Zulgad: Kevin Williams happy to put 'strange' season behind him
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MANKATO, Minn. -- Kevin Williams arrived at the Minnesota Vikings training camp last Thursday free of any distractions. The soft-spoken defensive tackle couldn't have been happier.
A year ago, Williams showed up in Mankato still dealing with the affects from the arthroscopic knee surgery he underwent shortly after the 2010 season ended. The NFL lockout prohibited Williams from rehabbing at the Vikings facility, meaning he had to find his own treatment.
Then just before the regular season was set to begin, the NFL announced Williams would be suspended for the first two games and fined four paychecks as punishment for the StarCaps case that dated to the 2008 season.
Finally, when Williams did get back, he was still dealing with plantar fasciitis in his left foot that did not go away until the injury ruptured upon his return in the season's third game.
Oh, and for good measure, the Vikings posted a 3-13 record, their worst finish since Williams arrived as the ninth-overall pick in the 2003 draft.
"I'm not going to say it was tough, but it was a little strange," Williams said when asked to reflect on 2011. "Physically and mentally, coming back from the scope and then starting out, I thought I was in the best shape I could be in after the lockout. Then the plantar fasciitis stuff starts up after sitting out the two games. It was just a lot of stuff to overcome.
"On top of that, we're losing so many close games. Just losing, period, in the NFL is a strain. But to lose such close games and know that you're right on the cusp of winning games. That's taxing mentally on anybody trying to win games and you're up in years. The young guys might not quite understand it, but the older you are you realize how close those games are and you can't get them back."
Williams, who will turn 32 on Aug. 16, knows the clock is ticking on his Pro Bowl career. He also is well aware of the fact that the Vikings are a combined 9-23 the past two seasons after going 12-4 and making a run to the NFC championship game in 2009.
Williams is now the only member of the 2003 draft class left on the Vikings' roster - the decision to not bring back linebacker E.J. Henderson gives Williams that distinction - and he has been with the franchise the longest of any player on the Vikings.
"It's a blessing," Williams said. "That's how I look at it. To be starting my 10th year in one place, that's a rarity in the league these days. To have been at one destination for 10 seasons, and I just take it in stride and try to continue to grow and hopefully be here a while."
Williams might want to be in Minnesota, but he has little interest in being part of a rebuilding project, even if that is the case.
"Most people call it rebuilding, but us veterans we're looking to win games and these guys we brought in we're counting on them to help us out and contribute," Williams said. "We're looking at it as we're trying to win now.
"We don't plan on waiting two or three years for these guys to develop. They were good at their positions in college and that's the reason we brought them in here. We're really counting on those guys to step up and we want to win right now."
Williams is talking about a group of veterans that includes 35-year-old cornerback Antoine Winfield and 30-year-old defensive end Jared Allen. Pat Williams, who played alongside Kevin at nose tackle and was Kevin's buddy, is long gone.
So are many of the veterans whom Williams had grown used to seeing and general manager Rick Spielman has remade the Vikings roster into one of the NFL's youngest.
So does Williams really believe that this franchise can turn it around in 2012?
"I think if we do what we're capable of doing and not have those rookie mistakes as they say, or those young mistakes, I think we've got every possibility in the world to win games and that's the approach we're taking," he said. "No way in the world we plan on winning six or three (games) like we did the last two seasons. We plan on sky's the limit, win as many games as we can."
Last season, Williams was credited with 57 tackles, five sacks, 24 quarterback hurries and one forced fumble in 14 games. All five of his sacks came in the final seven games. A six-time Pro Bowl selection, Williams was not named to the all-star game and there was a feeling among some his play had fallen off.
Don't tell that to Williams.
"I think I played well," he said. "If they're going to double-team somebody, it's going to be me inside. I don't even pay attention to double teams anymore. I'm just working away and taking it as it comes. I think if we try to base my season off stats, I think I was maybe sixth (among) defensive tackles in sacks. I'm still there at the top of the pack performing as well in tackles."
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said that Williams' performance did improve as the season progressed.
"You would think it would be the other way, but he actually began to play a lot better as the season went on," Frazier said. "Part of it had to do, I'm sure, with the suspension and all the things that were weighing on his mind during the lockout and wondering what was going to happen. He began to play a lot better and so we're looking forward to hopefully him getting off to a good start for us."
The Vikings also are hoping that having fifth-year player Letroy Guion take over at nose tackle will help. Kevin Williams definitely missed Pat Williams last season and Remi Ayodele proved to be a disappointment in his one season with the team.
Guion said Williams has been helpful.
"He's helped me out a lot," Guion said. "I really look up to him. Learn how to pay attention to film and if you have a bad day on certain technique just to go out and work on that technique or focus on that technique and try to accomplish it in the next practice."
While Allen told reporters this week he has little interest in seeing his snaps reduced, Williams sees the benefit to the plan by coaches to have more of a rotation among the defensive linemen this season.
Williams played 818 snaps in 2011, or 77.3 percent of the plays. Frazier said he has talked to Williams about also beginning to limit his work in training camp in order to help him stay fresh.
All of this sounds good to Williams.
"Hopefully, I don't have to play 80 plays a game," he said. "I want these young guys to develop and come along as quickly and as effectively as they can so they can help us out as a whole. Me playing 80 plays and only being 60 percent as far as your stamina and all of that, that's not helping anybody. Me and Jared don't want to have to play 80 games a game to get the win. But if that's the case, we have to do it."