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Published: Thursday, March 1, 2001

Tice hopes Steussie gives ground

Pioneer Press

---------------------------------------------------------------------- -- BOB SANSEVERE STAFF COLUMNIST ---------------------------------------------------------------------- -- Mike Tice paced the floor. He broke out in a sweat. While his wife and children slept the other night, his mind did wind sprints. ``I didn't sleep one wink,'' he said. He has a ton on his mind. Actually, it's closer to one-sixth of a ton. Tice is the Vikings' offensive line coach, and he can't stop thinking about the very real possibility of 310-pound left tackle Todd Steussie becoming a salary-cap casualty either today or by March 15, when he has a $1 million bonus due him. To remain a Viking, Steussie will have to rework his contract. So far, he has refused. ``I'm a little bit stressed over it,'' Tice said. `I don't want to lose Todd Steussie.'' The Vikings already are expected to lose defensive lineman John Randle today because he won't re-do his deal. Randle was a dud on a defense that reeked, so he won't be a devastating loss. Steussie, though, would be a significant loss. Especially to Tice. ``I'd be a different coach,'' Tice said. ``I've never had to worry about Todd Steussie. Every once in a while, I'd get mad when he'd jump offsides. But I've never had to worry about him getting beat. I don't think I ever went into a game saying we have to help Todd Steussie out. As a coach, that is some hell of a feeling.'' Losing Steussie also would be some hell of a feeling. ``I spoke to Todd today and to (coach) Denny (Green) to see where both sides were at,'' Tice said Wednesday. ``I'm hopeful, but I'm discouraged and also realistic. I understand our situation, and I understand Todd's situation.'' Steussie did not return a phone call to his home Wednesday, but apparently he wants the Vikings to honor the contract he signed in '98, or he'll take his chances as a free agent. ``He's not afraid of free agency,'' said Corbin Lacina, the Vikings' left guard this past season and Steussie's friend. ``This guy can make an absolute killing on the free-agent market.'' And if that happens, Tice has a plan he would set in motion. With some reluctance. ``I don't have the same feeling I had when I knew I was losing the other guys,'' Tice said. The other guys. That would be center Jeff Christy and left guard Randall McDaniel, who because of salary issues, left the Vikings after the '99 season and signed with Tampa Bay. Both were Pro Bowlers, yet Tice was confident he could replace them. ``I don't feel as good about losing Todd Steussie as I did losing Christy and McDaniel,'' Tice said. ``I knew Matt Birk would be great at center.'' Birk played so well he went to the Pro Bowl after just one season at center. Meantime, Lacina and Chris Liwienski did a decent job taking over for McDaniel. Lacina is a free agent, and while he would like to return to the Vikings, he might be too expensive. They're better with Lacina, but the Vikings probably could get by at left guard with just Liwienski. Getting by without Steussie, now that's another story. If Steussie leaves, the left tackle spot goes to Brad Badger. A five-year veteran, Badger started 21 games over three seasons for the Washington Redskins, but he's no Pro Bowler-in-waiting. The instant Steussie becomes an ex-Viking, Badger inherits one of the most important jobs on the team. He has to protect Daunte Culpepper's blind side. Maybe he can do it. If he can't, an offense already weakened by Robert Smith's retirement could be in ruins if Culpepper becomes road kill. ``I really admire Brad Badger, but I love Todd Steussie,'' Tice said. ``Of course, I'm upset I might lose Todd Steussie. But I'm also realistic. I can't spend three weeks pouting about it. I've got to have a plan.'' Badger, that's the plan. The backup plan is to move Birk to left tackle, where he played in college, and make third-year player Cory Withrow the starting center. ``Withrow can start for six to eight teams in the league,'' Tice said. ``And Matt would do a great job at tackle.'' But . . . ``Matt Birk right now is one of the best centers in the league, and that's after just one year. Imagine in two years,'' Tice said. ``I think Matt Birk is perfect where he is.'' Then again . . . ``If Brad goes out and looks like (compost), I've got to do something,'' Tice said. Badger, by the way, is probably just a short-term fix. Tice is excited about the potential of Lewis Kelly, the last of the Vikings' three seventh-round picks in last spring's draft. Kelly, the only player drafted out of South Carolina State last year, is a slab of granite who needs to be chiseled. ``He has got what I call that small-college syndrome,'' Tice said. ``He has tremendous power, strength and balance from the waist down. But no upper-body strength. It was the same thing with Birk when he got here.'' Speaking of Birk, he also wants Steussie to remain with the Vikings. He's just not as worried as Tice. ``If Steussie leaves, am I going to lose sleep at night or panic? No,'' Birk said. ``It's life in the big leagues.'' Tice knows that, too. He understands that good players are being released around the league so teams can get under the salary cap. But he s

-- Mark (Karch, March 01, 2001

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