The Soldier Field playing surface will be a focus Sunday in Chicago where the Vikings will try to not only win and improve their playoff seeding against the 3-13 Bears but avoid injuries to key players and ensure their availability in the postseason.
The safety of the natural grass surface was harshly criticized in August by the president of the National Football League Players Association. Then shortly before the season began new sod was installed, switching from Kentucky blue grass to Bermuda grass.
The Vikings are more than aware they’re likely to be playing on a slippery surface Sunday at the multipurpose stadium owned by the Chicago Park District. When players can’t maintain their balance, they’re even more vulnerable to injury in the violent game of football. “Yeah, 100 percent,” said T.J. Hockenson.
With new sod and months of use in varying weather conditions, the Vikings’ tight end anticipates a “pretty bad” playing surface Sunday when he and other starters hope to avoid misfortune. Does he consider the field dangerous?
“You just never know,” Hockenson said. “I think it probably could be dangerous if you look at it that way. You just have to make sure you’ve got your feet under you and you’re ready to go.”
Vikings’ wide receiver Adam Thielen said pregame field conditions can be deceiving, with things changing once the game starts. “I think it’s just going to have to be something (Sunday) where you just have to figure it out on the fly.”
The Vikings played on a natural surface last Sunday at Lambeau Field in Green Bay and had difficulty with their footing. “Yeah, for sure,” Hockenson said. “The grass in Lambeau wasn’t very good. It was fine in warmups and then once we got out there (to start the game) it was not good at all. It was just a learning experience for everybody and we’ll be ready to go this week.”
Many Vikings are expected to wear shoes with extra cleats at Soldier Field. A shoe with seven cleats provides extra bite into the grass. Thielen made the switch during the Green Bay game. “…It was perfect and once I put those bad boys on, it felt great.”
Kevin O’Connell is a rookie head coach as he prepares to lead his Vikings into the playoffs. But lessons learned about a year ago as Rams offensive coordinator, when that team delivered a Super Bowl win, should be helpful.
Minnesota offensive coordinator Wes Phillips also had a valuable experience with the Rams while serving as the team’s passing game coordinator/tight ends coach. Viking quarterbacks coach Chris O’Hara was an offensive assistant with the Rams during their big season.
The 12-4 Vikings are 2-2 in their last four games and have an opportunity to win their first NFC North Division road game of the season on Sunday in Chicago. The January 8 regular season game is the latest in franchise history.
The Bears lead the NFL in rushing yards per game at 181. The Bears were held to 88 yards rushing when Minnesota defeated Chicago 29-22 earlier in the season. The Vikings rank No. 20 in rushing yards given up.
A coaching authority and Sports Headliners reader suggested the 3-4 base defense adopted by the Vikings this season is vulnerable to outside runs because defenders more easily lose containment.
O’Connell, talking recently about his rookie defensive lineman and former Gopher Esezi Otomewo: “His energy and athleticism shows up. He’s flying around out there, has shown to be incredibly coachable for a young player as he gets more and more snaps.”
Ryan Connelly, the Vikings’ practice squad linebacker who played at Eden Prairie High School, will be a free agent later this year. He told Sports Headliners going to the Canadian Football League to play doesn’t interest him. His salary is $317,000 this season, per Overthecap.com.
It just could be the injuries situation for the football Gophers coming out of their bowl win over Syracuse is worse than reported.
Former Gophers football coach Jerry Kill has agreed to a contract that keeps him with New Mexico State through 2027.
Former Twin Nelson Cruz, 42, had eye surgery this offseason and is on the market as a free agent. He hit .294 for the Twins in 2021 but .234 for the Nationals last season.
Probably no Twins interest in Cruz, but the front office is known to sign veteran pitchers. Right hander Zack Greinke, 39, is available after pitching 137 innings last season for the Royals with a 3.68 ERA.
Classy Barry Fritz, the only crew supervisor of off-ice officials the Wild has ever had, will retire after this season. Fritz, who turns 77 in February, has never missed a home game while overseeing statistics and press box responsibilities of the support personnel. He also worked for many years as a Twins official scorer.
Former Wild executive Bill Robertson, now commissioner of the USHL, hired Fritz in 1999. “Mr. Barry Fritz is one of the most organized and detailed people I have ever worked with and always does it with a smile on his face,” Robertson wrote via email. “He has a can-do attitude every day at the rink or ballpark. He was so easy to work with on every level and always looked out for his support crew.”
There’s talk the NCAA may expand “March Madness” from 68 to 90 teams. If so, most of the Big Ten teams will be in the tournament.
Star Tribune columnists Patrick Reusse and Chip Scoggins speak to the Capital Club January 18 starting about 7:30 a.m. at Mendakota Country Club. The two collaborated on the recent book Tales from the Minnesota Sports Beat: A Lifetime on Deadline. More information about the club is available from Patrick Klinger, firstname.lastname@example.org
Boys basketball high school coaching legend and community leader Larry McKenzie speaks to the CORES lunch group January 12 at the Bloomington Event Center. McKenzie coached teams at Henry and North to six state tournament titles in 10 appearances. For reservations contact Jim Dotseth, email@example.com. CORES is an acronym for coaches, officials, reporters, educators and sports fans.