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Moving On Without Moss

From Associated Press

The Vikings undoubtedly will miss Randy Moss, perhaps the game’s most dangerous deep threat. He kept the mood in the locker room loose, made things interesting and was a mentor to his fellow receivers.

But his antics became more trouble than they were worth. Moss skipped a few unimportant seconds at the end of the regular-season finale and skulked off the field, following yet another of Minnesota’s frustrating finishes.

The Vikings will be more boring without Moss -- but they also could be better off.

“Randy, he’s a rock star,” said center Matt Birk. “His ability on the field, what he does off the field, he gets a lot of attention. It’s just kind of nice. It’s a more veteran team, and guys are coming in with more of a mentality that this is work. This is serious. You come in and you work hard, you pay your dues and you get the season started.

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“I’m not going to say it’s better or worse without Randy. It’s just different.”

Indeed it is, though many of the changes made in Minnesota had nothing to do with the trade that sent Moss to Oakland for linebacker Napoleon Harris and two of the Raiders’ draft picks -- including the No. 7 overall choice used to select speedy South Carolina receiver Troy Williamson.

After annual tweaks did little for a defense that has lagged near the bottom of the league for several years, the Vikings brought in five new starters via free agency or trades -- and used their other first-round selection on Wisconsin defensive end Erasmus James.

Quarterback Daunte Culpepper -- at 28, he’s coming off his best season -- thrives on spreading the ball around and still has plenty of capable receivers, even if none matches the game-changing ability of Moss. The return of tight end Jim Kleinsasser and right tackle Mike Rosenthal from season-ending injuries also should give the running game a boost.

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“I just feel like I’m a big piece of the puzzle,” said Nate Burleson, who becomes the lead receiver after accounting for 1,000 yards last year. “We have so many guys that do so many things, so many weapons, that I’m just here to do my part.”

That’s the type of attitude the team seems to be assuming this summer, partly because of the loss of Moss but more in reaction to consecutive late-season fades -- losing seven of their last 10 -- that cost the Vikings division titles each time.

They finished 8-8 last year, sneaking into the playoffs with a wild-card berth and beating NFC North rival Green Bay on the Packers’ home field before bowing out to the NFC champion Eagles in Philadelphia.

“That’s not what we want to do,” Culpepper said. “We want to get hot in December.”

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Culpepper and Birk were among those most upset when Moss ended his regular season early. They’re the core of a reliable group of leaders that includes Burleson, All-Pro defensive tackle Kevin Williams, new linebacker Sam Cowart and cornerback Antoine Winfield.

What’s emerging, so far, is a more mature team focused on eliminating the complacency and significantly reducing the mental mistakes that have hampered Minnesota since Mike Tice took over as coach in 2002. A new ownership group, headed by New Jersey real estate developer Zygi Wilf, has pumped some energy into the organization, too.

“This is serious stuff,” Birk said. “You get tired of losing and tired of not meeting your goals.”

It remains to be seen just how much the Vikings will miss Moss when they’re moving the ball, but Culpepper is good enough to keep the offense functional. That leaves a large share of the responsibility with a revamped defense -- one that will have at least five new starters.

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“They seem to be playing faster, and I think in a large part that has to do with the familiarity of the system,” Tice said. “I like where we’re at. We’re nowhere close. I don’t know that in any aspect of our football team we are close to where we need to be to beat anybody, but we’re getting better.”

Cowart, who came in a trade with the New York Jets, looks comfortable at his natural position, middle linebacker, where he gives the Vikings a veteran who can make the calls and line everyone up in the right place. As simple as it sounds, that was a big problem last season.

Williams will play next to new nose tackle Pat Williams, a space-eating run stopper who came as a free agent from the Buffalo Bills, on a defensive line that’s one of the deepest in years. Another addition, Fred Smoot, joins Winfield to give Minnesota one of the league’s best cornerback tandems.

“I definitely think we have the tools to get there,” Harris said. “But it’s just talk. We still have to get there on the field and prove.”

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