Cottrell excited about Vikings' new-look defense

Ted Cottrell has been through this before, having presided over the refurbishing of the New York Jets' defense in 2002, when the unit opened that season with six new starters.

Three years later, and entering his second season as the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator, it's déjà vu all over again for Cottrell.

Statistically rated as the fifth-worst defense in 2004, having surrendered the seventh-most points in the league, the Vikings undertook an aggressive offseason overhaul which has provided the team at least five new starters for 2005. Maybe six if defensive end Erasmus James, the latter of the Vikings' two choices in the first round, progresses rapidly.

Little wonder then, that Cottrell is a little like the youngster who rumbles down the stairs on Christmas morning, and discovers the bounty under the tree far exceeds even his most ambitious wish list. The difference between this season and 2002, however, is Cottrell, having experienced this kind of windfall in the past, now understands there is some assembly required before all his nifty new toys will function properly together.

He knows that for Tab A to slide tightly into Slot B, for the rubber washer to fit over the lock nut, everyone has to interpret the directions the same way. Just as important, all of Cottrell's new starters realize, too, that you can't just force the puzzle pieces together.

If the second extreme makeover of Cottrell's long career is to provide more expeditious benefits than the first one, the end results have to be facilitated by a smooth beginning.

"Oh, yeah, we've already discussed things like making sure the [starting] unit gets more snaps together in training camp, that they get an extended chance to feel each other out," said Cottrell, now in his third decade as an NFL assistant. "These are all veteran players, guys who have been around, and they know how important it's going to be for us to all be on the same page from the outset.

"We thought we had that in New York and then the season started and everybody was standing around, looking at each other like, 'OK, what are we supposed to be doing?' It was a lot of different players from different places, new terminology thrown at them, and it didn't [mesh] at the beginning. I'm not going to let that happen again. For me, that '02 season was a lesson learned, believe me. We will go into this season, believe me, with everybody already in their comfort zone. We need to start fast, to really come out of the blocks playing well, you know?"

One reason Cottrell has emphasized the need for a successful start, and why he likely will incorporate that as the training camp mantra, is because getting out of the chute cleanly is precisely what the Jets did not accomplish in 2002. When the gate flew open, it was as if the defense was running in quicksand.

In the first five games, the Jets surrendered an average of 32.4 points, and every opponent registered 28 or more points, three of them scoring 30-plus. Not surprisingly, the Jets lost four of those five outings and the defense at that point was 31st in the league, dead last against the run.

And then, for whatever reason, the battered defense suddenly was transformed into a better defense. A 20-7 victory on Oct. 20, coincidentally against the Vikings, signaled the start of an 8-3 stretch in which the defense allowed a microscopic 15.8 points per contest.

With no major personnel changes, and nary a page altered in the playbook, the same unit that couldn't hold anyone under 28 points in the first five games limited eight opponents to 17 points or less. Just two teams scored more than 20 points, and over those 11 games, the Jets surrendered the second-fewest points in the NFL and were rated the third-best defense against the run. In a first-round playoff victory, the Jets' defense pitched a shutout against Peyton Manning, limiting the Colts to a paltry 176 yards.

"People said stuff like, 'Wow, it was like you guys just flipped the switch and everything turned around for you,' but it's not like that," said Sam Cowart, the middle linebacker on the 2002 Jets' defense who is projected to start for the Vikings this year. "It doesn't just, you know, happen. It has to build. You have to build confidence in each other. The trust factor has to be there. That's what we're aiming to have here, and with so many smart, veteran guys, there's no reason it shouldn't happen."

Having the brainy Cowart on hand, Cottrell noted, is a big plus. The seven-year veteran, acquired in what was essentially a fire-sale trade after losing his starting job in New York to 2004 first-round pick Jonathan Vilma, is a huge advantage. In the first minicamp of the offseason, Cowart, already familiar with the Cottrell scheme, was like a coach on the field.

"He absolutely took control," Cottrell said. "It was like he was making the [right] calls even before I made them. Sam never missed a beat."

But the four other new starters – tackle Pat Williams, linebacker Napoleon Harris, free safety Darren Sharper and cornerback Fred Smoot – all are veterans with lofty football IQs as well. Being smarter, it would seem, should help make the Vikings better overall. For this staff to be retained in 2006, for Mike Tice and his lieutenants to have a chance to keep their jobs under new ownership, Minnesota has to be better.

And for the Vikings to be better – some pundits, citing the team's productive offseason, already have installed Minnesota as the favorite in the NFC North – the defense has to make a quantum leap, Cottrell acknowledged.

Certainly, with the cornerback tandem of Smoot and Antoine Winfield, the Vikings' big-money free-agent acquisition in 2004, Cottrell will enjoy all kinds of flexibility. Being able to lock up two shut-down corners against wide receivers means Minnesota should be able to blitz more. Then again, with the up-front depth provided by the additions of James and Williams, and the continued growth of young veterans such as Kevin Williams (who after only two seasons is already one of the league's top tackles) and Darrion Scott, the Vikings should generate a solid pass rush.

Harris and Cowart will lend much-needed quickness to the long-maligned linebacker corps. Sharper, coming off a 2004 season in Green Bay in which his performance slipped because of a lingering knee injury, feels he has plenty to prove. This could be a unit in which no starter has been with the Vikings since before the 2002 season.

Even without big-play wide receiver Randy Moss, the Minnesota offense still has enough weaponry in its arsenal to rank among the NFL's most potent units. Tice has vowed to get back to the power running game that was such a tremendous complement in 2003, but which was abandoned too easily last season, and by nature that should aid the defense.

"But I'm not trying to fool anybody," Cottrell said, "least of all myself. We have to pull our weight. Having all these new players, hey, you can hardly wipe the smile off my face. But [there] comes a point when all the talking and smiling don't mean anything at all, and you have to go out and do it."

Which, at least over the recent history of the Vikings, has been a problem.

Not since 1993, when the Minnesota defense was statistically the NFL's top-ranked unit, has it rated higher than the Vikings' offense. Minnesota was No. 5 defensively in '94, but then coordinator Tony Dungy departed to become the head coach at Tampa Bay, and the Vikings never recovered.

In the 10 seasons since Dungy's departure, the Minnesota defense, on average, has ranked 24th in the league. Eight times in that stretch, the Vikings have been No. 20 or lower, and just once, Minnesota was in the top half of the NFL defensive rankings. In each of the last six seasons, the Vikings were 23rd or lower. Cottrell and his charges are adamant about ending that streak of futility.

"You know, it's called 'history' for a reason," Sharper said. "It's all in the past. There is no reason we won't make things better for us, for this team, and for Ted."

The final component of that trifecta, Cottrell already has gained the respect of his players, who have pledged to help him get another shot at a head-coaching position. After the '02 season, Cottrell interviewed for the San Francisco vacancy, impressed 49ers ownership and finished as a close runner-up to Dennis Erickson for the job.

At age 57, Cottrell is on the cusp of that point where league owners begin to wonder if a candidate is too old to take on his first head-coaching position. But Romeo Crennel is only five days younger than Cottrell, and the Cleveland Browns didn't think twice about hiring him three months ago. Cottrell isn't bashful in conceding that there might well be a personal element to the collective accomplishments of the Vikings' defense in 2005.

"The players here, they know it, too," Cottrell said. "They say things like, 'Coach, we're going to help you get that head-coaching job.' It's no secret what my aspirations are. I don't try to hide that stuff. But we've got to play well for some owner to look at me as a [viable] candidate. And to play well, we've got to play together, right from the start."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.