When the Minnesota Vikings reported to training camp Tuesday there was a sense of normalcy. But when the Vikings hold their first practice on Wednesday there will be an underlying issue running through the National Football League.
With COVID-19's Delta tightening its grip on the country, player vaccinations have become a key issue. The NFL reported Tuesday that 85 percent of players have received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine while 14 of the 32 teams have reached the 90 percent threshold to be considered fully vaccinated.
Both head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman declined to provide the Vikings' vaccination rate but did state their desire for players to be vaccinated.
“With this Delta variant the way it is right now and the people getting infected, I think it’s extremely important that everyone gets vaccinated," Zimmer told reporters. "I just want our players to be safe. I want them to be healthy. I want their families to be healthy and safe and if they don’t get vaccinated, they got to follow the protocols.”
Zimmer's statement echoed his remarks in June when he said that unvaccinated players would "have a harder time this season." Zimmer also referenced the NFL's guidelines for unvaccinated players, who will have more restrictions on the road and daily COVID testing.
That has made Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson an advocate for the vaccine, imploring players to get the shot.
"Why not put yourself in the best position possible to win a championship?“ Peterson said. "If you’re not vaccinated you’re just living in a different world. Why put yourself at risk of going through that again?”
In response, the Vikings have done their best to persuade their players. Zimmer has had multiple discussions with the team and the Vikings have hosted presentations from NFL Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills and former players Justice Allan Page and John Randle to educate players about the vaccine.
Still, it remains unclear if several key players have been vaccinated, including safety Harrison Smith, wide receiver Adam Thielen and quarterback Kirk Cousins. Cousins declined to say if he has been vaccinated but reported to training camp wearing a face mask.
The issue reached the Vikings' coaching staff on Monday as Rick Dennison was re-assigned from offensive line coach to senior offensive consultant after declining to get the vaccine.
While the Vikings announced the promotion of Phil Rauscher to replace Dennison on Tuesday, Alexander Mattison was one of the players supporting Dennison's stance.
The division between vaccinated and unvaccinated players could be something that plays out through camp and into the regular season. The NFL announced last week that canceled games would not only result in a forfeit for the team that caused the outbreak but neither team would get paid if the game was unable to be made up.
That could create a situation where a home playoff game turns into a road playoff game and players in the locker room would be upset about missing a paycheck.
"Most of these guys feel like they’re bulletproof anyway with their age and their athleticism and things like that," Zimmer said Tuesday. "We’re going to make sure we treat each other with respect and understand that guys make decisions because of whatever reasons that they have. As long as they’re following protocols…then I have no problem with it."
But that opinion could change with Zimmer on the hot seat. If an unvaccinated player were to cause an outbreak, it could leave the Vikings without a key player or earning a loss for a game they aren't able to play.
That could make Zimmer's seat hotter as the season progresses. In the end, the Vikings' play on the field will be the determining factor in how their season will go but the vaccinations (or lack thereof) could become a critical dynamic.