EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) -Antoine Winfield openly clashed with Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress in his first season, refusing to attend voluntary offseason workouts and expressing displeasure with the coach's closed-off demeanor with his players.
A year later, the cornerback and leader in the locker room was asked if there were any tangible differences in Childress during his second year on the job.
``Probably say the communication part,'' Winfield said. ``He was open. Guys could come up to him and talk. He smiled a lot more. The first year, it was very rare you would see him smile.''
As Childress reflected Thursday on a 2007 season that saw his Vikings (8-8) win two more games than they did his rookie year but also miss the playoffs, Childress was asked if he did in fact smile more this time around.
``I'm better medicated this year,'' Childress deadpanned.
Plenty of laughter ensued, but it provided a snapshot at the evolution he made in his second season on the job.
Childress was all business, all the time in his first season on the job. His dry public demeanor and what some players viewed as a refusal to consider their thoughts combined with a 6-10 season to make life rather dreary at Winter Park.
The ``second trip around the track,'' as Childress is wont to call it, was smoother. He consulted a council of trusted veterans every week to discuss any issues with the team, shared some of the play-calling duties with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell to give him more freedom and showed a more personable public face.
``I think there was a comfort level with everybody,'' linebacker Ben Leber said. ``I think he was more comfortable being the head coach and managing situations and managing players and the team. I don't know if that's true or not, but that's the sense that I got as a player watching him up in front of us.''
Childress seemed to agree.
``I think second-year relationships are huge, whether it be second year in the system, second year knowing the coach that is coaching you, second year knowing the head coach that is standing in front of you,'' Childress said. ``I thought I saw those things grown significantly this year.
``I think you can see that by how close these guys kept in the face of a couple of situations where it would have been real easy to fall apart.''
The Vikings faced several bumps in the road during an up-and-down 2007, but two definitely stand out.
In the week leading up to a game at Green Bay on Nov. 11, Vikings players were furious when receiver Troy Williamson was docked a paycheck the previous week for missing a game while grieving for the death of his grandmother.
After meeting with his leadership committee, Childress reversed the decision and gave him his check.
Two days later, the Vikings were embarrassed at Lambeau Field with a 34-0 loss to the Green Bay Packers that dropped them to 3-6.
But through both of those traumatic events, the Vikings did not fall apart. They reeled off five straight victories to get back into playoff contention and forged a better relationship with a coach who didn't exactly win them over in his first year on the job.
``You don't feel the same bucking that you felt as you started in last year,'' Childress said. ``That was a completely different feeling in that room yesterday as opposed to 365 days ago.''
That's a natural progression, safety Darren Sharper said.
``Everyone grows when you get to be around people more and more each and every day,'' Sharper said. ``You learn your players better and the players learn you.
``I think it just helps with us growing as a relationship together, getting to know each other better, getting to know what he expects out of us and vice versa.''
After missing the playoffs for the third straight season, the Vikings still have plenty of growing to do on the field.
Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson had the kind of season a young player is expected to have. He looked like a dangerous playmaker at times and a clueless kid at others.
To a man, the Vikings players supported his return as the starter next season. Childress would only say that the evaluation process is ``ongoing.''
``I thought he just continued to make progress as we went through,'' Childress said.
Jackson said on Wednesday that since he started the final game at Denver, he will assume that he remains the starting quarterback unless he is told otherwise.
Childress said improving the team's 28th-ranked pass offense and 32nd-ranked pass defense will be the biggest priorities this offseason.
Having the support of his players following his second season on the job is a good start.
``Winning is always the telltale sign and we won more than we did last year,'' Sharper said. ``So definitely there was an improvement.''

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