Jared Allen is happy to help out the younger Minnesota Vikings, answering questions, giving advice or critiquing their performance.
But be clear about this, young fellas: You’re getting paid to play, so the expectations are just as high as they are for the veterans.
“This isn’t high school or college,” said Allen, who is beginning his ninth season in the NFL and fifth with the Vikings. “I can show them how to be a pro or show them the standards we expect, but at the end of the day, you have to do your job. If you can’t, we’ll find out pretty quick out here.”
The Vikings are a case study of how fast the NFL landscape can change. In less than two years, they went from an experienced team with deep playoff hopes to a young squad that looked lost during most of 2011.
“I still feel like I’m playing at a high level, but every year is a concern of if I’m going to win a championship,” Allen said. “That’s where I just put my trust in the front office that they’re going to bring the players in, and our goals match up. I’m not in this to rebuild. I’m in this every year to compete for a championship, and they are too. And I truly believe that, and that’s why I love being a Minnesota Viking.”
On a team given a good chance to win a Super Bowl, there is obvious built-in motivation. But when an older player’s career window is closing faster than the team’s plan for championship contention is developing, the void could potentially be difficult to fill with other driving forces.
“It might be tough in some situations, but not for me,” cornerback Antoine Winfield said. “I still want to come out here and work hard and compete. I want to do everything I can so we can improve ... quickly.”
Quickly is the operative word here.
This will be Winfield’s 14th NFL season, and at age 35, his career won’t last much longer. Even if he bucks the injury bug that has bitten him in recent years – last year he hurt his neck and then broke his collarbone and played in only five games – pro football is a young man’s game, particularly at the speed-based skill positions like his.
Winfield has grown accustomed to mentoring young cornerbacks. Outside of Chris Carr, the free agent signee from the Baltimore Ravens, Winfield has been in the league for more than a decade longer than each of the team’s other defensive backs. He’s never played in a Super Bowl, let alone won one, and the Vikings (29th in the AP Pro32 rankings) are far from the conversation about this year’s contenders. But he’s not giving up on a return to regular winning by the Vikings.
“Things change pretty quickly out here,” Winfield said. “A team is driven by its leaders, and we have some really great leaders on this team.”
Chad Greenway was not too long ago the youngest linebacker on the team. Now he’s the unquestioned leader of his position group, entering his seventh NFL season.
“I love it,” he said. “If anything, it makes me want to work harder. It kind of takes me back to my first and second year when I was fighting for a job.”
Defensive tackle Kevin Williams is the longest-tenured player with the Vikings, entering his 10th season. After watching several veterans either get released or left unsigned over the last year – a sharp contrast from the 2009 to 2010 transition in which every starter returned – Williams has had to manage his expectations a little.
“We got young in a hurry,” Williams said. “You could say we’re rebuilding, but in my mindset we’re still expecting to win games. I think with the young guys we brought in here, we definitely plan on playing those guys and having them helping us win. And definitely improve from what we did last year.”
That’s sure the goal of owner Zygi Wilf, who made his first public comments of training camp Tuesday.
“I expect to be division champs. I want to be able to fight for the division, as we always do every year, and get better for years to come. That’s always been our goal,” Wilf said.