EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Just before getting on a conference call with members of the Minnesota media Wednesday, Jacksonville Jaguars first-year head coach Mike Mularkey was reminded of his times with the Vikings when good friend and Minnesota offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave sent Mularkey a picture of him in his Vikings’ playing days.
It wasn’t the first time Mularkey has recalled those days in Minnesota, and it wasn’t the last time he was reminded of them Wednesday. Mularkey sees reminders often of his playing days, when he was a tight end for the Vikings in the mid-1980s.
Some of those memories aren’t the fondest.
Mularkey told the Florida Times-Union this week about some of the tougher times he had in Minnesota, being part of a locker room that didn’t always embrace a team concept. He reiterated those comments on Wednesday’s conference call.
“We were very talented, and some of the things that went on behind the scenes, it was frustrating in that locker room at times for some players to watch situations take place,” said Mularkey, who played for Minnesota from 1983-88. “I’m not going to point out the situations or the players or what they were, but we should have won more games than we did. I think a lot of things that played into it took place in the locker room.”
In particular, Mularkey was troubled by two teams that fell short in the playoffs. In 1987, Minnesota lost to the Washington Redskins in the NFC Championship game. In 1988, an 11-5 Vikings squad fell to the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs.
“It wasn’t that they weren’t good people,” Mularkey told the Florida Times-Union. “It was distractions. More of those guys were concerned about themselves than they were about the team. Great players, though. Absolutely great players. They had 13 Pro Bowlers (actually six in 1987 and nine in 1988). It was a frustrating locker room because those guys that weren’t the most talented (were) the guys that worked their tail off. I was around a lot of talent. We should have won a lot more games than we did.”
Mularkey was a backup on those Vikings’ teams, often playing a smaller role or contributing as a blocker or special teams player. He finished with 42 catches in 75 games over six years in Minnesota. On teams filled with stars, Mularkey was in the position of having to fight for a roster spot. While he and others were hanging on, he saw selfishness around him.
“Somewhat, yeah,” Mularkey said Wednesday. “Somewhat the selfishness. Again it’s hard to explain it without giving you exact examples, but I know I wasn’t the only one affected. I know the guys that were in the locker room that sat there and sweat out making the team every year, which were a bunch of us in that locker room. It was frustrating at times to watch things happen as they did. And that’s just an example. I’ve seen it. I’ve been in the league for 28 years and I’ve seen it. That was just the start, and it’s pretty consistent for me as a player and coach to watch different locker rooms how the results happen.”
In 1989, Mularkey joined the Pittsburgh Steelers and witnessed a different attitude. He’s seen it both ways in his years as a player and coach and is now getting his second chance as a head coach in Jacksonville. Mularkey has a young team without a lot of expectations and is the sideline boss of an organization that just took a stand against disgruntled running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
Jones-Drew was upset about his contract, which has two years and $9.4 million remaining, and became the highest-profile, messiest holdout of the offseason. Jaguars owner Shahid Kahn and the team’s front office wasn’t going to relent and restructure Jones-Drew’s deal with two years left. Jones-Drew led the NFL in rushing last season with 1,606 yards but is behind such running backs as Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, LeSean McCoy, Arian Foster, Steven Jackson, DeAngelo Williams and Marshawn Lynch in yearly salary.
Jacksonville, with Mularkey as coach, stood strong and Jones-Drew returned Sunday without a new deal in place.
Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier knows it’s one of the coach’s roles to keep selfishness out of the locker room, no doubt something Mularkey is keeping in mind these days.
“It could undermine everything you’re trying to do, especially if it’s one of your key guys, one of your leaders,” Frazier said. “You have to be mindful of that and in the role that I’m in, you need your key guys, your star players, to understand the team concept and hopefully think about the team in certain situations before themselves.”
Mularkey does have some fond memories of Minnesota, though, such as his first week with the team and the interaction with then coach Bud Grant.
“A lot of good memories up there,” Mularkey said. “I still run into teammates. Really a lot of times now with some of the guys I’ve played with, their sons being in the league like Steve Jordan, his son is in the league. I run into a lot of guys, (Vikings’ director of college scouting Scott) Studwell, A lot of good friends still up there.”