MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — Leslie Frazier insists he wasn’t trying to send a message when left tackle Bryant McKinnie, a fixture on the Minnesota Vikings offensive line for the past nine years, was abruptly released two days into Frazier’s first training camp as a head coach.
Even if that wasn’t his intent, that was how the move was being received by the rest of the team.
Frazier repeatedly declined to cite the specific reasons for McKinnie’s departure, only saying that it had nothing to do with money and that the former Pro Bowler “wasn’t the right fit” for the team any longer.
“In Bryant’s case, he’s been a terrific player for the Vikings. I love him as a person. We’ve had a great relationship together,” Frazier said. “But at this point, for all parties involved, I just thought it was the right thing to do, and I’m sure he’s going to catch on with a team and he’s going to do well.
“He’s a terrific player right now, but for where we are right now and where we’re trying to go to, it just wasn’t the right fit for the direction that we want to go.”
Actually, McKinnie’s level of play dropped noticeably in the second half of last season. Then, after a summer-long lockout prevented Vikings coaches from working with him in the offseason, McKinnie showed for training camp woefully out of shape and significantly overweight.
“With so much time off, guys do different things. Some guys relax, some guys travel. Some guys like to party,” cornerback Antoine Winfield said. “But you have to be disciplined. All you have to do is go work out, stay in some kind of shape, and perform.”
Frazier side-stepped questions about McKinnie’s conditioning and extra pounds on Wednesday, but several prominent teammates made it clear that his physical condition played a role in the decision.
“We all understood, everyone as professionals, that all we had to do is come in and come in shape,” Winfield said. “Coaches really had no choice but to do what they did.”
Steve Hutchinson played alongside McKinnie for five seasons on the left side of the line. The captain of the offense called McKinnie’s situation “disappointing,” but said the team did it in part to prevent McKinnie from any serious injuries or health issues.
Now the Vikings plan to start Charlie Johnson at left tackle to protect Donovan McNabb’s blind side. Johnson just signed on Monday and said he has a lot of catching up to do. He’s had to watch the first three days of practice because his contract will not kick in until the new collective bargaining agreement goes into effect.
“They’ve kind of said come tomorrow I’m going to be thrown out in the fire a little bit,” Johnson said. “I’ve had the three days to go over the playbook and stuff. When tomorrow comes, it’s trial by fire. I’m excited. I’m looking forward to it. It’s a new experience, but something you have to be excited about.”
Several Vikings were left shaking their heads at McKinnie, who played in every game since he signed his rookie contract midway through the 2002 season. He struggled with his weight toward the end of 2010, but vowed to work hard in the offseason to get into better shape.
Then he showed up to Mankato heavier than he’s ever been, and Frazier promptly placed him on the non-football injury list before cutting him Tuesday afternoon.
“My philosophy is this is my job. This is my livelihood,” defensive end Jared Allen said. “You’ve got to assume the lockout is going to be done at some point, so it’s your job to stay in shape. Everybody can find a gym.”
In a telling sign of the organization’s frustration with McKinnie, they immediately assigned his No. 74 jersey to Johnson.
“Guys unfortunately come and go, and you’re so used to seeing No. 74 being worn by a very big man for five years,” Hutchinson said. “Now it’s a different face wearing that jersey. It’s a little awkward.”
The Vikings, who were up against the salary cap, saved $5.4 million by cutting McKinnie, but Frazier was definitive when he said finances did not play a role in the decision.
“Left tackle — you don’t just dispense of those guys for money reasons,” he said. “Those are the guys you pay money to. No, money was not an issue.”
Owner Zygi Wilf said the decision was left totally up to Frazier and vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman, and the two have the owner’s full support.
“It just wasn’t a good fit for what we’re trying to do and where we want to go,” Frazier said. “As I mentioned, I want nothing but the best for him. But for us and what we’re trying to do, the timing wasn’t right.”
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