The Vikings will make offensive line coach Rick Dennison a senior offensive adviser to start the 2021 season, keeping the unvaccinated coach on the staff in a role that complies with the NFL's current COVID-19 protocols.
Dennison, the 63-year-old veteran NFL assistant coach, needed take on a different role with the Vikings this season if he remains unvaccinated against COVID-19. NFL rules mandate that anyone with direct contact to players — executives, coaches, equipment managers — must be inoculated. Coaches who are not vaccinated can only meet with players virtually, and can't do any on-field coaching.
"Part of it is, Rick is a football coach and he's got 40 years of experience doing what he's doing," coach Mike Zimmer said Tuesday. "I felt like it was important that we use him as a resource, but we also give him the opportunity to continue to work. He has so much knowledge and so much experience that I felt like he could be a big help with Rick [Spielman] and Klint [Kubiak] and myself and we can go from there."
The Vikings announced that assistant offensive line coach Phil Rauscher, who is in his second season with the team, will be the new offensive line coach. The team also added Ben Steele as assistant O-line coach. Steele, who as a player attended Vikings camp in 2003 and 2004, coached tight ends with the Falcons in 2020, and left a job he had accepted at Auburn for his new role with the Vikings.
Zimmer said Rauscher will be in charge of the Vikings offensive line room, while Dennison analyzes Vikings practice film, meets with coaches and players virtually and contributes to game-planning.
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Despite an ESPN report last week that Dennison was no longer on staff because of COVID-19 protocols, the possibility of Dennison leaving did not come up in the team's negotiations over his role, a source said.
The arrangement, Zimmer said, was "the best win-win situation for our football team and also with Rick," at the end of a three-month process where the Vikings sought a role for Dennison despite the fact he did not have a medical or religious exemption that would allow him to coach on the field without receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
Dennison's agent, Peter Schaffer, said via text message last week: "Rick is 100% committed to and invested in being the best football coach he can be for the Vikings with the singular focus of winning the Super Bowl this year."
General Manager Rick Spielman worked with Schaffer on the arrangement for Dennison, and the Vikings announced it just as Spielman began his introductory training camp news conference Tuesday. "I told [Spielman], 'I'm glad that you're patient, because I'm probably not as patient as you are,'" Zimmer said. "But with him and Peter Schaffer and Rick Dennison, we were all able to come to an agreement, and as you said, cooler heads prevailed."
Dennison has been the team's line coach and run game coordinator for the past two seasons, joining before the 2019 season with former assistant head coach Gary Kubiak. Well-versed in the Vikings' offensive philosophies, Dennison was expected to help first-year coordinator Klint Kubiak transition to the top job on offense. Dennison and Gary Kubiak played together with the Broncos from 1982 to 1990 and continued the partnership as coaches in Denver, Houston and Minnesota.
Rauscher had worked with Dennison and Gary Kubiak during their final two seasons together in Denver, joining the Vikings as an assistant offensive line coach in 2019 as part of a group of former Broncos coach who came to Minnesota to work with offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. Zimmer said Rauscher had "very many opportunities to leave here, and we've talked him out of it because I figured someday Rick [Dennison] might decide to retire and Phil would be ready to go."
Rauscher won't pick up the run game coordinator portion of Dennison's title, Zimmer said, adding the Vikings will handle those duties collectively.
When asked if the job changes are permanent, or only in place while the NFL's protocols limit on-field coaching jobs to vaccinated individuals, Zimmer said: "So many things change throughout the course of the season with protocols and the NFL might change things and maybe he decides to get vaccinated, who knows? We will address all those issues when the time comes."
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It is the second time in four years the Vikings have switched offensive line coaches on the eve of training camp, though this year's shift comes under markedly different circumstances than what the team faced after the death of Tony Sparano in 2018. That year, the Vikings scrambled to change roles, putting then-offensive quality control coach Andrew Janocko in charge of the line with tight ends coach Clancy Barone. This time, they are counting on the fact Dennison is still in the organization, as well as Rauscher's growth and the addition of Steele, to make the transition smoother.
"Phil has been in the system for quite awhile. He's got a great feel for what we've been trying to do in the run game — the calls, the steps, the footwork, the hand placement," Zimmer said. "Phil is a very aggressive — boisterous, I guess, is the word for it — coach that will push these guys."
Neither Zimmer nor Spielman would discuss how many Vikings had been vaccinated, though the coach resumed the call he made at the end of the team's minicamp for players to be vaccinated, citing concerns about the delta variant of the coronavirus. In addition to Allen Sills, the NFL's chief medical officer, addressing the team, the Vikings have had Hall of Famers Alan Page and John Randle talk to players about getting vaccinated.
"With this delta variant the way it is now and the people that are getting infected, I think it's extremely important that everyone gets vaccinated," Zimmer said. "I just want our players to be safe. I want them to be healthy. I want their families to be healthy and safe, and if they don't get vaccinated, they've got to follow the protocols."
Asked if he thought the vaccination issue would be a source of division among players, Zimmer said: "I'm going to talk to them about it. But I don't feel it's going to be that way. Most of these guys feel like they're bulletproof anyway with their age and their athleticism and things like that.
"We are going to make sure that we treat each other with respect. As long as they are following protocols like the NFL asked them to do, then I don't have problem with it. It will be more stressful on them. They are going to have to wait out in their car for 30 minutes after they get tested. Those are things they are going to have to do. But that's their choice and that's their decision."