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Updated: July 18th, 2014 11:08pm
Zulgad: Vikings create unnecessary distraction by retaining assistant

Zulgad: Vikings create unnecessary distraction by retaining assistant

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

What are the Minnesota Vikings doing?

That was a fair question to ask after the 29-page summary the team issued on Friday night following an independent investigation that corroborated Chris Kluwe's claims that special teams coordinator Mike Priefer made homophobic remarks during the punter's last season with the team in 2012.

This is not an attempt to pin blame on one side or the other or debate the culture that exists in the NFL and pro sports in general.

Plain and simple, the question is asked from a football standpoint.

The Vikings will report to training camp next Thursday in Mankato under new coach Mike Zimmer and begin practicing the following day. Zimmer has the challenge of taking a team that finished at the bottom of the NFC North last season and trying to turn it around in his first year as an NFL coach.

This must be done with veteran quarterback Matt Cassel, who is considered by many to be among the five worst at his position in the league. Teddy Bridgewater, a first-round pick, will arrive in Mankato with the spotlight on him and an expectation that he will eventually show enough progress to become the franchise quarterback the Vikings have lacked.

Then you have the fact that someone with the organization thought it would be a good idea to bring failed first-round pick Christian Ponder to camp and attempt to paint a picture that he actually might be in the mix for the starting job.

This is what one could consider to be a small but unnecessary distraction, given that it would have been easy to part ways with Ponder months ago.

Yet, somehow, the Vikings also have decided that giving Zimmer a major off-the-field distraction to start his first camp would be a good idea.

No matter what you think about the way Kluwe has gone about things since he had a piece published on Jan. 2 in Deadspin that included Prieffer's homophobic remarks, this franchise has had the entire offseason to deal with the situation.

The Vikings have to know that the report issued Friday is far from the end of this story. It was announced Priefer will be suspended for the first three games of the 2014 season without pay, although the suspension could be reduced by one game if Priefer completes what amounts to sensitivity training.

Kluwe's attorney, Clayton Halunen, told ESPN the punter still plans to file suit against the team in Minnesota state court next week and will seek damages around $10 million.

Zimmer will speak to the media for the first time next Thursday. He will be asked about Priefer almost immediately. Priefer also will be asked about this when he's made available. So will long snapper Cullen Loeffler and kicker Blair Walsh and anyone else who played with Kluwe.

Someone from the organization also is going to have to explain why Priefer wasn't fired.

The Vikings will attempt to claim none of this is going to be a distraction. That's a bunch of garbage. And distractions, no matter how much teams try to downplay them and say they pay no attention to them, do matter.

The thing is it never needed to get to this.

Kluwe, who was very vocal about his support of same-sex marriage, never should have had to listen to Priefer rant about "putting all the gays on an island and nuking it."

This created a hostile work environment. Kluwe is right if that's the claim. Kluwe, though, is wrong if he thinks that he can build any of his case around the fact he was released because of his views.

Kluwe was released because he was making too much money and his performance was declining. Kicker Ryan Longwell was jettisoned a year earlier for the same reason. Both were replaced by draft picks, Jeff Locke and Walsh, who came at a cheaper price.

This was a business decision by the Vikings and proving it wasn't will be almost impossible.

That leads to the obvious question. Why in the world didn't the Vikings make the business decision to sever ties with Priefer last winter?

Fair or not, the Vikings had the perfect opportunity to avoid much of this embarrassment and Priefer would have had zero case against them. It's common for a new head coach, Zimmer in this case, to make wholesale changes in his assistant coaching staff.

Releasing Priefer last January or Febraury would have been easy.

My working theory on the airwaves on "Mackey & Judd" has been that the Vikings did not want to allow a former employee to bully them into firing a coach. Kluwe is incredibly headstrong and so is Vikings management.

The theory might be correct, but the Vikings appear to be creating a big headache for themselves in the name of trying to get the last word.

I've covered this franchise since 2005 and followed them since 1978. I've seen the Vikings deal with enough distractions that it has been comical at times and pathetic at others.

The hiring of every new coach has created optimism that the distractions will go away and yet that never seems to happen. There have been times when the distractions that have arisen have been out of the Vikings' control.

This isn't one of those cases.

Zimmer will have to deal with this from day one of training camp next week and it's not going to away anytime soon. It's a distraction that would have been easy to avoid with a move that could have been made six months ago.

So why would the Vikings want to subject Zimmer and themselves to this?

That's a good question.

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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