In the midst of NFL Free Agency and looking ahead to the 2015 Draft, lots of buzz revolves around last season’s weaknesses and which position should be first addressed by the Minnesota Vikings during the offseason. Coming off the 2014-2015 season, a lot of attention is given to the offensive line. While it seems like the team has struggled to provide great quarterback protection for several seasons, that was not always the case.
Former tackle Todd Steussie remembers when the Vikings not only had a strong O-Line, but they were known for it. That’s because he was part of it. Debuting for Minnesota in 1994, Steussie played through the 2000 season alongside some of the best in the business: Randall McDaniel, Jeff Christy, Korey Stringer and David Dixon. McDaniel established himself a few years before the rest, but the line solidified in the mid-late 90s.
“We all kind of grew up together,” Steussie said. “We were basically raising the bar as a group; Randall was already up there, and that’s the target we reached for. Jeff’s playing better made me want to play better, and so on. The standard just kept rising.”
It all started in 1994 when Steussie found himself drafted at No. 19 by Minnesota. The tackle was actually surprised to hear his name called, because then-head coach Dennis Green had not given him “the call” ahead of time. He recalled the evening:
“You hear stories where the team contacts the player beforehand. I guess the background was that Denny [Green] was entertaining offers, the last one being the 49ers trying to trade up […] so he wasn’t able to call me before my name was announced. I was stunned.”
Stunned, but thrilled. Steussie packed his bags, and the California native was at Winter Park within 24 hours.
While many rookies often feel a bit star struck when they join a pro team, Steussie didn’t have the typical experience. Ironically, he said he “wasn’t that big of an NFL fan” and didn’t have an extensive knowledge of all the league’s best players.
“If I was going against a Pro Bowler, unless it was Reggie White, I probably didn’t know who he was,” Steussie said, laughing. “But I got up to speed pretty quickly.”
He did, however, feel a bit enamored with the guys in his own locker room—including teammate McDaniel, who had already been to the Pro Bowl five times. McDaniel was a seasoned guard, and it took a little while for the new rookie to be trusted. Steussie initially got assigned the right guard spot, but by the end of training camp coaches moved him to left tackle.
“There was obviously a ton of pressure not to be the guy that screws things up,” Steussie said. “Randall [McDaniel] didn’t say more than maybe three or four words to me for the first couple weeks, but I think he finally figured out that I was going to be there for more than a cup of coffee, and we started working together. I was happy to sponge off any type of knowledge that he had.”
The Vikings O-Line became a force to be reckoned with, and several of them made Pro Bowl appearances. Steussie, who played in the 1997 and 1998 Pro Bowls, said they owed a lot of their success to Mike Tice’s unique coaching method. Tice graded each line player on a 0-1-2 scale. To quantify a player’s performance that way was unique, but it worked.
“Tice put our scores on the board in the offensive line media room,” Steussie said. “I used to laugh because DBs would go in there knowing the grades were posted; they wanted to see who rated the highest.”
Almost 100 percent of the time, players who scored a 1.75 or higher made a trip to the Pro Bowl. The one exception was 1998, when Stringer scored a 1.75 and didn’t receive an invite. But, as Steussie pointed out, “the Pro Bowl isn’t really set up to have four offensive linemen from the same team.”
During Steussie’s time with the Vikings, his most memorable—and most successful—season was the one we all know so well: 1998.
Despite the heart-breaking season conclusion—we won’t re-live that here—the year held numerous triumphs for the team. The game that sticks out in Steussie’s mind was the Oct. 5 Monday Night Football matchup against Green Bay. Both teams entered undefeated, and Minnesota came away with the 37-24 win at Lambeau Field. What the former tackle remembers most vividly was after the game:
“A lot of people remember that game as Randy [Moss]’s coming-out party. It was raining—a sloppy, muddy field. Everyone’s jerseys were brown, covered in mud […] after the game, I watched Randall Cunninham being interviewed, and I noticed something. His backside was completely white. It looked like he didn’t even play […] He was not touched the entire game—he never hit the ground. The Packers had a good defense, and they were blitzing, but that was definitely a point of achievement for the offensive line.”
Steussie says many of his memories occurred off the field, as well. Whether on Lake Minnetonka in Christy’s boat, helping with Stringer’s football camp in Ohio, or playing cribbage in the locker room with Chris Walsh and Fred Zamberletti, the relationships formed during his time in Minnesota were long lasting. Although the former players all have families, busy schedules, and new homes, Steussie said they fall right back to a normal rhythm when they have the chance to connect.
“It feels like we’re just returning from an extended offseason,” he said.
So what is Steussie up to now?
The tackle retired following the 2007 season; he had bounced between teams at the end of his career, and his family decided to settle in St. Louis. Steussie went back to school at Berkeley, then moved on to receive his MBA at Northwestern University. He ended up working for PotentiaMed, a company that works on analytics around healthcare, and it was that opportunity that launched Steussie into his next adventure.
Steussie collaborated with the founder of PotentiaMed, and the pair started a new program, PotentiaMetrics. Steussie’s most recent project, PotentiaPro, works on outcomes for professional sports and offers analysis from a team’s perspective. Steussie compared the concept to that in Moneyball. What he is most excited about is the ScoutSight app that will be available on iTunes in mid-April.
“ScoutSight provides fans a unique access to information and stats previously only available to NFL insiders,” Steussie explained. “The app will allow fans to do the research and compare players very similarly to the way a scout would do analysis. Why are players ranked in certain ways on ESPN’s draft board? ScoutSight will help explain that.”
The free app will essentially offer users the chance to interact before and during the NFL Draft, accessing their team’s draft prospects and analyzing all relevant information. ScoutSight includes a similarity profile that will compare prospects to specific players currently in the NFL, and it will even offer an optimized platform surrounding Fantasy Football, so fans can access it during their own “drafts.”
Because Steussie’s current work allows him to stay close to the world of football, he is looking forward to the NFL Draft just as much as anyone.
Although he didn’t get specific about who he thinks the Vikings will take at No. 11 this year, he did assert that—in most cases—the team will probably go with the best player available, regardless of position.
“Within your own system, when you talk about the value generators by position, you end up ranking guys,” Steussie said. “Obviously, best player available—but if you don’t throw the ball much, wide receiver is not as important. If you run the ball a lot, or if you wind up having a defense optimized for speed, you plan around that.”
Another factor, he reminded, is that teams tend to overpay when wanting to trade up (“just look at the RGIII trade”). Consequently, that type of offer should be paid attention to. Steussie paused, thought a moment before offering additional insight for Minnesota:
“Selecting players is an inexact science, to say the least. If I’m trying to build the Vikings, […] I’m entertaining any trade proposals, because that’s often the best way to generate value long-term.”