Vikings’ Riley Reiff returns to Detroit as quiet leader of resurgent offensive line, judge of kangaroo court
There’s a story behind the bell inside the Vikings offensive line room.
Don’t expect left tackle Riley Reiff, one of the three elders, to spill it. The stoic, tobacco-spitting South Dakotan isn’t a jabberjaw. So as Reiff returns Thursday to Detroit, where the Lions replaced him at left tackle after four years, he does so with many reasons to boast, but little to say.
“That’s the thing, I don’t know if he’d tell me if it was [more meaningful],” right guard Joe Berger said. “You always want to beat your old team.”
On this Thanksgiving, Reiff will stick with giving protection to quarterback Case Keenum, the NFL’s least-sacked starter, as Reiff revives both his career and the Vikings’ Super Bowl hopes. He’s also helping to give meals to families in need as part of the offensive line’s fine system.
Like they did last year, the Vikings offensive line donated $5,000 this month to The Salvation Army northern division headquartered in Roseville with money collected from petty fines enforced on each other.
“They have a little fun and try to help some people out that are a little bit less fortunate than we are,” offensive line coach Tony Sparano said. “They hold each other accountable.”
The bell rings during film sessions whenever a Viking allows a sack; $100 is the tab. If you allow a hit or a pressure, the bill is $30. Anybody can call out anybody. You can appeal the fine, which requires a majority decision from the three elders — Reiff, Berger and right tackle Mike Remmers. If you lose the appeal, the fine doubles. If you falsely call someone else out, you’re fined. Are you being too sensitive about this? That’s a fine, too.
“I buy them pizza every week and they leave me alone,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “It’s pretty standard with what most offensive lines do. These guys are more strict about enforcing it.”
There’s another rule: They don’t talk about it. But safely assume Reiff, one of the few NFL tackles to have not allowed a sack this season, per Pro Football Focus, hasn’t needed to pay for many in-game infractions.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Reiff said.
Simple and reliable
The Vikings bet heavily on Reiff, making him one of the league’s 10 highest-paid left tackles this spring with a five-year, $58.75 million contract. So far he’s earned every penny as the blindside protector for the Vikings’ fifth-ranked offense. After all, reliability is what drew the Vikings to Reiff, who has played in 87 of his teams’ 91 NFL games since the Lions made him a 2012 first-round pick.
“The one thing I saw is with Riley there are no fast misses,” Sparano said. “I thought he competed really hard on film and he would fight you. I think that combination at that position, with the quarterback’s back turned to you, is a good combination.”
Reiff has provided the stability the Vikings long sought at left tackle with the oft-injured Matt Kalil, drafted 19 spots ahead of Reiff in the same class. He was handpicked by head coach Mike Zimmer as one of six team captains he meets with weekly.
“He is really a fairly quiet guy,” Zimmer said. “But when he says something, he means it.”
“Unusual toughness” was evident in Reiff while being recruited by the Iowa, Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz recalled. Iowa’s staff saw Reiff, then a 240-pound Parkston, S.D., defensive end, thrive on the wrestling mat. The combination of 6-6 height, quick feet and excellent hands, to them, screamed offensive tackle.
The second of four siblings to Tom and Jo Reiff, Riley wrestled from an early age as the oldest of three brothers. One of his younger brothers, Brady, is now a defensive tackle for the Hawkeyes.
“[Riley] was an outstanding wrestler in high school,” Ferentz said. “In my mind, you can probably get our wrestling coaches to verify this, but if he had chosen wrestling he would’ve been an NCAA champion. He was that caliber of a competitor and wrestler also.”
Reiff is an avid outdoorsman off the field. After receiving $26.3 million guaranteed from the Vikings this spring, he said on his conference call with Twin Cities reporters he was “excited about the hunting and fishing up here, too.”
“Riley isn’t one of those guys, I think, that needs very much,” Sparano said. “If there’s a local stream around or a river around or a lake, you know that and his playbook, I think he’s in good shape.”
Reiff has brought stability to the Vikings offensive line, a group that played four different left tackles in 2016 and saw Jeremiah Sirles, then 25 years old, serving as an elder for the fine system after injuries thinned the veterans.
The bell rings again. This time, Sparano is hit with a fine for making a passing reference to living in a gated community. Flaunting in any way is what they call a “big baller” fine for a group that is “very unassuming,” Sparano said, in the way they go about their business.
“If there’s a target in the room,” Sparano said, “it’s probably me.”
Sparano’s fine went toward Thanksgiving meal boxes from Hy-Vee, which were distributed Monday and Tuesday to The Salvation Army’s long-term housing locations. The offensive line will also look to donate money from their collections for toys to give away around Christmas time. They only put money in, they don’t pay money out. Leftover cash helps pay for group outings.
There’s also the head coach callout. Offensive linemen are tabbed whenever Zimmer mentions one of them by name during a team meeting — for good or for bad, doesn’t matter.
“We’ve got the right kind of guys,” Zimmer said. “Tough, physical, smart [and they] work together. They don’t really care who gets the credit. Matter of fact, they don’t even like me to call out their name.”
Broadcasters haven’t scanned down rosters to call out their names, either. The Vikings offensive line is one of the main reasons for an 8-2 record and the team’s ability to weather the loss of both quarterback Sam Bradford and running back Dalvin Cook.
The Vikings’ first step toward this reality was signing Reiff, whom fellow offensive linemen eventually sized up as a hard worker speaking only when “there is something to talk about,” Berger said.
“When he first got here, he was kind of finding where he fit in,” Sirles said. “When he found where he fit in, we all saw him as a leader. He’s stepped into that role.”
Reiff’s approach didn’t perk up or simmer down when he was named captain by Zimmer, according to Sirles. That would be out of character, anyway, for not only Reiff, but an offensive line ready to correct such look-at-me behavior with its internal kangaroo court — keeping them functioning as one.
“He doesn’t come in like he has all of the answers,” Berger said. “He comes in like he wants to get better, and he tries to improve on his game just like the rest of us.”