Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen looked primed early last season to challenge for the NFL lead in sacks.
He had 4½ sacks in his first five games last season and was among the league leaders.
But in the Oct. 25 game at Detroit, when he was credited with 1½ sacks, he injured his right shoulder. And he said this week he wasn’t the same in the final 10 regular-season games. He finished the 2015 season with 10½ sacks, seven behind league leader J.J. Watt of Houston.
“It started in Detroit,” Griffen told the Pioneer Press. “My shoulder and my neck were hurting. It just kept on getting worse and worse (the rest of the season). We were rehabbing it, but it just wasn’t getting better, because the only thing that helps you get better is rest.
“I could barely raise (my arm). I played through a lot of pain. I was hurting each and every day, but I made it through (the season). I played well, but if I had my most dominant arm to play with, I could have had more sacks. If my shoulder was healthier and it was normal, I feel like I would have beaten my sack total (of 2014).”
Griffen had 12 sacks in 2014 but didn’t make the Pro Bowl. His 2015 showing, helped by Minnesota going 11-5 and winning the NFC North, earned him his first Pro Bowl berth.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said shortly after the 10-9 playoff loss to Seattle in January that Griffen might have surgery on his shoulder before saying in February that it wasn’t necessary. Zimmer said he believed the injury was a torn labrum, but Griffen said that wasn’t the case.
“No, it wasn’t a torn labrum,” said Griffen, who wasn’t sure exactly how he got hurt. “It was just an injury to my shoulder. I’m not going to get into details with all that, but I just had a lot of symptoms going on in my shoulder that had to heal up the proper way, and the only way you heal up is with time, and I had to rehab and rest it.’’
Griffen said he got four medical opinions after the season, traveling in February to the Pensacola, Fla., area to meet with Dr. James Andrews, a renowned orthopedic surgeon.
“I went to the best of the best, and he saw me about an hour and a half, two hours,” Griffen said. “And if he said I didn’t need surgery, everything shakes out. I’ll take that man’s opinions over anybody’s.”
Griffen, who lives in Excelsior, has spent the past several months on the mend. And when Vikings players report Monday to begin spring drills, Griffen doesn’t anticipate he will have any limitations.
“My shoulder is back to 100 (percent),” he said. “I’m good to go. I’m good to be able to go lift weights.”
Griffen, 28, is excited about the upcoming season. After making the Pro Bowl, his goal is to become one of the NFL’s top defensive ends.
“Do I feel like I should have made (the Pro Bowl in 2014)? Yes,” Griffen said. “But it just gave me more motivation, and to be able to get to that point, it felt good. After being in the Pro Bowl, All-Pro, that’s my plan for this year, but it’s up to me just to help my team get better, and that’s my No. 1 concern.
“I feel like if I play my game and have a healthy season, I can make All-Pro. You just got to do it for 16 weeks when the season starts. But it doesn’t just start during the season. You have to do it in the offseason to prepare your body and your mind.”
The Vikings have had some impressive defensive ends over the years. Those who have been named first team All-Pro by the Associated Press include Carl Eller (five times) and Chris Doleman (twice), both hall of famers, and Jared Allen (three times).
Could Griffen join that group?
“I think so,” Eller said. “His future is ahead of him. It’s a great possibility. With his dedication and staying with it, I think there’s a good chance to do that. The thing I like about him is he doesn’t take time off. He’s always working, he’s always hustling, he’s always look to make a play.”
Despite his injury, Griffen played a key role in the Vikings’ finishing fifth in the NFL last season in scoring defense, their best showing since they were second in 1988. Now the offense, which was 29th in total yardage, could get better with the free-agent signings of linemen Alex Boone and Andre Smith.
Griffen really liked the Boone signing, calling him a “punisher” whose attitude should help the team. He also lauded the signing of veteran safety Michael Griffin, saying he’s a “nice addition, another good leader.”
Griffen said after the 2014 season the Vikings “definitely” would make the playoffs in 2015, and he was right. He’s not offering any predictions now but likes what he sees entering spring drills.
“We can be good, but it’s up to us to put in the work,” Griffen said. “We have all the tools, but we have to come in with the mindset of working and getting better each day. If we’re all on the same page, then we can have an excellent team.”