Pelissero: Window closed, Vikings getting younger amid roster overhaul
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Ryan Longwell remembers how quickly it ended in Green Bay.
It was Jan. 3, 1999, and the Packers were coming off consecutive Super Bowl appearances. They had Brett Favre in his prime, veteran Reggie White providing the soul of the defense and the brilliant strategist Mike Holmgren calling the shots on the sideline.
Longwell, 24 at the time, booted an extra point that gave the Packers a 27-23 lead with 1:56 to go in an NFC wild-card playoff game at San Francisco. Then, 49ers quarterback Steve Young guided a nine-play, 76-yard drive and Terrell Owens held onto the defining touchdown catch of his career in the final seconds to send Green Bay packing.
"Within a week, Reggie White retires, Mike Holmgren goes to Seattle and it's over," Longwell recalled on Thursday next to his locker inside Minnesota Vikings headquarters.
"You kind of always thought we could win, win, win. It made me realize how quick the turnover is and how, when your window's open, you've got to strike."
The Vikings' window closed 11 years later. It was Jan. 24, 2010, with 12 men on the field, Favre getting picked off by Tracy Porter and Longwell on the sideline instead of attempting a long field goal that could have sent the Vikings to the Super Bowl.
Nearly half of that team -- 26 of 53 players (49.1%) who finished the 2009 season on the active roster -- is gone already. The Vikings went from the NFL's third-oldest team in 2010 to No. 15 this season and appear poised to enter 2012 even younger than that.
"I don't really see it as a turnover or rebuilding phase," middle linebacker E.J. Henderson said. "But it is a lot of new guys. That's obvious."
Eighteen players are unsigned beyond this season. That includes nine players who can be considered starters and six of the 11 oldest players remaining on the roster after the team moved on this past summer from Brett Favre, Pat Williams, Bryant McKinnie, Ben Leber, Jimmy Kennedy, Jeff Dugan, Madieu Williams and Heath Farwell, among others.
Quarterback Donovan McNabb (age 34) and receiver Bernard Berrian (30) are as good as gone. Tight ends Jimmy Kleinsasser (34) and Visanthe Shiancoe (31), Henderson (31) and long snapper Cullen Loeffler (30) could be back, but that depends in part on how far the Vikings go with their youth movement after a season that has begun with four consecutive losses.
"These guys know, that are veterans, this very well could be my last chance at this," coach Leslie Frazier said. "That's the nature of the NFL. Our roster will flip again this next season. There will be fewer guys from that NFC championship game on our team when you look at 2012. That's the NFL. They know that. I know that."
The contracts of strong safety Husain Abdullah, weakside linebacker Erin Henderson and center John Sullivan are up after the season, too. Same with nine backups: Fred Evans, Greg Camarillo, Letroy Guion, Lorenzo Booker, Xavier Adibi, Kenny Onatolu, Devin Aromashodu, Patrick Brown and Tyrell Johnson.
Then there are three veterans of a combined 16 Pro Bowls -- cornerback Antoine Winfield, left guard Steve Hutchinson and defensive tackle Kevin Williams -- who will be at least 32 before next season begins. Each are due at least $7 million in 2012 under contracts that probably weren't designed for them to get that money.
Sooner than later, the Vikings will have to forge succession plans at those spots and free up cash to expand the nucleus of halfback Adrian Peterson, linebacker Chad Greenway, receiver Percy Harvin and end Jared Allen, who all are locked up through at least 2013.
"There's always groups of guys," Longwell said. "You look at Adrian, Percy, Chad and that group now -- that's kind of the next core of the Vikings for the long run."
A year after that loss at San Francisco, the Packers plummeted to 8-8 under new coach Ray Rhodes, who was fired after one season. They didn't win another division title until 2002 under Mike Sherman and didn't return to the NFC Championship Game until 2007 under Mike McCarthy.
That was in spite of having Favre -- an elite player at the most important position these Vikings still need to fill.
They drafted Christian Ponder with the No. 12 overall pick in April, and he showed so many positive traits in the exhibition season that personnel men around the NFL began predicting he'd replace McNabb by midseason. But is he the one to lead this evolving group into the future?
That's perhaps the most important of the many questions the Vikings must try to sort out as they continue to tiptoe into a new era, while another era ends.
"I wouldn't put it that way," said Longwell, now the Vikings' oldest player at age 37. "I think it's more of, there's a group of guys that have been here for a long time, and every year there's some attrition. A few of those guys leave. It's been that way every year I've been in the league. ...
"Whether there's new guys or old guys, it's just one of those things that there's new guys rolling in and you've got to win when you get a chance."