Allen struggling in Chicago while replacement Griffen thriving
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — With nicknames like Cowboy, B-Rob and Ev, the mutual admiration between Jared Allen, Brian Robison and Everson Griffen is easily apparent.
For four years, the Allen (Cowboy), Robison (B-Rob, of course) and Griffen (Ev) were friends and part of perhaps the most cohesive — and loudest — position group for the Minnesota Vikings, along with Kevin Williams.
There would be target practice, throwing footballs at the numbers on their jerseys to pass time. Allen in his familiar No. 69, Robison and Griffen, who still wear the No. 96 and 97 for the Vikings, respectively, would tease, joke and share laughs.
Some of the laughter has faded. The longstanding Minnesota defensive line was broken up this offseason. Allen traded in his purple and gold for the Chicago Bears dark blue and orange. Griffen, the understudy, took over Allen’s spot at right end.
As they set to meet again, with Minnesota traveling to Chicago for the first game this season between the teams, the appreciation still flourishes.
"Maybe a little nostalgic," Allen said of facing the Vikings. "I’m excited. It’s going to be a fun game. It’s always fun when you get to play against your friends. A lot of the guys on the team are still there. I’m excited to compete against my old brethren."
Much has changed for Allen. He still keeps the all-time sack leaderboard list — in which Allen is 12th with 130 sacks, 2.5 away from 10th all-time — in his locker but his jersey and home have changed and the statistics don’t show the same Allen so well known in Minnesota.
"It’ll be different seeing him in a different uniform in person, but it’ll be interesting to watch him when we’re on the sidelines and the offense is out there," Robison said. "Hopefully he doesn’t have a big day against us, but it will definitely be good to see him after the game, for sure."
In six seasons with the Vikings, Allen accumulated 85.5 sacks to rank sixth in team history according to team records — sacks didn’t become an official NFL stat until 1982, and the franchise lists three players (Carl Eller, Jim Marshall and Alan Page) as having more than Allen, though the numbers aren’t official. Allen never finished with less than 11 sacks in a single season.
But both sides seemed resigned to Allen’s career ending when his contract was up. Minnesota decided to give Allen’s money and role to the younger Griffen, who signed a five-year, $42.5 million contract. Allen went to Chicago as a free-agent, getting a four-year, $32 million deal and holding no grudge towards the Vikings.
"I knew it was a possibility, absolutely," Allen said of playing last year with the thought it would be his last with Minnesota. "I think Rick (Spielman) and I, and Rob (Brzezinski), were always honest with each other and kind of what direction we wanted to take. I think when I didn’t get a deal done before going into my last season, I knew I was going to test free agency, give that a shot . . .
"Did I know 100 percent last year? No, but I mean, the conversations I always knew it was a possibility and the conversations always honest, so I got no ill will towards anybody."
Allen, 32, is in unfamiliar territory. His first season in Chicago after signing a four-year, $32 million contract hasn’t gone as planned. The Bears are 3-6 and have allowed more than 50 points in back-to-back games.
His streak of playing in 113 consecutive games came to a close in Week 4 when he was held out because of pneumonia. With 1.5 sacks, he’s on track for the lowest output of his 11-year NFL career. The last time he was held to single digits in a season was in 2006 with 7.5, his lowest single-season total in the third year of his career.
The pneumonia knocked Allen down to 239 pounds. He only missed one game, but still hasn’t gotten back to his usual weight. Listed at 270 pounds, Allen said he weighs about 253 pounds right now.
"I’m sure it has something to do with it," Allen said of the illness contributing to his lack of sacks. "But if I’m on the field, I expect to play at a high level. I expect to get to the quarterback. I’ve been playing probably some of the best run defense I’ve played in my career this year. But it just needs to translate to get to the quarterback, so I don’t know. I’m not going to make excuses about it. All I know is I’ve got seven games going forward to make as many plays as I can to help my team win."
Allen has watched his former teammates closely. His replacement, Griffen, is thriving and it comes as no surprise to Allen.
"Physically, Everson is one of the most gifted people I’ve ever seen," Allen said. "I told him once he got the mental side of the game down that he could be an All-Pro."
Griffen had to be patient waiting behind Allen. It wasn’t easy, but Allen always told Griffen his time would come.
"It’s not necessarily what I wanted to hear," Griffen said. "It was hard for the first three years. I just learned how to be patient and stayed humble and kept on working on my craft. I knew that whenever I got my time to go out there and do it full time, this is what I imagined that I’d be doing."
Griffen is taking over for Allen in multiple ways.
Allen challenged the all-time, single-season sack record with Minnesota. Now, it’s Griffen near the top of the sack leaderboard. Griffen is tied for fifth in the NFL with nine sacks and 10 quarterback hits. With Griffen leading the way, the Vikings are third in the league with 30 sacks.
Waiting behind Allen was difficult. Griffen replacing the man he called a mentor wasn’t easy, either.
"Of course you feel pressure," Griffen said. "I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t feel pressure, but I just went out there and just bought into the scheme and bought into what I had to get done."
The old fun Allen used to have with his former teammates might have helped Allen more than he knew. One of Allen’s many treatment options when he was with Minnesota was playing Wii tennis with teammates.
"I’m missing it," Allen joked. "That’s probably the reason why I’m at 1.5 (sacks), I don’t have Wii Tennis. You know what that does for my hip flips, you kidding me."
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