Pelissero: Vikings hoping hard work enough to make up for deficiencies
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MANKATO, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings paid a lot of money the past two seasons to players who didn't really care.
Brett Favre spent more time worrying about Jenn Sterger than game plans. Donovan McNabb didn't bother to keep himself in shape or learn the offense. Bernard Berrian just showed up to collect paychecks until the team got sick enough of the act to cut him.
Those three players made upwards of $26 million combined for the effort (or lack thereof), and they weren't the only problems on teams that posted nine wins in 32 games.
It's no wonder the Vikings underachieved so badly that one of Rick Spielman's most consistent messages through the offseason was to avoid acquiring any more underachievers.
Favre had achieved plenty in his career, of course, and the Vikings had to pay him what he wanted to take one more shot at the Super Bowl in 2010.
The presence of a declining McNabb and Berrian in 2011 was part of a broader confusion in philosophy that led to Spielman's promotion to general manager in January.
If there is a reason for hope about the 2012 Vikings rebounding ahead of schedule in one of the NFL's toughest divisions, it's that the three-week training camp that wraps here on Thursday morning provided signs they have a group that wants to get better.
"I learned that we're definitely going to compete," left end Brian Robison said. "We're going to give it everything we've got. Guys are being in tune to what we need to get done."
Part of that probably comes with having one of the NFL's youngest teams, rather than the veteran-laden rosters of years past with dozens of players who felt they had made it.
The depth chart as it stood on Wednesday afternoon would produce a lineup in which 14 of 22 starters on offense and defense are age 26 or younger.
"The one thing I learned is that we have some guys who are fighters and really want to compete and make things happen and want to see this team improve," coach Leslie Frazier said. "That's encouraging. They want the same thing that all of our coaches and our fans want."
Early in camp, Frazier put them through six consecutive days of padded practices and three more after a day off, all in the afternoon heat.
Every day in team meetings, he repeated the same words about daily improvement, and practices generally had an upbeat tempo.
"We feel like we are one of the youngest teams in the NFL and we have to do things that other teams might not," tight end Kyle Rudolph said. "We need those 10 days in a row to get better every day."
That's a cliché, but in the Vikings' case, it's also the truth.
From a personnel standpoint, they're the afterthought in the stacked NFC North -- or, in linebacker Chad Greenway's words, "Nobody thinks we're any good."
There is no margin for error, and players know it, even if their defensive breakdowns in Friday's exhibition opener at San Francisco showed them making many of the same old mistakes.
"We were here. We were working," Greenway said. "I don't think our first game indicated the type of work we were putting in, and I think that's unfortunate. But I think that's going to show in the long term."
None of which is to say the will to get better can make up for the shortcomings and inevitable growing pains.
Beyond Zygi Wilf's claim he expects to win the division, it's tough to find anyone in the organization who truly believes this will be a worst-to-first story.
Christian Ponder repeated on Wednesday he believes it's realistic for the Vikings to challenge for a playoff berth in 2012. But part of the starting quarterback's job is to galvanize those around him, and Ponder's broader point is the Vikings can't accept their fate, rebuilding or not.
"Obviously, we want to win now," Ponder said. "We're putting that pressure on ourselves that we want to do a lot better than 3-13, we want to make the playoffs, we want to be competitive in the NFC North and I don't know if you really put a timeline on it. We expect to go out there this year and do well."
Frazier admitted he made the camp schedule as challenging as possible within the parameters of the collective-bargaining agreement "to see who is going to moan and groan and complain" when faced with tough situations.
He has preached endlessly about being a tough, smart team -- which has been the opposite of their identity since the NFC championship game loss in January 2010.
Bad teams find ways to lose games, as the Vikings did nine times last season by seven points or less. If nothing else, the hope is they'll get beat because they're not good enough, rather than because they aren't prepared to win.
Because they're undermanned, not because they're underachievers.
"When you have a season like we did last year and so many games that were so close that came down to the end," Robison said, "you realize that it's a game of inches, and a few steps here and there might change the whole outcome of your season.
"For us, it's about coming out here, just working hard, getting after it and hopefully, those games that were close until the end, we might be able to pull away."