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Updated: March 29th, 2012 5:11pm
Zulgad: Chad Greenway understands team trying to build 'the right way'

Zulgad: Chad Greenway understands team trying to build 'the right way'

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS - Chad Greenway isn't willing to say the Minnesota Vikings appear to be sacrificing the 2012 season in the name of rebuilding, but the linebacker does understand why general manager Rick Spielman has jettisoned some veterans and hasn't made a splash in free agency after a 3-13 finish in 2011.

"Obviously, when you're 3-13, the panic button, everybody wants to hit that," Greenway said Thursday. "I think from our perspective, if you want to get back, you have to do it the right way. Be consistent and grow your team.

"Unfortunately, you let go of guys like Steve Hutchinson, Anthony Herrera, guys who are veterans, who have been keys to our team the last four or five years, Cedric Griffin. You see that and you understand that there's something going on and Rick and Rob (Brzezinski, the Vikings' vice president of football operations) and Coach (Leslie) Frazier they are doing a good job of just staying on their path and not letting other things kind of affect them.

"No matter what they do, they're going to be questioned. When you're 3-13 trying to come back and rebuild a team, you're going to be questioned, whether you spend more money than anybody in free agency or you're not spending any money in free agency. I think we've just got to trust what they're doing, that's why they're in those positions, and as a player that's what I'm doing. All I'm doing is trying to make myself better."

Having some distance from last season's debacle, Greenway appeared refreshed and relaxed as he talked to media members after helping to launch a new program through his foundation at the University of Minnesota's Amplatz Children's Hospital.

It is a place where Hutchinson became extremely involved during a six-year run with the Vikings that ended with his release this month. Hutchinson, who has signed with the Tennessee Titans, was another member of the 2009 Vikings that has been let go. That team went 12-4 and made a run to the NFC title game before losing to New Orleans in overtime.

That success now seems as if it was eons ago, as Spielman tries to build a roster that simply can be competitive. Greenway, though, refuses to look at it that way. This does not come as a surprise.

One of the most interesting things about successful athletes is their refusal to buy into what common sense dictates. So while Spielman's approach to retooling the Vikings' roster provides every indication that next season won't include many victories, Greenway takes a far more positive view of things.

"As a player I never think that way," he said when asked about how things appear to be shaping up. "You look at last year. Were we 3-13? Absolutely. You can't deny that fact now that the season is gone. But you look at all the close games that we lost, that with just a few different plays we win, and you look at those games and say, 'Wow, 6-10 or 8-8 looks possible even last year.' And last year it seemed like things kind of snowballed for us.

"I think if you stand back and look at it from a perspective of maybe being positive instead of negative and say, 'Why can't we win those games this year?' We know Christian (Ponder's) going to be a young quarterback coming in, but he has experience now. That was the one benefit from last year that people tend to forget about was that he got a lot of snaps.

"Obviously, the question is, 'Can he stay healthy?' But he has some snaps and he had an offseason now to come in and be as effective as he can be. I think, obviously, getting Adrian (Peterson) back to 100 percent will be huge for us."

Greenway, who made the Pro Bowl as an alternate after this past season despite having played better in 2010, knows he has no control over what happens with the offense.

That is not the case on the defensive side of the ball. He has started every game but one at an outside linebacker spot since 2007 and is a leader in the locker room.

Greenway has met with new defensive coordinator Alan Williams and feels a unit that finished 21st in yards given up last season and 26th against the pass can be improved.

"I think more than anything, from my perspective, is we've got to get our defense back the way it was playing in 2008 and 2009," Greenway said, "and that's going to come down to discipline, fundamentals and not necessarily the type of scheme we're playing or even personnel to a point. It's more about just guys doing their jobs. I'm talking every one of the 11.

"As great of a season as (defensive end) Jared (Allen) had he can be better in certain aspects, and he knows that. As a defense, if we all do that, there's no reason we can't be back to that because it really comes down to fundamentals and guys making plays when they're in the position to make them."

That didn't happen on a far too frequent basis last season because of mistakes from every spot on the defense and especially a secondary that lost cornerback Antoine Winfield to injury and corner Chris Cook to legal problems. Both of them will return in 2012.

Williams, who will continue to run the Tampa-2 scheme the Vikings have employed since 2006, talked to Greenway about simplifying things.

"He wants to get back to basics and doing things the right way," Greenway said. "We've proven that we can win that way. You obviously need to have a great pass rush, but we had that last year. Top-five, I think, in sacks. (The Vikings tied the Eagles for the NFL lead with 50 sacks.) ... If you can have that, in our system you're going to give yourself a chance, if you're playing well in the back end. We know where we need to improve, in pass defense, at our level at linebacker and the defensive backs need to get better. But it all works hand in hand."

Greenway explained that he did not mean to imply things were too complicated last year, but that from this point the scheme should be as simple as possible and allow players to play.

Greenway finds himself in an interesting situation on a couple different levels.

He has the utmost respect for Fred Pagac, who was demoted back to linebackers coach after one season as the Vikings' defensive coordinator, and he is good friends with free-agent E.J. Henderson, who has yet to re-sign and might not return.

"Obviously, he's one of the best coaches I've ever been around," Greenway said of Pagac. "I'm just talking from a position standpoint. So to have him back in our (meeting) room is going to be awesome. We love the way he coaches, we like how he communicates with us. He has his own style I think that's really kind of different from anybody's. And we appreciate that.

"Obviously I wish he was still in that role (as defensive coordinator), but it's time to move past that, move on and as a player it's just about what's next and how is that going to change for me and my role?"

As for Henderson's possible departure, that's of the utmost importance to Greenway. Henderson, a nine-year veteran, has been the primary middle linebacker for the Vikings since Greenway began playing after sitting out 2006 because of a knee injury.

That means Greenway, the Vikings' strong-side linebacker, has a big-time comfort level with Henderson.

"We certainly hope so," Greenway said when asked about Henderson possibly returning. "E.J.'s been a mentor of mine for six years and a great friend and great teammate, so that would be unbelievable not to have him in our room. Just the type of leader he is in our group.

"It's great to have Erin (Henderson) coming back and obviously Jasper (Brinkley) will be back and some other guys. But it's going to be a lot different than it was. You look where the linebacker (group) was two years ago to where it is now, just a totally different lineup. Obviously, we hope E.J.'s still coming back. We're still holding out hope."

If Henderson isn't back, odds are Brinkley will get a shot to play in the middle after missing last season because of hip surgery.

"To lose a whole year physically is tough, but we know he's going to be healthy coming back and ready to go so we feel pretty good about his ability," Greenway said. "We still wish E.J. comes back."

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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