EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. –Gene Washington stands on the sideline of the Winter Park fieldhouse, watching Adam Thielen and Cordarrelle Patterson catch tosses from quarterback Sam Bradford.
The scene playing out in front of him takes Washington back.
The former wide receiver, who played for the Vikings from 1967-72, hung up his cleats long before the practice facility was constructed in Eden Prairie, but he enjoys visiting and reminiscing about his days on the field.
He's stayed in Minnesota, living a short drive away in Plymouth, and enjoys keeping tabs on the purple and gold. Washington believes there's something unique about the 2016 Vikings.
"It's a very special team," Washington says.
And he would know special when he sees it. Washington was a two-time Prow Bowler, playing under legendary Coach Bud Grant, snagging passes from Joe Kapp and Fran Tarkenton and sharing a locker room with one of the stingiest defenses in league history.
Washington sees some parallels between his teams and the current one.
"I noticed a difference in the way we play defense in the years that [Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer] has been here," Washington says. "Coach Grant, of course, we won with defense back when I played."
Just a few feet down from Washington, former defensive end Mark Mullaney (1975-87) echoed Washington's thoughts on the glimpses of similarity between Zimmer's defense and Grant's.
Mullaney, who recorded 597 tackles, 45.5 QB sacks, 13 forced fumbles and one interception in his career, said this year's Vikings defense is fun to watch.
He recites an old Bud Grant adage: "The offense sells tickets, but defense wins ball games."
"I think they have that defense," Mullaney says. "They're going to be good. They're the real deal."
Mullaney said Minnesota's defense has especially shined in the wake of the team suffering a number of key injuries to offensive starters. He doesn't view it as the defense stepping up and playing differently, however; he sees the unit simply playing the way it's been coached to do. He also recognizes the deep roster Minnesota has and the role that plays in continuing to win games.
"We had good depth," Mullaney says of his playing years. "I think that's what they've got – they truly have depth at every position. If somebody gets nicked, another guy can come in [without] them losing anything."
In the game of football, injuries are nearly unavoidable – whether you played in the '60s or you're taking the field now. Former defensive tackle Ken Clarke (1989-91) said a team can expect to face adversity at one point or another; it's how they handle it that most makes a difference.
"I played for the Vikings when Keith Millard got injured, and we all had to take up the slack because he was one of our key guys," Clarke recalls. "That's going to happen during the football season, so we're all aware of it and know it's going to happen – we just don't know when and to whom.
"You just have to always rally around and be prepared for the unexpected," Clarke adds.
If there's one thing about the 2016 Vikings, it's that Zimmer has them rallying. In his third year at the helm for Minnesota, Zimmer has always emphasized the importance of group success over the individual, and it's this theme that Washington also believes mirrors Coach Grant's teams.
Washington said it's significant that the Vikings have lost four offensive starters – Teddy Bridgewater, Adrian Peterson, Matt Kalil and Andre Smith – for the long-term and yet remain undefeated after five games.
"The most important thing is 'team.' That's the concept we always had when I played," Washington says. "It's great to see that same idea is really going well with the younger players here. The receivers, the quarterbacks, all of the positions, it's really a family-type atmosphere, and they're winning."
Adds Washington: "Everybody has a responsibility. You have to catch the ball, you have to run your routes, all that stuff, but it's team first."
He pauses for a moment, looking around at the fieldhouse walls. He sweeps his arm, gesturing at the Vikings-purple championship banners that range from 1969 to 2015.
"It's good to be recognized," Washington says with a smile, "but you can't have all the banners up here without the team."