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The Vikings begin training camp next week, and it appears unlikely offensive line coach Rick Dennison will be on the field with players.
The team is in discussions with Dennison about the COVID-19 protocols, according to a statement released Friday in response to an ESPN report that said Dennison was off the staff after he refused to get vaccinated. That move had not been made as of Friday afternoon, according to a league source.
Even if Dennison were to get vaccinated soon, the process can take up to six weeks to be fully inoculated, meaning he could not participate in training camp with players.
Vaccination is required for all NFL front office members, coaches, scouts and equipment managers who interact directly with players. Without a religious or medical exemption, non-vaccinated coaches lose Tier 1 status in the NFL's protocols, which bars them from the field and team meeting rooms. Dennison does not have such an exemption, the team said.
"The Vikings continue to hold discussions with offensive line coach Rick Dennison regarding the NFL-NFLPA COVID-19 protocols for training camp and preseason games," the Vikings said in a statement. "At this time, coach Dennison does not have an exemption to the vaccination requirements of those protocols. We will adhere to the requirements of the protocols and of applicable law."
Dennison's agent, Peter Schaffer, said via text message: "Rick is 100% committed to and invested in being the best football coach he can be for the Vikings with the singular focus of winning the Super Bowl this year."
Running back Alexander Mattison supported Dennison on social media.
"They act as if we didn't successfully play a whole season last year," Mattison wrote. "Don't make no sense. I'm rockin wit you 100% coach."
Dennison, 63, has been the team's line coach and run game coordinator for the past two seasons, joining Minnesota before the 2019 season with former assistant head coach Gary Kubiak. Well-versed in the Vikings' offensive philosophies, Dennison was expected to help first-year coordinator Klint Kubiak transition to the top job on offense. Dennison and Gary Kubiak played together with the Broncos from 1982-1990 and continued the partnership as coaches in Denver, Houston and Minnesota.
The NFL can effectively mandate coaches get vaccinated, but it can only push players toward the decision. The league has reduced restrictions for vaccinated players, relaxing rules on social distancing, quarantine requirements, travel and mask wearing.
This week, NFL officials outlined further discipline in a memo to teams. A forfeit can be declared if a team has an outbreak caused by unvaccinated players that prevents a game from being played within the new 18-week schedule. If a forfeit is declared, the team with the outbreak would be given a loss for playoff seeding purposes, and both teams would lose game checks.
The leaguewide vaccination push, joined by Vikings coach Mike Zimmer fervently stating his case in June for why players should get vaccinated, appears to be working. Nearly 80% of all NFL players have at least one dose of the vaccine as of Friday morning, according to Dr. Allen Sills, the league's top medical official.
Only five NFL teams have fewer than 70% of players vaccinated ahead of training camp, Sills said, while nine teams are already over 90% vaccination. When the Vikings ended the offseason program in mid-June, sources said the team was nearing 60%, indicating they're likely among the many teams over 70% at this point.
To encourage players to get vaccinated this spring, the Vikings hosted independent medical experts, former players and NFL Players Association officials, and had a videoconference with Sills to answer questions and concerns. A handful of Vikings players, including defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, receiver Adam Thielen and safety Harrison Smith, said last month they had yet to be vaccinated.
"Making sure individuals have their questions answered and they have the most accurate information," Sills said. "That's been one of our biggest priorities. Let's not get information from Instagram or Facebook posts. Let's try to hear from the most reputable authorities about what the real medical facts are."
Another coach, Patriots co-offensive line coach Cole Popovich, will reportedly not be with New England during the 2021 season "in a decision related to the COVID-19 vaccine," according to ESPN.
Staff writer Ben Goessling contributed reporting.