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‘I got my swagger back:' How Cameron Dantzler's 180 explains the Minnesota Vikings
Under the previous head coach, the cornerback was a "robot." Now, Cameron Dantzler Sr. is playing freely, the Vikings can think Super Bowl and he wants to be "Jalen Ramsey Level. Above that level."
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The Minnesota Vikings are 5-1 and most people have no clue how.
As this league drowns in mediocrity, Kevin O’Connell’s squad is seriously positioned to go on a championship run in Year 1 of his tenure as head coach. Which sounds crazy. The roster didn’t endure any drastic changes. No blockbuster trades. No grandiose quarterback switch. This new regime didn’t try to win fans’ hearts in free agency.
Cleansing the franchise of all things Zimmer and rebuilding a completely new culture was the focus. Into the 2022 season, our two-parter explored how O’Connell was doing this internally and (unsurprisingly) the volatility of one, Mike Zimmer, is what seemed to stun folks most. For months, current players had been speaking as if they were free from the wrath of a ruthless dictator. But when it’s Terence Newman who’s being so honest, the state of the union was clearly far worse than anyone realized. This tough-as-a-$3-steak cornerback played for Zim, coached for Zim, seemed to outsiders as a “Zim guy” yet is also one of the most sincere ex-players in existence. So, he was honest. He shared that players dreaded going to work and that the effect was contagious. (“If players are dreading getting cussed out and shit like that,” he said, “then it’s going to make it a long day for everybody.”)
O’Connell made curing this virus Priority No. 1. The Vikings are now Super Bowl contenders. It is not a coincidence.
We know players now wake up with a smile on their face, but how exactly does that smile manifest into victories? Look no further than one of the happiest members of the team: third-year cornerback Cameron Dantzler. The team’s turnaround is best reflected in his turnaround. The 2020 third-round pick out of Mississippi State brings everything Newman detailed to life. Under Zimmer, he felt like a “robot.” Under O’Connell, he found his mojo. Immediately. He’s a difference-maker on one of the NFC’s best defenses, and the reason why is this seismic culture shock. We can drone on and on about analytics until the cows come home. We can study the All-22 footage over three pots of coffee.
Football is not quantum physics.
Dantzler looks like a new player with 34 tackles, four pass breakups and one forced fumble through six games because, bluntly, he’s playing with a free mind. He’s himself again. He brings to life the sort of #culture talk that can sound opaque.
There’s an upbeat tone to his voice. He’s thrilled to drive to the facility in the morning.
“I got my swagger back,” Dantzler says. “They have faith in me with what I can do and they make me play freely and be me.”
Because he’s valued. Everyone is.
“Nobody,” Dantzler begins, “knows the inside story. There was more to it with me and coach last year. Outside looking in, you really don’t know as much. There was a lot going on last year. It was a roller-coaster for me.”
I know, I know. There’s no need for us all to again swim in the sewage. It’s not much fun reliving just how miserable life was under Zimmer’s reign. But to understand Dantzler’s breakout season, it’s inevitable. He needs to bring up the last two years.
As a rookie, in 2020, Dantzler believed he was truly turning a corner through December. Yet into the 2021 offseason, Dantzler popped his quad. He suffered a Grade 2 tear and tried to fight through it when players reported back for OTAs in June. He didn’t want to miss anything and — as all players know — it behooves you play through injuries under this head coach. Then, it popped again. Two days later, on June 8, the team signed eight-year veteran Bashaud Breeland and plugged him in as the starter opposite Patrick Peterson. Fresh off back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, with 95 career starts, Breeland was deemed more trustworthy before a true competition was even held.
“They brought Breeland in and I feel like they just threw me to the side,” Dantzler says. “I was like, ‘Damn. Am I good enough?’ I was questioning myself. Young guy. Second year. Just coming off a… I wouldn’t say ‘great’ rookie year. But toward the end, I improved a lot. I had that confidence and swagger into Year 2. And then when I got hurt, it was, ‘OK, we don’t need him anymore. Let’s throw him to the side.’ I felt abandoned.
