Johnson prepares for free-agent reality

Charlie Johnson would like to return to the Vikings next season, but as an eight-year veteran on a team with a losing record, he knows the business side of football. He isn't ruling out a return, but the close losses of 2013 create a lot of "what if" scenarios.

It seemed clear on the morning of Dec. 30 that change was coming to the Minnesota Vikings. Significant change.

That process started with the firing of head coach Leslie Frazier. There will be a new coaching vision coming to the Vikings and, along with it, players that will be viewed as the best fit for a new system. The Vikings haven't gone outside the organization to hire coaches very often in the modern era of the game.

When Denny Green took over from the Jerry Burns regime, one of the first thing he did was clean out the veteran core of players he thought might be resistant to the kind of changes he was planning to implement. When Brad Childress replaced Mike Tice in 2006, he changed the culture by getting rid of just about every player linked to the Love Boat scandal, including franchise QB Daunte Culpepper, because he viewed defiance to his plans as a form of insubordination.

It should come as no surprise that whomever the Vikings bring in as they assemble their coaching staff, there will be significant changes being made. The new coach will bring in players that are "his guys," whether players he crossed paths with before or those he has watched and wondered how they would perform in his scheme. There is a growing sentiment that players like Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and maybe even Christian Ponder could all be gone in 2014, but it runs much deeper than that.

One of those players is left guard Charlie Johnson. An eight-year veteran, Johnson was signed hurriedly after the 2011 lockout when Bryant McKinnie showed up at training camp woefully out of shape (some said he tipped at scale at close to 400 pounds) and was made an example of by being released immediately. Johnson was a fill-in at left tackle for a year before the drafting of Matt Kalil, which moved Johnson inside where he spent the last two seasons.

As Johnson cleaned out his locker on the day of Frazier's firing, he kept taking a look around the room, almost taking a mental picture, because, as a free agent, he may never return to Winter Park. If it is last ride with the Vikings, it didn't end the way Johnson hoped it would. Coming off an improbable playoff run in 2012, the Vikings fell flat and the result was the firing of Frazier and, most likely, the majority of the coaching staff.

"The hard part for us is that we tried to do everything he asked us to and he had us prepared to go out and win games," Johnson said. "We played hard. With the exception of a couple of incidents, we stayed pretty clean as a team. We let Coach know how we felt about him. That was a tough time."

Johnson's career has been marked by playing for high-character, low-key coaches – Tony Dungy and Frazier. When he looks at a head coach, whether it's with the Vikings or another team, there are traits as a player that Johnson is looking for and thinks most of his teammates would share a similar sentiment. Whether a high-strung emotional "rah-rah" type, a taskmaster or a "players' coach," he sees certain qualities that are needed to be successful.

"I just want a coach that can lead a team," Johnson said. "Someone who has a plan in place and he knows how to convey that plan and get the team to follow him. That's all you can ask for. You want someone who is confident with that plan and believes it is the way to go. You also need a coach that is willing to listen to his team also – not too staunch in his beliefs that you can adapt or adjust a little bit, take that feedback and use it."

Asked if he expects to see a schematic change, Johnson was realistic. Part of the transformation of the Vikings may well include him, so wherever he plays in 2014, it will be a different vibe in the locker room. As for the direction he expects the Vikings to go, the only thing he's certain about is that the offense is going to run through Adrian Peterson.

"I have no idea," Johnson said. "It's going to be different for me regardless, because I don't know if I'm even going to be here. I can't really comment on what I think is going to happen here. I think it's going to predominantly feature Adrian. I don't see that changing."

The changes that are coming for the Vikings are ones that were brought on by a failure on both sides of the ball to finish off games they should have won. The Vikings lost or tied five games in which they had a lead in the fourth quarter with a chance to put the dagger in an opponent, but failed to do so. Had the Vikings finished off the majority of those games, they would have been the NFC North champion and Frazier likely would have got a contract extension instead of a pink slip.

That didn't happen and change is coming, quite possibly in a big way to the Vikings coaching staff and roster of players.

Johnson said he would like to come back because the Vikings built a lot more consistency along the offensive line as the 2013 season unfolded. The team had the best record in the division the second half of the season and he would like to continue building on that momentum with an offensive line that is expected to return largely intact next season despite all the changes. Kalil, John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt aren't going anywhere and Brandon Fusco is under contract for next season. The only potential casualty from the 2013 starters on the 2014 roster could be Johnson.

His hopes are to return to Winter Park so his exodus last week from the facility won't be the last time he spends time there. But, as an eight-year veteran who spent the 2011 lockout in limbo, he is fully aware of the business side of the sport and will have to wait and see what the new Vikings coaching staff has in mind before he will know where his NFL future takes him.

"It's hard because you build relationships with your teammates and coaches," Johnson said. "Ultimately, the business part of it is that a lot of that stuff is out of your hands. The only thing you can control is what you do on the field on Sundays. Outside of that, you can't control anything. I've been in the league long enough to understand that side of the business. You see players and coaches let go all the time. You learn to live with it. I would love to come back, but that decision is something out of my control."

FRIDAY NOTES

  • The Vikings have released their 2014 seating chart for season tickets at TCF Bank Stadium. Tickets will range in price from $35 to $139 per game. A full seating chart is available at the Vikings website.

  • Percy Harvin reported himself ready to play Thursday. Since he was traded to Seattle by the Vikings last spring, Harvin has played in just one game – his first meeting against his former Vikings teammates. Harvin touched the ball just twice in that game, but both were crucial – a 17-yard diving reception on a third-down play that led to a touchdown drive and a 58-yard kickoff return that led to another score.


    John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
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