Minnesota Vikings name Phil Rauscher new O-line coach because of COVID-19 protocols; Rick Dennison still with team

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EAGAN, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings announced Tuesday that Phil Rauscher will replace Rick Dennison as the team's offensive line coach this season.

Dennison, who is not vaccinated against COVID-19, will remain with the team as a senior offensive adviser. Ben Steele, who was hired earlier this year by Auburn as special teams analyst, will be Minnesota's assistant offensive line coach, filling the role Rauscher held since 2019.

On Friday, ESPN reported that Dennison was out as offensive line coach/run game coordinator because he was not vaccinated. The Vikings later said they were in discussion with Dennison on the NFL's COVID-19 protocols while stating that he did not have an exemption to the vaccination requirement.

The vaccine is required for all Tier 1 staff, including coaches, front-office executives, equipment managers and scouts. Players are not required to receive the COVID-19 vaccine but will face strict protocols during training camp and throughout the season that vaccinated players will be able to forgo.

In a memo released by the league this summer, the NFL said any unvaccinated Tier 1 staff member must provide a valid religious or medical reason for not receiving the vaccine. Losing Tier 1 status prohibits coaches from being on the field and in meeting rooms and having direct interactions with players.

"Rick will be joining virtual," general manager Rick Spielman said. "He will be in contact with Coach Zim [Mike Zimmer]. He will be in contact with [offensive coordinator] Klint [Kubiak], with Phil and basically just the whole offense in giving his input in how we came to this agreement on what we agreed upon."

Zimmer said the Vikings and Dennison worked throughout the offseason to come to an agreement that would allow the veteran coach to remain with the team in spite of his decision to not get vaccinated.

"It went on for about three months and I told Rick Spielman, I told him, 'I'm glad that you're patient, because I'm probably not as patient as you are.'" Zimmer said. "But with him and his agent Peter Schaffer and Rick Dennison, we were able to all come to an agreement, and as you said, cooler heads prevailed."

Keeping continuity on offense was a top priority for the Vikings in coming to an agreement to keep Dennison on staff. Dennison was previously the only coach on the offensive staff with play-calling experience after former offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak retired earlier this year and Minnesota turned the reins of the offense over to his son, Klint, as a first-time offensive coordinator.

In his role as a senior offensive adviser, Dennison won't be in the building or in the coaches' booth at games but will have regular communication with the offensive staff throughout the week.

"So basically, what he's going to be doing, he's going to watch the practice with the offensive coaches, he's going to be helping to evaluate," Zimmer said. "Little things like that. I've got [senior defensive assistant] Paul Guenther up there with me now and he'll sit in the meetings, we'll talk about 'Have you thought about doing it this way?' or 'Is he taking the right step on this particular run?' or 'Is he shooting his left hand the way he's supposed to do it?' So all those things are things I think he can really help us with. And then the next part, as we start getting ready for the games in the season, he'll be helping with game-plan ideas, third-down ideas, protection ideas, things like that."

Rauscher is entering his seventh season as a coach in the NFL after joining the Vikings in 2020. He previously coached with Dennison on the Broncos' staff during the 2015 and 2016 seasons and was Washington's offensive line coach in 2019.

Zimmer noted the importance of having "one voice" in the offensive line meeting room in his decision to promote Rauscher to fill Dennison's previous role.

"I've got the utmost confidence in Phil," Zimmer said. "He's had very many opportunities to leave here and we've talked him out of it because I figured someday Rick might decide to retire and Phil would be ready to go. But he's had a lot of opportunities to leave and it was important that way. I felt like this was the best win-win situation for our football team and also with Rick."

According to Zimmer, the Vikings will not hand off Dennison's run-game coordinator duties and coordinate those efforts "collectively" this season. Asked whether Dennison's new arrangement is permanent or something that could be altered in the future should circumstances change, Zimmer pointed to a wait-and-see approach.

"You know, so many things change throughout the course of the season with protocols and the NFL might change things and maybe he decides to get vaccinated, who knows?" Zimmer said. "So, the deal is that I said that we will address all those issues when the time comes, so as of right now, that's what it's going to be, and then we'll figure it out if things change."

Dennison's change in role wasn't the only COVID-19 vaccine-related item Zimmer addressed ahead of when the Vikings take the field for their first team practice on Wednesday. While Zimmer and Spielman declined to address the vaccination rate of the team, Zimmer said he'll address players about getting vaccinated and isn't concerned about differences in opinion over the vaccine dividing the locker room.

"I'm going to talk to them about it. But I don't feel it's going to be that way," Zimmer said. "Most of these guys feel like they're bulletproof anyway with their age and their athleticism and things like that. We are going to make sure that we treat each other with respect and understand that guys make decisions because of whatever reasons that they have.

"As long as they are following protocols like the NFL asked them to do, just like they are asking us to do, then I don't have problem with it. It will be more stressful on them. They are going to have to wait out in their car for 30 minutes after they get tested. Those are things they are going to have to do. But that's their choice and that's their decision."