“Everybody tried to make it seem like I was out-battled. Breeland is a great player. But I don’t feel I was out-battled. My spot was given away before it was even fought for. It was like, ‘OK. He’s going to be the starter. He’s going to be our guy.’ They just threw me to the side.”
He describes Zimmer as a DB guy. They used to speak every day.
Over time, he felt nothing but a general coldness. He can remember straight-up asking Zimmer, “Coach, you don’t mess with me anymore because I’m injured?”
The head coach’s response? Per Dantzler? “I don’t talk to guys who are hurt.”
“I’m like, ‘Whoa. OK.’ Those words came out of his mouth,” Dantzler says. “I’m an outgoing person. People like my personality. I bring joy to the room. I don’t know. He’s an old school type of guy. He wasn’t feeling it.”
Not that actually playing in this defense was a bundle of fun. Dantzler started 10 games in Year 1, seven in Year 2 and the thoughts running through his mind mid-play were exactly what Newman described. To a “T.” He was downright terrified to make a mistake. He played an instinctual position on eggshells because Dantzler knew one misstep would get him destroyed in the film room. There was no operating on feel or instincts. Period.
That’s the biggest change in 2022. It’s as if a burden was completely lifted.
Dantzler feels zero pressure before games now.
All butterflies? Gone.
“Because you know yourself,” he explains. “You know how you play. Just go out there and show it. I feel like I don’t have to be a robot anymore. My first two years? I had butterflies a lot. I felt like, ‘If I mess up, I might get taken out. I was a robot. Now, I’m free. ‘KO’ let me be free. I can go out there with confidence and swagger like, ‘Hey, ain’t nobody catching anything on me today.’ That’s how I feel.”
Dantzler wasn’t alone. All young players felt the same way, he adds, because every single step was hyper-scrutinized. Players were accosted in those film sessions like they broke a law which naturally zaps spontaneity. That’s a major reason why this defense broke down so many times late in games. In Part II of our series, ex-Viking linebacker Ben Leber, who works as a sideline reporter for the team, specifically cited Dantzler as the player who’d benefit most from a new culture. He nailed it. Too often, it appeared Dantzler was a split-second slow in coverage before. If there’s one player on a football field who cannot afford to tap the brakes, it’s a boundary cornerback trying to shadow wideouts with 4.3 speed and every conceivable rule in their favor.
Think too much, let a blip of hesitation enter the mental equation, and… you’re toast. Peace.
“When I say ‘robot,’ it makes you not want to make plays and be a ballplayer,” he says. “It’s ‘OK. He told me to do it this way. So, if I don’t do it this way, he’s going to take me out.’ Or like at practice, ‘He told me to do it this way, so if I don’t do it this way, I’m not going to play.’ So it turns into: ‘I could’ve made that play but my coach told me to do it this way.’ You know?”
Several sources indicate that how the Vikings treated injuries in the past was borderline reckless. It’s no coincidence that this team struggled to stay healthy.
Overhauling the strength and conditioning staff was a must. One of the most underrated acquisitions in the entire league was Minnesota stealing Tyler Williams from the Los Angeles Rams. He oversees the entire operation as the team’s executive director of player health and performance.
Understandably, Dantzler is still bothered by how Zimmer treated him when he popped that quad.
“Seriously,” he adds, “all of these players fighting for you every day, we’re all fighting for our jobs. Including yours.”
The new staff arrived and Dantzler felt his swagger return.
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That scared corner who misplayed a coverage to hand the Detroit Lions their first victory of the 2021 season is nowhere to be found. With this new team, new staff, in a new No. 3 uniform, Dantzler was exceptional in coverage against the New Orleans Saints in London and then made the game-winning play against the Chicago Bears by stealing the ball right from the hands of ex-Viking receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette. He’s no robot in coverage. Twice a week, he’s even heading to the home of eight-time Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson to watch film. They only live four minutes apart.
