Jared Allen has seen the full circle of NFL life with the Vikings – both on the individual and team level. He has seen a Vikings team that tore through the NFL in 2009 and, as many fans and teammates continue to maintain, outplayed the New Orleans Saints, but came up short of making the Super Bowl. He has also seen the lows of a franchise-tying worst season record (3-13) – coming in a year when Allen came within a sack of setting the individual single-season record for sacks.
In an interview with NBC SportsTalk, Allen addressed several topics, including the future of the franchise, the Brett Favre legacy, ground rules for rookie offensive tackle Matt Kalil and his “oh-so-close” run for the sack record.
Most in the media are dismissing the Vikings' chances of being a contender in 2012. With the Packers coming off a 15-1 season, the Lions being viewed as one of the hot franchises on the rise and the Bears coming off a season in which they started 7-3 before collapsing when QB Jay Cutler and RB Matt Forte both went down to injuries, about the only thing media types can agree on is that the Vikings will be predicted to finish last in the NFC North. Allen said that isn’t necessarily bad.
“I truly don’t know what our expectations are,” Allen said. “That can actually be a good thing. There are no preconceived notions of where you have to get, so you just work your butt off and everybody goes out there and lays it on the line. Everybody is working toward one common goal and that’s to win this game.”
It’s been a quick descent and turnaround for a Vikings team that ended the 2011 season at 3-13, less than two years removed from being a play away from the Super Bowl. He believes that being anonymous and essentially out of the preseason discussion about postseason possibilities is a positive.
“When we had Brett, you’re expectation goes through the roof that you’re going to make it to the Super Bowl,” Allen said. “Anything less than that is unsatisfactory. Coming off a 3-13 season, no one expects us to do anything. So, we can fly below the radar and focus on being a solid team and just try to put win after win together.”
With hindsight as his guide, Allen reflected on the brief Favre era, when the Silver Fox held sway over the local and national media, created one of the biggest controversies in the history of the NFL by playing for the hated Vikings after cementing his Hall of Fame career with the Packers and, eventually couldn’t replicate the magic of 2009 in 2010 and things fell apart amazingly fast.
Asked to assess the Favre tornado that blew threw Minnesota, Allen said he brought the full gamut of emotions to the team.
“The highs were high and the lows were low,” Allen said. “Honestly, I’ve got nothing but respect for Brett. (The highest moment was) being in the NFC Championship Game thinking we’re going to kick a field goal to go to the Super Bowl. The low was as soon as we got to the NFC Championship Game and didn’t go to the Super Bowl. With high-profile guys like that, you’ve got to encompass everything that comes with it. That’s the big highs and, personally, we had all the other drama that came with it.”
With Favre out of the picture and the Vikings moving forward without him, the team has made a significant investment on the offensive side of the ball to try to get back into playoff contention and franchise relevance. In 2011, the team took Christian Ponder with the 12th pick of the draft. In April, they used the fourth pick to take offensive tackle Matt Kalil.
Kalil is expected to be a franchise bookend at tackle for the next decade and will cut his teeth in practice learning to defend against the league’s premier pass rusher. However, Allen was quick to point out that Kalil is a rookie and there are certain ground rules he must observe, especially for a 30-year-old veteran defensive teammate.
“Don’t touch me,” Allen said with a smile when asked about Kalil’s initiation process. “I’m too old to deal with overzealous rookies right now. Keep your hands out of my face, don’t grab my jersey and we won’t have to fist fight. That’s pretty much what it is.”
As has become a habit with Allen interviews, he was reminded that he finished the 2011 season a half-sack behind Michael Strahan for the all-time NFL single-season sack record – of course, the asterisk being mentioned that the final sack that gave Strahan the record was a gift from his old buddy Brett Favre.
When asked how often he thinks about coming so close to the record, but not getting a similar post-Christmas present from a buddy, Allen answered with his typical sense of humor.
“Every day of my life,” Allen said with a laugh. “It is what is. I’ve gotten some gifts along the way. I got nothing but love for Strahan and I have to work a little harder.”
As the Vikings prepare to head to training camp next week, expectations will likely only be high among the players, coaches and Vikings fans. But, if Allen’s assessment is correct and the Vikings can fly under the radar for a while and sneak up on the competition, the return to prominence may not take as long as many media types are currently speculating. They have the pieces in place at several positions and, if Allen can put together another individual season like he did last year, the team as a whole may be in position to show dramatic (and immediate) improvement.