Zulgad: Paid leave for Chris Cook wasn't popular move in locker room
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The Minnesota Vikings' horrendous 2011 season will be remembered for many things.
Coach Leslie Frazier's steadfast contention this team could compete. Bryant McKinnie's release for being overweight. Bernard Berrian's release for being apathetic. Donovan McNabb's demotion and subsequent release for being awful.
There's another thing many, including some Vikings players, will remember about this season.
That's the mixed message the organization sent coming out of its bye week last month.
Let's make one thing clear: this is a bad football team. The Vikings are 2-12 with two games left. That record is far worse than many thought possible, and it's safe to say the expectations of the masses were low after a 6-10 season in which the Vikings fired coach Brad Childress.
But after going 1-6 in their first seven games, the Vikings went into Carolina before the bye and came away with a 24-21 victory over the Panthers. That gave rookie quarterback Christian Ponder a 1-1 record as the team's starter and seemingly provided at least a modicum of motivation for players who had to know the season's second half would be more about pride than anything.
Frazier never shifted off the theme that the players' focus needed to remain on the game in front of them. On the surface, he wasn't going to give up and he didn't want his guys to either.
That's why there was such surprise on Nov. 7, when Frazier informed the club that cornerback Chris Cook was going to be reinstated to the 53-man roster.
Cook's the same guy who was arrested on Oct. 22 for allegedly trying to strangle his girlfriend and spent the following day in a downtown Minneapolis jail as his teammates suffered a 33-27 loss to the Green Bay Packers a few blocks away at the Metrodome.
Cook was suspended without pay by the Vikings three days after his arrest and there was debate publicly about whether he should be released.
Instead, the Vikings decided to put him on a paid leave of absence.
Not a bad deal, especially when you consider that the NFL's collective bargaining agreement permits a team to suspend a player for four games for conduct detrimental to that club. Cook had served only two weeks of that suspension.
The original charge against Cook was domestic assault by strangulation. An additional charge of third-degree assault was added after the alleged victim said she suffered hearing loss after being choked. (Cook has not granted any interviews under the advisement of his attorney, but he has been active on his Twitter account.)
"We really think that's it best for him to really focus on the legal matters and not be a part of what we're doing right now," Frazier said on that early November day. "That's what he believes as well, along with his agent, that he needs to really focus on his case, which is a very serious matter as we all know and something organizationally we're all very concerned about and we want him to put his energy and his efforts into that case."
One source called the decision "highly, highly" unpopular in the locker room.
That should have come as no surprise.
"Cook's scheduled base salary this season was $405,000. So, while his teammates practice and play through loss after loss, Cook continues to collect weekly checks of $23,824 to sit at home.
Players know better than anyone that the NFL is a business and this didn't seem like good business.
There were at least three other reasons some were upset:
• 1. Vikings players had signed what amounts to a "good conduct clause" both from the NFL and the team on the first day of training camp. Even giving Cook the benefit of the doubt in his case, that clause appeared to have been violated. And remember, owner Zygi Wilf made it clear after the 2005 Love Boat fiasco that he was serious about the conduct of his employees.
• 2. The Vikings' disciplinary system now seemed arbitrary. McKinnie was released for being grossly out of shape, but Cook was kept on the payroll after getting thrown in jail. How can you release Berrian for being apathetic and not do the same thing to Cook?
• 3. Perhaps most important, the Cook decision completely undermined the message Frazier had tried to sell this team about being competitive and focusing.
There is no coach in the NFL who would agree if you told him the 53rd spot on his roster was insignificant enough that it could be held by a player who wasn't going to return.
Clubs dress 46 guys on game day, but NFL teams consider each and every roster spot to be gold. Yet halfway through the season, the Vikings accepted the fact they would play a man short.
"There was a lot of discussion prior to making that decision," Frazier said on Monday. "A lot of discussion. We went through all the what-ifs and all the possibilities, and once that decision was made, that's the decision that was made. We decided to go in that direction."
One source said the feeling is that Frazier wasn't on board with the Cook decision, but because the Vikings power structure is so divided, he ended up having to go along with it. Frazier and vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman are supposed to share power, but Spielman has declined interview requests all season and final say seems to shift on a case-by-case basis.
Frazier, a man of great faith who preaches the importance of good conduct to his players, said any suggestion that he wanted to go in a different direction with Cook is incorrect.
"I was in agreement with the decision," he said. "I wasn't opposed. I understood the decision. I was right there in those discussions. It's been tough this year, for our entire team, not just our secondary. But I was not opposed to the decision. "
It isn't shocking the Vikings didn't jettison Cook after his arrest.
His trial is set for March, and if he's found innocent, he will be in the NFL in 2012. Cook was a second-round pick by the Vikings in 2010 and was playing his best football before the incident.
There is a feeling among some that Cook could end up being a redemption story, much like Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger or Eagles quarterback Michael Vick.
Already in terrible shape at cornerback, the Vikings had no desire to get rid of Cook and see him resurface somewhere else as a quality player at a position that's tough to fill. They already had paid him a $1 million roster bonus for this season.
One source also said ownership wanted the Cook situation to go away, in part because a team after public funding for a stadium doesn't need one of its players in the headlines for domestic assault. By not trying to suspend Cook indefinitely, and thus causing an issue with a potential grievance, it does make sense team officials might adhere to ownership's wishes by just quietly keeping him on the roster.
No matter the reasoning, though, there were plenty who simply scratched their heads as they watched the situation unfold.
On Sunday, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees carved up the Vikings' dreadful secondary for 412 yards and five touchdowns before being lifted in the fourth quarter. This came with rookie Brandon Burton and Asher Allen starting at the corners and first-year undrafted free agent Marcus Sherels playing in the nickel.
Benny Sapp, signed off the street on Nov. 16, was held out for the first two plays after missing a meeting at the team hotel on Saturday, but he eventually got into the game.
Cedric Griffin, however, never left the sideline after being benched in the first quarter the previous week at Detroit as a result of his poor play. Griffin is so far out of the Vikings' plans that he couldn't even get into the game after Allen suffered a concussion in the first half.
In essence, the Vikings had now eliminated two roster spots from Frazier's team and both are cornerbacks.
That type of roster management sends a strong message to those in the locker room, And it certainly doesn't seem like the right one.