates Roy Williams and Darren Woodson lit up receivers over the middle and it was "the quarterback's fault," not the defensive back's.

This is a special team here. Newman won't let any injury or any bully stand in the way.

"I want to win a championship," he says. "That's why I'm here. I'm trying to get a ring."

    

The Convert

Anthony Barr
Anthony BarrBruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The 24-year-old Anthony Barr has some battle scars, too. He can't shake an outstretched hand on this day because his hand is swollen from smacking into helmets.

Barr takes a seat, right where Newman was the previous day, and it's clear the Vikings needed a stroke of luck in constructing the NFL's most ferocious defense, too.

Not too long ago, at UCLA, Barr nearly quit football altogether.

"It was 50-50," Barr says. "A coin flip. If we hadn't changed coaching staffs, I would've transferred or quit. I was just thinking, 'I've got to get out of here.'"

Football wasn't fun anymore. He'd completely lost his passion to play. A 6'5", 255-pound running back, Barr had only 15 carries in two years. Suddenly, he was wondering what in the heck he could do with a sociology degree after school. He was ripping through all possible transfer options.

"I thought it was over," he says. "I wanted it to be over, honestly. I was like, 'This is stupid.' I enjoy the game, but when I wasn't having a good time, I didn't want to keep doing it.

"It wasn't fun anymore. I'm like, 'I'm not going to keep banging my head for nothing.'"

Rick Neuheisel was fired, Jim Mora was hired and, voila, his life changed.

Mora moved Barr to linebacker. Two years later, Barr was Zimmer's first draft pick in Minnesota, and he is now one of the most promising young linebackers in the game. Big, smart and athletic, he's perfect for the Vikings' scheme. At running back, Barr was a huge target for tacklers. At linebacker, his size is a weapon.

In this scheme, the Vikings often plug the A-gaps, which lets Barr roam. As a pass-rusher, he's 50-plus pounds heavier than the backs trying to block him. And as both Barr and second-year linebacker Eric Kendricks mature, this defense gets more and more complex.

Take Kendricks' pick-six in the opener. Before the snap, the Vikings used a one-word audible to turn the ball over.

The Titans lined up in a "4-by-1" set with three receivers and a back to the left. Against this look, the Vikings relayed a call for Griffen to play the 4-technique instead of the 5 up front so Kendricks could exclusively play the pass. Griffen rushed Marcus Mariota when he realized it was a pass, and Kendricks was there for the pick.

"One word can make big things happen," Barr says. "One word trickles all the way down the line. Eric makes a call, I make a call, the safety makes a call, and it has to go from the right side of the field to the left side of the field or vice versa."

Being such a linebacker novice actually helps, too. Barr never adopted bad habits. Zimmer molded him into the exact linebacker he envisioned, and the former running back had 109 solo tackles, 7.5 sacks and five forced fumbles his first two seasons.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - DECEMBER 27:  Head coach Mike Zimmer greets Anthony Barr #55 of the Minnesota Vikings pregame against the New York Giants on December 27, 2015 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Barr has no clue where he'd be right now if he would've quit football. He always prioritized sports over school. Not that he's going to waste too much time on what-ifs.

"This is where I'm supposed to be," he says. "I was meant to do something bigger than myself. I think I'm just starting to scratch the surface with that."

Then, he provides a scary thought.

This defense is only scratching the surface.

"I know that sounds crazy with the kind of start we've had," Barr says, "but we have a lot to improve on. We want to be the best defense on the field every time we touch it."

    

The Conscience

Harrison Smith
Harrison SmithTom Dahlin/Getty Images

It's Saturday now, and Harrison Smith is gnawing on BBQ ribs. Each week, after the Vikings' final practice, players chow down in the locker room.

Smith wipes sauce off his mouth and provides the big picture.

Not too long ago, this Vikings defense was a laughingstock. In 2013, they ranked 31st in yards, 32nd in points, finished 5-10-1 and head coach Leslie Frazier—a brilliant defensive mind in his own right—was canned. Smith remembers when Skol was more of a punchline than a rebel yell. Zimmer changed the culture.

But for a culture to be permanent, Smith cautions, players cannot get complacent.

Just three years ago, opposing offenses were hanging 30 points per game against this defense. Six current starters were on that team, too.

Those scars should remain fresh.

"Getting 30 on you can happen any time you go out there," Smith says, "so we definitely keep that mentality. There's no point where we're going to 'arrive.'

"When we have a chip on our shoulder with something to prove, that's when we play our best. We don't just roll it out there and say, 'OK, we're good.' We play better when we're mad and getting after it.

"That's the edge we have to keep. We can't listen to how great we are."

So consider Smith the voice of reason here. The steady hand. On the field, he directs traffic and hijacks momentum. He's the quintessential modern-day safety—even if he doesn't look like one. No, there aren't many white defensive backs patrolling NFL secondaries.

"There's more than you think when you look around the league."

Not exactly, Harrison.

"OK, maybe they're not starting on defense," Smith concedes, "but there's some out there on special teams. … We make light of it. It's funny."

White, black, red, green, purple—it doesn't matter. Smith possesses the skills all NFL teams now seek in safeties. Headhunting is a thing of the past with league commissioner Roger Goodell shrinking the target zone to a barely visible bull's-eye. While Smith idolized Steve Atwater, John Lynch, Sean Taylor, Brian Dawkins, Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu, he didn't emulate any one of them to a T. Rather, he plucked various parts of their games to form his own in this new NFL.

And off the field, he's providing the perspective.

If anyone here eating ribs gets too lax, count on Smith to speak up.

"We have to remind guys that we need to take advantage of where we're at," he says, "and not get ahead of ourselves but get better every day. We all want to be the best players we can be. It's not like we want to be 'pretty good.' So I don't think there will ever come a time when we get complacent or satisfied. That's just how this team is built as people."

Smith echoes the others, too.

On Aug. 30 and Sept. 18, he looked around the room and saw nothing but confidence. "Real confidence," he punctuates.

Adds mammoth defensive tackle Linval "Big Goon" Joseph: "It's an opportunity for us to step up and show the world who we are."

Linval Joseph
Linval JosephWesley Hitt/Getty Images

Players heard the cynicism, of course. "They're doomed!" Newman recalls hearing. "They're screwed!"

Internally, Zimmer told players after each injury that this team isn't defined by one player. For so long, it was. The Vikings were Cris Carter's team, then Randy Moss' team. For two years, it was Brett Favre's team. And for most of the last decade, yes, it has been Adrian Peterson's team.

No singular player represents Skol now. They're taking the league by storm as a pack.

That 10-9 playoff loss to the Seahawks lingers with them. Negative-25 wind chill and a missed chip-shot field goal will do that.

Forget the temperature; forget a kick. Ten points was too much for a defense this talented to surrender.

Newman's voice speeds up.

"We've wanted to be a good defense here," he says blankly. "That's everybody's goal from day one. It didn't take somebody getting hurt. That's just what everybody wants to do. The fact that we lost in the playoffs and we could've played a little better…everybody remembers that. Nobody forgot about that. Everybody wants to lead the league in defense, so why would we be any different?"

For the Vikings, it's more of a reality.

A reality that could guide them right to the Super Bowl where—who knows?—Newman may have a chance to ask Tom Brady about that hairline.

    

Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @TyDunne.

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