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USA Today Sports Media Group
Judd Zulgad

Zulgad’s four-and-out: Vikings’ joint practices against Titans unlikely to be a reminder of brawl-filled sessions

Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell saw so much value in his team’s two joint practices with the San Francisco 49ers last summer at TCO Performance Center that he locked into four more days of joint sessions at the team’s facility this year.

The first will take place on Wednesday and Thursday as the Tennessee Titans and Vikings practice against each other before playing a Saturday night preseason game at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings will repeat this next week when the Arizona Cardinals spend two days at TCO before the teams play their preseason finale on Aug. 26.

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“It will give us a tremendous opportunity to have four days of really good competition,” O’Connell said this spring in announcing the joint sessions. “I know both (Titans coach Mike) Vrabel and (Cardinals coach Jonathan) Gannon. Both of those guys, I have personal relationships with and know what kind of leaders they are. I know what kind of teams they’ll be bring here, ready to make sure we get some great work.”

The Vikings are no stranger to joint practices. These sessions go back many years, but have never been this popular and there was a time when the Vikings stopped participating in them.

So what’s happened?

Fights that were once common in joint practices now discouraged

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

These aren’t your father’s joint practices.

Back in the day, and by that we mean 15 to 18 years ago, joint practices often turned into daylong brawls between teams that were tired of the heat of training camp and hitting each other. Taking out one’s frustration on an opponent seemed like a good idea, but it didn’t mean anyone actually improved.

The Chiefs, who used to train in River Falls, Wis., and the Vikings, who trained in Mankato, Minn., held joint practices for a few years and had some memorable incidents.

Brock Lesnar left WWE in 2004 to try out for the Vikings as a defensive tackle and wound up in a brawl after delivering a suplex on a Chiefs player. A year earlier, the Mike Tice-coached Vikings and Dick Vermeil-coached Chiefs had things turn ugly in River Falls.

Tice and Vermeil were not on the same page about the amount of contact that would be allowed, and a furious Vermeil said that Vikings cornerback Rushen Jones “should be shot in the head” for injuring Kansas City wide receiver Dameane Douglas.

We’re guessing that Tice didn’t object to the hostilities. But things have changed. Last year, O’Connell and Niners coach Kyle Shanahan had an agreement that fighting would lead to ejections.

“Yeah, that’s a pretty big emphasis,” Shanahan said at the time. “I just have a deal with Kevin. If anyone throws a punch, we’re going to kick him out of practice, and we know how important it is to get this practice work right now. And that’s always stressed because we need to practice, and if you fight, you’re going to be out of there, so do everything you can to not.”

Practices provide teams with an ability to get valuable work in controlled environment

AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn

This doesn’t mean that joint practices don’t have physicality, but the goal is to get work against an opponent in a controlled environment. The popularity of joint practices has grown as the preseason has been cut from four to three games.

It used to be that starters would get limited action in the first two preseason games, play an entire half, and sometimes into the third quarter, in the third exhibition and then sit for the fourth.

The issue is that there is no controlling an exhibition game. Getting work in certain situations, such as red zone and two-minute or goal line, is only possible if those situations happen to come up in the game. In joint practices, teams can work on as many situations as they want and do it against an opponent.

There will be no tackling to the ground for the Vikings and Titans, at least that’s the plan, but the top-line players will get valuable reps on both sides of the ball and it will be done with each coaching staff having at least some control.

Players can still get hurt, but you take far greater risks by putting a guy like wide receiver Justin Jefferson into a preseason game on turf than you do having him practice on the grass at TCO.

O’Connell said last weekend that “the most important stretch of our training camp is about to begin.” The four practices against the Titans and Cardinals will help decide on who lands where on the depth chart and, in some cases, who makes the final 53-man roster.

Is there a downside to these practices?

Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Funny, you should ask.

The biggest negative might be giving an opponent the opportunity to get an extended look at the 90 players on your roster. The Vikings learned this lesson in 2007. Coach Brad Childress had selected a quarterback, Coastal Carolina’s Tyler Thigpen, with the 217th pick of the seventh round.

Thigpen wasn’t going to step in and play immediately, but Childress saw him as a solid prospect and a quarterback who could be developed. Carl Peterson, then the Chiefs’ general manager, saw enough of Thigpen in Mankato that when the Vikings attempted to sneak him through waivers and on to the practice squad, Kansas City claimed him.

Childress was less than thrilled about this. Thigpen went on to start 11 of 16 games for the Chiefs over the next two-plus years and also played for Buffalo and Miami in a six-year career.

The Vikings and Chiefs ended their joint practices in 2009.

Are preseason games going to disappear?

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

I do think we’ll get to a point where the NFL goes to an 18-game regular-season schedule and cuts the preseason to two games, but my guess is executives and coaches still want a couple of exhibitions.

Some teams still play starters for a limited amount of time in the preseason, but the real value is to give the bottom half of the roster a chance to compete for jobs. A perfect example is cornerback NaJee Thompson, an undrafted rookie from Georgia Southern. Thompson had a fantastic game on special teams last Thursday at Seattle and is a candidate to make the roster based on what he’s shown.

The joint practices help the rookies as well, but guys like Thompson, not to mention second-year starting guard like Ed Ingram and backup quarterback Nick Mullens, get valuable reps in an exhibition that enables the coaching staff to monitor their progress in a game setting.

It’s unlikely O’Connell would ever want to see that go away entirely, but the ability to put Kirk Cousins and the first-teamers through the paces in a joint practice provides added value and the ability to try more complex things than teams feel comfortable doing when the rest of the league can watch their preseason tape.

Purple Daily on Draft

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