Dantzler also points out that Daronte Jones is back as his defensive backs coach after spending last season at LSU. That helps. He loves new coordinator Ed Donatell’s scheme. And he raves on… and on… and on… about “KO.” Head coach Kevin O’Connell, he says, “brings that swagger, that juice” and — as a younger coach — he’s able to relate to everyone in ways older coaches simply cannot. No, he will not be demeaning injured players any time soon. Dantzler says the head coach’s connection with players was immediate.
This season, something deeper is also driving Dantzler: the tragic death of his good friend, Jeff Gladney.
They were drafted by Minnesota in the same 2020 class. And, last spring, Gladney was killed in a car accident. He was 25. His girlfriend in the vehicle was also killed. She was 26. Traveling at high speeds, his Mercedes SUV crashed into a pillar.
Dantzler did not believe the news initially. When he found out on a flight back to Minnesota, he assumed his ex-girlfriend had the wrong person. The rest of the flight, he couldn’t receive any pictures — only texts — so he remained in disbelief. His plane landed. He looked it up. Those pictures were grisly. It was true. “Out of all people, he told himself in horror, “Jeff Gladney?” To this day, it doesn’t feel real because they were so unbelievably close. They always kept each other motivated — Dantzler calls Gladney his “right-hand man” even though they weren’t teammates for long. Gladney was released by the Vikings on Aug. 3, 2021 after being indicted for domestic violence. He spent the entire season out of football before being found not guilty in March 2022.
When we all saw Gladney’s name in the headlines for the wrong reasons, Dantzler says Gladney’s demeanor did not change. He maintained his innocence. That’s what stung, too. Once Gladney’s name was cleared, he signed with the Arizona Cardinals and was eager for a fresh start on life.
One memory is still seared in mind. When they were rookies, Gladney lost his grandmother, flew to the funeral, and returned the Monday of the Vikings’ game to play. He’ll push himself through anything.
Dantzler is dedicating the 2022 season to his fallen friend.
“Even if I feel like I can’t play,” Dantzler says, “I’m still going to push myself to play because that’s what Jeff would’ve done. He never missed a game. He never missed a practice. He loved the game. I had to dedicate the season toward him.
“To this day, it doesn’t seem real at all. I wake up and say, ‘Dang. He’s gone.’”
It’s not too complicated, either. This is what dedicating a season to a friend means to Dantzler, in his words:
“Fighting next to my brothers and making plays. Pouring my heart and soul into the game. Each and every day. Practice. Games. That’s something he would’ve done. He’s done it. I witnessed it.”
The result in this Post-Zim society is one of the NFC’s best cornerbacks. Dantzler’s ascent should give the Vikings real hope. It’s no stretch to say he has outplayed the cornerback that the rival Green Bay Packers inked to a four-year, $84 million dollar contract. He’s certainly more physical than Jaire Alexander. While it’s always Dantzler’s goal to hold his wideout to zero catches, he takes most pride in the physical side of the sport. And… he knows what you’re thinking. He hears people laughing that he’s so thinly built that it looks like he’ll “break.” Despite his No. 2 pencil-stature, Dantzler is more than willing to throw himself into running backs. It’s second nature, honestly.
Since he started playing pee wee football, at age 4, Dantzler has loved hitting more than anything else.
“I had to hit,” Dantzler says. “to protect myself.”
His first adversary on the field was a running back aged 6, maybe even 7. In an Oklahoma drill, a kid he fondly recalls as “Dee-Shawn” trucked him in the Oklahoma Drill. Dantzler cried, took his pads off and returned to his grandmother’s house across from the park. When his Dad stopped over and heard Cam say the kids were hitting too hard, he told him to chop ‘em low. “They can’t run without legs,” Dad said. The next day, young Cam called the same kid out in the hitting drill, took his legs out and has been bursting with confidence ever since.
“From that day forward, it was a switch,” Dantzler says. “I loved to tackle.”
He's not afraid of contact. He welcomes it. That’s not normal at his position. (“At all.”)
Now, the bar is set sky high. Playing freely. Playing with purpose. Winning games. Cameron Dantzler sees no reason why he cannot join the elite of the elite at his position. The kid Zimmer disregarded as damaged goods is allowing himself to dream.
