EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – A perfect blend of factors is necessary for NFL teams to succeed, one of them being locker room chemistry.
The 2015 season marked linebacker Chad Greenway's 10th season with the Vikings. On the field, Greenway embraced a little lesser role than prior years, but he played an important part in Minnesota's defense nonetheless. Greenway played alongside rookie Eric Kendricks and second-year pro Anthony Barr. The trio recorded a combined 271 tackles and 10.0 sacks on the year.
Off the field, Greenway's veteran presence proved just as valuable – if not more so – to the Vikings roster.
"He's a great Viking," Head Coach Mike Zimmer said of Greenway in a season-ending press conference. "I think his leadership is immense in the locker room, especially with a young football team."
Barr learned a lot from Greenway as a rookie in 2014, and the two picked up where they left off in 2015. Barr said he views Greenway, who is 10 years older, as both a friend and a mentor.
"When I look back, I'm following in [Chad]'s footsteps, even though I'm not realizing I'm doing it," Barr said. "Whether it is things he does on the field, how he controls the huddle, or off the field, in just the type of guy he is and the way he presents himself. I try to carry myself the way he does."
Greenway isn't the only one with this type of influence. While the linebacker may be the most prominent example, Minnesota benefitted from an ideal blend of ages and experiences in winning its first NFC North title since 2009.
Thirty-seven year old cornerback Terence Newman joined the Vikings in 2015 after spending time under Zimmer in both Dallas and Cincinnati. Newman led the team in interceptions (three) and passes defensed (14), but his contributions went beyond the turf.
Rookie safety Anthony Harris, who was activated from the practice squad on Dec. 8, said he learned a lot from Newman as a fellow defensive back.
"Just watching Terence, you know, he's a veteran guy, so right away coming in I wanted to watch him, even though we play different positions," Harris said. "I watch how he prepares, how he works in practice each day."
Prior to joining the Vikings, Captain Munnerlyn won the NFC South division title with Carolina in 2013. That season the Panthers also had a healthy mix of experience on their roster, including veteran running back DeAngelo Williams and veteran wide receiver Steve Smith. Linebacker Luke Kuechly and quarterback Cam Newton were in just their second and third years, respectively.
Munnerlyn likes the blend in Minnesota, saying, "We have a special group."
The 2015 Vikings had a 16-year range in the locker room, from Newman down to defensive end Danielle Hunter who, at age 21, was the NFL's youngest player.
Several NFL teams have a deep age range, but just having the mix of older and younger players doesn't automatically create good chemistry.
Former Vikings linebacker Ben Leber said he witnessed veteran players become jaded, poor role models for the younger athletes at times in his career.
"I would say the 'veteran leadership' idea can get vastly overblown," Leber said. "You could have older guys that just aren't great professionals. They have the skills and the talent to stick around a few years, but that doesn't necessarily make them good leaders. For this [Vikings] team, they did have a mix of the right type of vets on a younger team."
Following the Jan. 3 game in which Minnesota defeated Green Bay for the NFC North division title, nine-year defensive end Brian Robison credited some of the team's success to Zimmer's coaching style combined with the right assortment of players.
"The mental attitude that [Zimmer] brought in here – sometimes when you bring that in to a new team, it takes a little while to catch hold of that, but I think it's kind of two-fold," Robison said. "I think having such a young team when he came in, bringing in the guys that he wanted to bring in, I think that helped a lot with it, but also having the older guys that we have – we bought in to what he was selling. I think that's been a big key."
With Greenway, Newman and Robison each starting, all three levels of Minnesota's defense held a range of experience, nine-plus years to rookie. Defensive line coach Andre Patterson just completed his 12th NFL season, and he recognized the value of the Vikings blended roster.
The Vikings made it to the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Many of the veterans were able to share their postseason experiences and advice, which helped to calm nerves and prepare younger players for the larger stage they'd be playing on. Robison, Greenway and running back Adrian Peterson all played for the Vikings during their playoff trips in 2009 and 2012. Nose tackle Linval Joseph and wide receiver Mike Wallace have Super Bowl experiences with the Giants and the Steelers, respectively.
"You need that youth at times to give you that enthusiasm and those young legs that can run all day, but then you need those older guys, the experienced guys, that understand how tough an NFL season is, the value of winning, how you react to winning and how you react to losing," Patterson said. "I think you need that mix in order for your team to grow."