On Jan. 10, when the Wilf family made their biggest streak of changes in their 17-year ownership of the Vikings, it was linebacker Eric Kendricks who signaled the magnitude of the change to come.
Kendricks’ remarks about Vikings culture – when the linebacker said, ‘I don’t think a fear-based organization is the way to go’ – grabbed headlines and became something of an indicator audience of how the Vikings would replace general manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer.
Behind the scenes, the linebacker was part of the leadership group that met with the Wilfs to share what the players wanted from the organization. His relationship with the owners had grown through his work on the team’s Social Justice Committee and his nomination for the 2020 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. the Vikings under a new general manager and head coach, Kendricks had accumulated enough capital to speak his mind.
“We had a great conversation at the end of the season and a bit throughout the offseason,” Kendricks said Wednesday. “Just having that bridge of communication with them and management as well, I feel like it’s not really common. I’ve spoken to players in the league and they don’t really have that communication with their property.
“Like I said, it’s also on us now, it can’t be just on them, it can’t be just on whoever we appoint as the boss. It has to be on the players too, like me, who have put their years and time into this league. If I want change, I have to be that change myself.
Kendricks is now 30, entering his eighth NFL season and his first without teammate Anthony Barr, his teammate since their time at UCLA). Only Harrison Smith has been on the Vikings defense longer than Kendricks, and few voices carry more weight in the team locker room than the All-Pro.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday for the first time since his Jan. 10 comments, Kendricks had little interest in reviewing the 2021 season or what he said at the end. “I’m not really going to talk about last season. It’s a new year, it’s a new day,” he said.
It was clear, however, that he was not interested in the organizational changes of the Vikings being the end of their transformation.
“We are here. We are here with new staff, new players, new defense and we have this incredible opportunity in front of us again,” he said. “Every team in the league is going to have new types of situations with them. It’s a level playing field right now. Everything that happened last year is in the past and we have to move on. We can learn a lot but we also have to adapt and change with the new year.”
The Vikings replaced Spielman and Zimmer with Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell, who emphasized openness and player empowerment in their first offseason at Minnesota. They replaced longtime head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman with Tyler Williams, in a move they hoped to build goodwill with players who feared taking too long to tend to injuries, which could jeopardize their position in the organization.
Music played throughout the Vikings’ first open practice of team activities on Tuesday, as a new video screen allowed players to watch replays of practice snaps in real time. O’Connell moved to different spots on the pitch, spending time with defensive players as well as those he usually coaches on offense.
“I can literally be part of as much or as little of an individual [period] I want to be — and more importantly, just be there, be there, be visible on defense,” O’Connell said Wednesday. “I can praise them for the detailed things they do, in our covers, in pressure, how we stop the run, and they can look at me not just as an offensive head coach. It’s really important to me: that the guys on defense and special teams know that I am aware, I understand the difficult things that we ask them to do. I think overall it helps me connect with all the guys on the list. That level of one-on-one connection is huge for me, and it’s something I don’t take for granted.”
This all closely follows what players like Kendricks and offensive tackle Brian O’Neill said they wanted in January. Kendricks, O’Connell said, has remained a key part of the Vikings player leadership group who meets with the coach regularly.
“From day one I’ve been so impressed with Eric and his impact on our team, his impact as a leader,” O’Connell said. “We have guys at all levels of our defense that I feel really good with, but when you have this guy in the middle of your defense, a basic player, a basic leader in your team, it’s absolutely huge. when you’re teaching the new system, but also where you can go with it very quickly.”
O’Connell came to the Vikings days after the Rams won Game 4 of the 2021 playoffs with a Super Bowl LVI win. Before his 30th birthday, Kendricks only played in five playoff games.
If he feels more obligated to help push the Vikings forward, it has as much to do with that fact as anything.
“I want this at this point in my career: I want to win a championship, I want us to win a Super Bowl,” he said. “I want to win these games, I want to do what I have to do to have the career that I want to have. So it’s up to me, basically, too.”
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