Frazier knows off-field issues won't disappear
Jerome Felton is hardly a household name around Minnesota. Hardcore Minnesota Vikings fans know the name, but most didn't know what his role was expected to be in the upcoming season.
Suddenly, over the weekend, Felton became the subject of stories with any outlet that carried regular Vikings news. He was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol. On Monday, it was learned that arrest came at a McDonald's drive-thru in Eden Prairie, adding to the bizarre twists and turns of a franchise that has been dogged with odd stories of legal trouble over the last decade.
There was Onterrio Smith – the self-proclaimed "steal of the draft" as a fourth-round pick in 2003 – and The Original Whizzinator incident that was the beginning of the end of his NFL career. There was the so-called Love Boat scandal in fall 2005 that helped bring down a head coach, Mike Tice, who was perceived to have lost control of the team.
As new owners of the Vikings, Zygi and Mark Wilf, reacted to the Love Boat by firing Tice less than three months after the raunchy bye-week party embarrassed the franchise. A new code of conduct was instituted, and Brad Childress was hired to be the Major Brad disciplinarian. That was January 2006, and it didn't take long for players to be exposed to rigid new way at Winter Park. It was Childress' way or the highway, but by the middle of the 2010 season it was Childress being shown the highway after a final power play to release receiver Randy Moss without the previous consent of management or ownership. A lackluster 3-7 record at the time didn't help matters.
The Vikings have seen their share of embarrassing incidents over the years, but the last 10 months have been troubling with three arrests for alleged driving under the influence of alcohol. The team's reaction to those arrests, and other legal incidents of late, shows that not all cases are judged the same in the halls of Winter Park. Some would argue the severity of discipline from the team is in correlation with the on-field contributions of the player.
Last August, quarterback Rhett Bomar was arrested for DWI during a one-day respite in training camp.
"It's not something that we're pleased about," coach Leslie Frazier said a day after Bomar's arrest. "We feel like we'll be able to handle it internally and get some things done in regards to him. But he's a guy that, like so many, has to hopefully learn from a mistake and move forward. He addressed our team and talked to them about the direction he'd like to be able to go and apologized for any negativity it brought on the team and the organization."
Three weeks later, the fourth-string quarterback – who wasn't likely to make the team anyway with Donovan McNabb, Christian Ponder and Joe Webb ahead of him – was among 10 players released as the team began the process of whittling the roster down in accordance with NFL rules.
Safety Tyrell Johnson, who had 27 starts in four seasons with the Vikings, was arrested for DWI in September. While Bomar apologized to his teammates privately the previous month, Johnson gave an impassioned apology – twice – in front of the media.
"I'm very blessed and fortunate that no one got hurt because of my mistake and selfishness," he said.
Johnson remained with the team and made three starts after that while filling in for injured players before his own season ended after 11 games with a hamstring injury.
As for his roster spot, there were similarities between Bomar and Johnson. Bomar wasn't likely to remain with the team heading into last season, DUI or not, and Johnson wasn't likely to be re-signed after the expiration of his contract in January, DUI or not. Johnson, the former second-round draft pick, contributed more to the franchise than Bomar, but injuries and ineffectiveness added up after four years of somewhat unfulfilled potential and the Vikings allowed him to sign with the Miami Dolphins in March.
The issues since the start of 2011 go beyond the scope of DUIs.
Defensive lineman Everson Griffen was arrested twice during the 2011 offseason, for public intoxication and felony battery of a police officer, but the team decided to stick with the former fourth-round draft choice after Frazier talked with him and was convinced Griffen would mature. He remains a contributor to the Vikings' defense and was working with the first-team defense the last two weeks in Jared Allen's absence at voluntary offseason practices.
Cornerback Chris Cook was arrested for brandishing a firearm in March 2011 after an accusation brought on by a hometown neighbor in West Virginia following an argument with Cook. It was a charge that was later dismissed. But Cook was arrested again in October for felony domestic battery after a fight with his girlfriend at the time. The second offense even caused some second-guessing among Cook's teammates, some of whom disagreed with the Vikings' decision to pay him while he was asked to stay away from the team. (He did have a one-week suspension without pay.)
After being found not guilty of the assault charges, Cook returned to the team for workouts in March and is now expected to start at right cornerback.
The same can't be said for former running back Caleb King, who spent the first 15 weeks of the 2011 season on the practice squad and was promoted to the active roster for the final game when starter Adrian Peterson was out with a knee injury. After King was arrested for assault outside of a Twin Cities-area party in April, he was released only days later.
So what will be the fate of Felton?
The team issued a statement saying it was aware of his arrest over the weekend, and once again Frazier was left to express his disappointment.
"I was extremely disappointed," the coach said Wednesday. "We talked about some things when we got together for our first (organized team activity last week) and our meetings on how we wanted to conduct ourselves and then when a new guy comes to the club and he's a veteran guy and something happens like it did over the weekend, it's very disappointing and it's something that we'll have to deal with and have to address. But you don't want that to drown out all of the good things that some of our players are doing and what they do in the community. Extremely disappointed with what happened."
But if history over the 18 months is our guide, Felton will continue to be part of the roster and have a chance to earn the starting job at fullback. He, too, apologized in an interview Wednesday, but when it came to activities on the field, he was working with the first-team offense.
King was the only player given the quick hook after his indiscretion. He might not have made the team this year anyway. Cook, another player who had assault charges wagered against him (again, he was found not guilty), is expected to be a starter.
On the DUI front, Bomar was released before ever collecting a 2011 paycheck, but Johnson was allowed to finish out the 2011 season in a depleted defensive backfield.
The team has a car service players can call if they are too impaired to drive. Johnson said last year he regretted not making the call to use it or getting a hotel room.
"Just for advice to everybody else, whoever gets in that situation, it's not worth it," Johnson said. "You've got to make that call if you can't drive home. Even if you think you're good, you're not good."
It's advice like that and Frazier's talk to the team just days before Felton's arrest that the fullback likely wishes he had heeded.
Still, Frazier wasn't about to promise it wouldn't happen again.
"What we're doing, you're always trying to look at the people you sign and you draft. That's probably the number one thing you take a look at. We'll always try to see what we're doing and how we're doing and what can we do to make us better both on and off the football field," he said. "I also know that when you're dealing with young men at this age, there is a possibility of this happening and it wouldn't surprise me – I hope it doesn't happen – but there may be some other incidents around the league or on our team. You hope that it doesn't happen, but you always have to be aware that that's a possibility that it could happen."
If it does happen again, history indicates the consequences will likely depend on the value of the player to the team.
For more coverage, visit vikingupdate.com.