By Lindsey Young, For Vikings.com
As part of alumni weekend, former Vikings players came from all over the country to reminisce with old teammates and reconnect with friends they seldom have the chance to see. Many of the players still consider Minnesota their team, and they are just as excited as many Vikings fans to see what 2015 holds.
For many, the sky is the limit.
"Whenever I can, I'm watching [the Vikings], pulling for them, hoping to see them make it back to that Big Dance," said former defensive end Mark Mullaney (1975-87). "I was fortunate enough to play with the guys I played with and was able to play in the Super Bowl. I hope they get back and can win one."
The feeling was mutual among the crowd Saturday when alumni attended the Vikings practice at Winter Park the day before they watched Minnesota improve to 2-1 on the year with a win against San Diego.
Alumni expressed optimism about the current season and direction the team is headed. Even with the tough loss to San Francisco on the board, most feel it was not indicative of the roster's talent and general readiness for the year.
Former running back Allen Rice (1984-90) acknowledged the skilled roster while watching the current team practice at Winter Park, and he shared his insight on Minnesota's position.
"As a former player, I understand that things can change so much from week to week — it could even be a matter of being healthy," Rice said. "I think they have as good a chance as anyone else. I'm really looking forward to seeing them play. I like the [direction] of the last three or four years, so I think they're at the point of putting it all together."
Hall of Fame guard Randall McDaniel addressed health as well, recognizing the injury concerns surrounding the Vikings' offensive line and the absence of John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt. Having been an offensive lineman himself, McDaniel acknowledged the difficulty of losing players from that position. However, he feels confident that the adjusted unit will soon jell and be effective like it needs to be.
"It's hard to just plug one guy in and keep the same rhythm and momentum going," McDaniel said. "But in time, they're going to learn to come together; they're just going to be forced to do it a lot sooner than other people. But I think it's going to work — they're coming around the right way."
The offensive line, by the way, helped the Vikings rush for 163 yards and didn't allow a sack of Teddy Bridgewater Sunday.
On the defensive side, Matt Blair (1974-85) had nothing but positive things to say on the topic he knows best: linebackers. Blair, who played under Hall of Fame Head Coach Bud Grant during the Purple People Eaters era and appeared in six Pro Bowls, feels that the Vikings' linebacker depth is excellent. In addition to veteran Chad Greenway continuing to show leadership on and off the field, Blair identified Anthony Barr and rookie Eric Kendricks, calling them "outstanding young guys" who are already proving crucial on defense.
Hall of Fame safety Paul Krause (1968-79) also commented on that side of the football, specifically crediting head coach Mike Zimmer for the changes he has made since starting in 2014.
"[Coach Zimmer] has done a good job," Krause said. "From before he got here until right now, the defensive backs have made a great change. They are a very significant part of the game."
Zimmer's role stands out as another key thing the alumni agree on. In only his second year of head coaching, Zimmer has already made a major impact around Winter Park. Since he has only been a part of Minnesota's system for that long, many former players had yet to meet Zimmer in person. Doing so reinforced their beliefs.
"What I've seen [from Zimmer] so far is great," Mullaney expressed. "All the players have a lot of respect for him, and I think he has a real chance to build something special here."
Steve Jordan (1982-94), former Vikings tight end, felt that Zimmer was overlooked as a head coaching candidate before coming to Minnesota, and that he should have been considered for a team before then. If anyone knows about being overlooked, it's Jordan. The tight end slid to the seventh round of the 1982 NFL Draft before the Vikings selected him; he went on to be a six-time Pro Bowl selection and three-time All-Pro.
Ultimately, Jordan understands what it means to be with the right team to find success, and Zimmer fits well with Minnesota.
"It sounds and looks like he's doing a lot of the right things," Jordan said. "He's making sure the guys are focusing on the things they need to be focusing on, and the defense is going to continue to be strong with his [coordinator] background."
All the alumni visiting over the weekend see the Vikings' work in progress, and it is clear to many that their former team is headed in the right direction. For several, the goal of making the postseason seems very much within reach.
"I think the Vikings are in a pretty good position now," Jordan said. "They're certainly competitive, if not at that point where you can start to contend for division championships and, ultimately, a Super Bowl."
One thing is for sure: if that day comes for Minnesota, plenty of Vikings alumni will be in the stands to see their team play for it all.