Character matters.....until it doesn't
With a victory over the Chicago Bears this past Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings now have as many wins this season as they do player arrests - three.
Within the month of November, WR Jerome Simpson (DWI), CB A.J. Jefferson (domestic assault) and LB Erin Henderson (drunk driving; possession of a controlled substance) have all endured off-field legal troubles.
When Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier had the "interim" label removed from his title prior to the 2011 season, he was perceived as a no-nonsense guy who could create a culture where such incidents weren't as common. Of course, many Vikings fans recall Brad Childress demanding a "culture of accountability" when he was hired as head coach prior to the 2006 season. At that point, the franchise was less than one year removed from the "love boat" debacle, an incident which involved lewd and crude behavior by at least 10-15 players (four were eventually charged with misdemeanors). As such, Childress came in with the aura of a there being a "new sheriff in town", similar to the pledge made in 1992 by Dennis Green. Alas, off-field incidents were not completely curbed during Childress's 4-1/2 year tenure.
In addition to assessing a player based on his football acuity, NFL franchises will also perform thorough background checks prior to drafting players. Such a vetting process would most certainly reveal any brushes with the law. Not so coincidentally, the level of indiscretions tolerated would seem to be in direct proportion to how much an organization values a player's on-field potential (see: Moss, Randy).
When defensive back Chris Cook was drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft, the Vikings believed they got a steal. He was a unique combination of height (6'2"), strength and quickness. Unfortunately, much of his rookie season was lost to injury. Then during his second season, Cook was charged with domestic violence and was suspended by the team (without pay) for the remainder of the year. The sentiment that came from the Vikings front office was they were willing to let the legal process play out before making a final decision on Cook's status beyond 2011. Once Cook was found not guilty, he was welcomed back for the 2012 season. Now, compare that to the plight of Jefferson. He was released by the Vikings literally hours after being charged with domestic assault.
Why was it that Jefferson didn't receive the same courtesy as Cook, in that he would be allowed to remain a member of the Vikings while going through the legal process? Well.....one could say that Jefferson was not a productive player and that this was a convenient excuse to let him go, whereas the Vikings still had high hopes two years ago that Cook would eventually fulfill the his potential as a top flight DB. You'll also notice that there hasn't been any substantial discipline levied against Simpson, who is in the midst of one of his most productive seasons of his career.
I understand that franchises strive to bring in players who will not only perform well on the field but also be pillars of the community. But in the end the NFL is a lucrative business, and the only way revenue is maximized is through a team being successful between the lines. As much as organizations like to set an expectation of players being good ambassadors for the team and its city, the fact is they're willing to overlook (or even tolerate) certain behaviors if a player adds tremendous value to on-field success.