EAGAN, Minn. – Fun and football don't have to be mutually exclusive.
Just ask Vikings receivers coach Keenan McCardell, who mixes in plenty of smiles with instruction during Minnesota's practices.
The Vikings had their first of two mandatory minicamp practice sessions last week, after which McCardell spoke with Twin Cities media members.
The NFL cadence can certainly be a grind, but it's important for players to come up for air once in a while and remember they're playing a game for a living.
"I always tell them this: 'If you're not smiling on this grass, you're not having a good day,' " McCardell said. "When you're smiling, it means you're mentally on every rep you're supposed to be on and you're making the catches you're supposed to be making and hustling and busting your butt to make a play for the next guy.
"If you're down here with your head shaking and frowning up, that means you're not having a good day, and you have to change that someway, somehow," he added.
As McCardell enters his second season in Minnesota, many players across the league are entering their third campaign since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. After back-to-back years of stringent health-and-safety protocols, the NFL has lifted the majority of guidelines for the 2022 season.
The removal of social-distancing rules means players are once again allowed to socialize away from the team facility. And whether through Adam Thielen's charity softball game or a team outing to Topgolf, they've capitalized on opportunities.
There's no shortage of time spent together in meeting rooms and on the practice field, of course, but McCardell emphasized the benefit of sharing in non-football activities.
"That team camaraderie is unbelievable. We missed it for two years," McCardell said. "Having those guys together, spending time and getting to know each other – getting to know your family members, basically, because they are in that locker room more than they are with their family.
"You've got to get to know your neighbor, your locker mate, cross-locker mate. And going to Topgolf, bowling, or whatever, it means a lot," he continued. "Because people are all from different parts of life, and you get to know and start hanging out with people that you never thought you would hang out with. It's fun, you know?"
McCardell cited his friendship with All-Pro tackle Tony Boselli as an example. The former receiver overlapped with the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2022 member in Jacksonville from 1996-2001.
"Me and Tony Boselli? Yeah, we was the tightest of tight. It was just one of those things," McCardell laughed. "That's a big thing about chemistry, the camaraderie."
Teammates connect beyond the building
Connections can be forged through player- or coach-led initiatives.
It didn't take long for Za'Darius Smith to begin connecting with new teammates after signing with the Vikings. He hosted a group for a catered dinner before attending a Timberwolves game together.
Thielen's softball tournament pitted the offense against the defense (and specialists led by slugging long snapper Andrew DePaola).
Although the diamond was filled with competitors, each was happy to see a teammate excel in a recreational sport.
O'Connell opted to remove one of the 10 maximum days of Organized Team Activity practices to surprise players, coaches and support staff with an excursion to Topgolf.
Players lined up at the Brooklyn Center venue that is part driving range and part video game on a picture-perfect morning.
There were plenty of plinks — the general sound that the reduced-distance golf balls make — and a few dinks by golf novices.
Some Vikings players clearly hit the links and practice routinely. Adam Thielen alternated between offering some tips and launching golf balls toward the flagsticks.
Others, like Danielle Hunter, went from whiffing right over the ball to barely tapping it to hitting it straight in a span of minutes. Dalvin Cook lit up when one of his swings reached the red flag green at 25 yards out.
McCardell's swing was as smooth as melted ice cream. He had played in prestigious pro ams during his time as an NFL player and has continued the sport, going so far as to practice chipping in his basement.
After some trial and error — and light-hearted heckling from Cameron Dantzler — Kris Boyd got a hold of one. It was the type of shot that somehow outweighs the rest and keeps luring most of us back. Tempted to equal the results instead of taking the walk-off, Boyd's next one wasn't quite the same.
The back fence — 215 yards from the tee boxes — seemed to keep a few offerings from Harrison Phillips from making their way to Coon Rapids. Fellow newcomer Jordan Hicks frequently made impressive contact with a hybrid.
Near the end of the session, it was time to let the big dog eat. Brian O'Neill was encouraged off one of the patio sofas to the tee box. As he towered over the ball, Andover seemed in play. O'Neill coolly smacked majestic drive after majestic drive.
View photos from the second minicamp practice at the TCO Performance Center.
Providing an on-field difference?
Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell said after a May OTA practice that the Vikings had been intentional about forming connections.
"We've done exercises to be deliberate about connecting our team and connecting our coaches with our players," Donatell said. "We're further along than we've ever been because it's been a major focus."
O'Connell, in his final spring media session mentioned a whole-staff barbecue to conclude Minnesota's offseason program, mentioning it as part of the team's continued "quest to connect our whole building and make sure we're all moving in the same direction."
He and General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah have emphasized connectivity between football and non-football staff since their respective hires in February and January.
The offseason program provided an opportunity to put things in practice. Why is it so important?
"It's a couple of things. Just look at each individual side of the ball — you can't talk about all of these checks and tools that they have on defense if these guys don't communicate in a way that is real and authentic," O'Connell said. "That's just the football side, but it becomes a heck of a lot easier to hold that guy next to you accountable or more importantly hold yourself accountable to those guys around you when you feel a responsibility to those guys to not only do your job but do it in a way where you are making the guy next to you better. It's something we talk a lot about.
"It's not just doing your job; it's doing it well enough that it maybe makes somebody else's job easier, maybe it frees up somebody else to go make a play, so I think that's huge," O'Connell added.
Patrick Peterson is preparing for his 12th NFL season and second in Minnesota. Peterson was complimentary of teammates' participation during the offseason program, most of which is voluntary.
"I can't think of a guy who wasn't here the majority of the spring, so having guys here, learning from one another, leaning on one another and being our brother's keeper is just going to make us that much of a closer-knit team, to the point where when adversity does hit, we won't blink at all," Peterson said.
Players and coaches have scattered across the country for about six weeks before they'll return to grind at camp.
Cousins said he'll plan to stay in touch with teammates through group texts to keep building relationships from afar and pick up where they left off with the efforts this spring.
"It's difficult to articulate or to quantify, 'How does time spent together at Topgolf equate to a fourth quarter win?' But I have been around team sports just too long to believe it doesn't," Cousins said. "I think it matters, I think you build relationships, you build trust, you get to know guys, and it makes the day-to-day more fun because you have these relationships and you're counting, on one another, and you want to succeed for the players around you and you want to see them have success.
"It just kind of creates an extra heartbeat, or just a greater love for the guys around you that for some strange reason helps you play football better together," Cousins added.
McCardell, who played for five different teams from 1991-2007, knows a thing or two about team chemistry.
The 52-year-old didn't hesitate long when asked which team during his 17-season career had the type of spark that doesn't come along every season. McCardell quickly tabbed the 2002 Buccaneers, who went on to win Super Bowl XXXVII.
"It's kind of funny: I was telling the story to the guys. I knew I was coming to Tampa, and I knew we were going to win the Super Bowl in 2002," McCardell said. "Because first off, I knew those guys. We played golf together, and when I got there, it was basically a whole team meeting for me, on a visit. I was like, 'This is special. This is a special group of guys.'
"We took ownership, and we held each other accountable, and we loved each other, man. We made sure everybody was all right," he continued. "And when you can do that and have a great locker room like that – like we have here. We have a great locker room. There are special things to come for this locker room if they just stay together."