“I’m talking Jalen Ramsey Level,” Dantzler says. “Above that level. I feel like I haven’t shown my game yet. Getting comfortable. I’m knowing the in’s and out’s of the defense more each and every day. I just feel like once that switch hits, it’s going to be scary.”
He’s not bluffing. Dantzler sincerely believes he’ll be the best corner in the sport.
“Oh, it’s coming one day. I can promise you that.”
Such an attitude is necessary as a defensive player in today’s NFL. Passiveness gets you killed. If that official is throwing the flag regardless, you might as well make a mistake playing fearless, fast. “It’s either me or you,” Dantzler says. “That’s just how I feel.” There’s no other option in his mind. He lets the wide receiver across the line of scrimmage know very early in a game — in both actions and words — that it’ll be a long day.
Off the field? He’s laidback. Life is quite simple. Dantzler enjoys fishing, riding horses and runs a kennel business on the side. In the offseason, he even hosts dog shows. Above all, he’s trying to set up his four kids financially for life. Dantzler has two sons and two daughters and they’re all 3 years or younger. His oldest is into karate right now but, considering he’s already 44 inches tall, Dad thinks basketball will be in his son’s future. There’s good news on the horizon, too. The boy’s mother just bought him Bluey pajamas, which means “Bluey” (a good show) may soon supplant “Cocomelon” (straight-up crack).
Reaching Ramsey’s level sure wouldn’t hurt support his family. The Rams’ corner shattered the market with a five-year, $100 million contract.
Winning a Super Bowl would help, too.
He believes this team can make such a run. The No. 1 reason is this new culture allowing players to flourish in every conceivable way.
“The man to your right. The man to your left. We lean on each other,” Dantzler says. “We trust the guy next to us. The few years I’ve been here in Minnesota, it wasn’t like that. It was like a guy vs. this guy. We all came together this year. The culture that the new staff is building — KO — it’s a great feeling. I can’t lie to you. It’s a great feeling. Everybody feels that.”
Granted, the good vibes of a new culture can wear off. After a 1-5 start, the Detroit Lions — and everything Dan Campbell has tried to build — is being tested. As much as things appeared to change in Detroit, the results have not. Pressure is mounting.
Here, players are bound to buy everything O’Connell sells because they’re seeing it translate to wins. It’s not always pretty, but the new Vikings keep winning the sort of games the old Vikings found a way to lose. Late in the fourth quarter, they’re making the plays that were so nonexistent seasons past. Clutch plays from guys like Dantzler.
Last week, Dalvin Cook was the hero with a 53-yard scamper to the end zone to ice a 24-16 win over Miami.
None of this is an accident. If we keep learning one lesson at Go Long, it’s that culture isn’t always nonsensical coachspeak. It can matter. O’Connell makes it matter. He reminds his players all the time that he loves them, Dantzler adds. There’s a genuine togetherness here his predecessor never understood. He might not even have all the players he wants in-house yet but the vision of “KO” is equating to wins. Where skeptics may cite a sloppy NFC, believers in the building know the 5-1 mark is a byproduct of something greater, something that may be built to last a while.
One reality is absolutely true: The quality of life has drastically improved for all Vikings employees Monday through Friday.
And that tends to mean a great deal on Sunday.
“He’s a player’s coach,” Dantzler says. “He’s supportive of all his players. He’s always there when we need him. He always has that mindset of, ‘I don’t care who we play. We’re going to win.’ We feel his energy. I don’t know if it’s because he’s young but we feel his energy. He’s leading and we’re following. So it’s a feeling we get when he talks. Like, ‘OK. It’s time to go.’
“It’s that swagger and culture he brings. It makes guys want to follow him.”
Want to hang out with Go Long? This Sunday, ahead of the Packers-Bills game in Western New York, I’ll be at Fattey Beer’s Orchard Park location with my podcast co-host Jim Monos. We’ll post up around 2 p.m. I’ll also have copies of “The Blood and Guts: How Tight Ends Save Football” to sell and sign if you’d like.
Would love to meet anyone who can make it.
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