Vikings’ Rice is no longer a side dish

Minnesota Vikings receiver Sidney Rice catches a 56-yard pass over Detroit Lions safety Ko Simpson during the fourth quarter.
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Minnesota Vikings receiver Sidney Rice catches a 56-yard pass over Detroit Lions safety Ko Simpson during the fourth quarter.

If you’re Sidney Rice, you catch footballs for a living in a business filled with competing star receivers with names like Larry Fitzgerald and Randy Moss.  You belong in that number but until this year nobody much heard about Sidney Rice. Starting today, you won’t need a media flack to tell the world.
Sidney’s best public relations man in sight works a day job as the quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings.

Brett Favre loves to throw the football to Sidney Rice. Can’t get enough of it. Pay no attention to the play they call from the bench, or if Favre forgot the play, or if Sidney Rice is running into the next time zone and barely visible on the Favre radar.

Favre explained why Sunday after the Vikings’ emphatic but often unscenic 27-10 victory over the futile Detroit Lions. Give the Lions some props. This is a group that deserved applause and a welcoming committee for making the trip Minneapolis, where the  Lions have not won a game for more than 12 years and only  two of their last 33 games anywhere.

But against all odds, there was unexpected suspense into the fourth quarter. At this point Favre looked downfield for his receiver, planted his right foot, calculated Rice’s closing speed on the ball and gave it all of the altitude and considerable juice he could crank out of his 40-year-old arm. Why? He admits there are plays when he needs to be rescued by Sidney Rice.

Favre then threw to Jeff Dugan in the end zone a few minutes later. With that the Vikings broke out of some early malaise brought on by spasms of penalty-laced sloppiness. Add to that one odd exchange in which Adrian Peterson missed Percy Harvin with his toss on a gadget reverse that would have scored. You don’t want to blame it on the two-week layoff.  One of the Viking attributes this year is their ingenuity in turning a walkover into two hours of anguish for their nervous followers.

But today we have the maturing of Sidney Rice into one of the NFL’s emerging stars at 23, a 6-foot 4 leaper with a basketball player’s frame, confident hands and a sense for the ball that defines great receivers.

A matter of trust
“Tell you what,” Favre said after the game and his 344 yards through the air, “it comes down to a matter of trust [in calling on players like Peterson with the defense stacked or Rice downfield].  Sidney Rice is amazing. That play…it’s like a jump ball or a rebound in basketball…There are guys who know how to get position, when to jump…”

And how to adjust to the ball and bring it down. In other words, a winner.  Rice has done it in more critical times this year. But  this  one Sunday,  in his third year with the team, was one of seven receptions that ultimately totaled  201 yards and expanded what had been the  established trio of  playmakers — Favre, Peterson and Harvin — into a foursome.  There’s a nice symmetry in that number if you are frankly shooting for the Super Bowl, which this team at 8 and 1 is doing without a lot of bravado. It’s especially comforting for the Viking offence when it’s paired with a defensive front, including an emerging Ray Edwards, that rarely experiences sloppy days.

If Rice’s performance stirred the Metrodome thousands, Peterson had them reeling—again. He did it early with one those stop-the-music touchdown runs, 22-yards in which he bolted through a crack at the line of scrimmage, threw head and shoulder fakes while actually accelerating and was in the end zone in a blink, leaving a mess of bodies behind. He did something comparable later in the game and was sprinting for the end zone when the Lions’ Phillip Buchanan implausibly overtook him, punched the ball out of his arm from behind and the Lions recovered in the end zone for a touchback. The play gave the Lions the ball on the 20, and Peterson a net of 43 yards plus a badly bruised ego. His embarrassment didn’t last (it almost never does) because he was en route to 133 yards and two touchdowns.   

Overmatched, the Lions came to fight. The kid quarterback and No. 1 overall draft choice, Matthew Stafford, threw 51 times, often in self-defense, but hit 29 of them, enough to make it a game. Which didn’t offend the Viking crowd at the Metrodome because the masses in this season of mounting anticipation are obviously stoked up. Odd sights are surfacing. Ticket-buyers clearly identified as men are now starting to show up in the classic Viking Brunhilde headdress out of Wagnerian opera, with Viking horns and  braided hair streaming to their shoulders.

Nobody ever checks their ID. No gate crasher would have the guts to show up in that outfit.

All of which means the Vikings now face the misery-ridden Seattle Seahawks and Chicago Bears at the Metrodome in the next two weeks. They will be strongly favored in both games and will surprise the league if they don’t emerge with a record of 10 wins and 1 defeat by the end of November. After that, the landscape roughens seriously and includes the Super Bowl runner-up Arizona Cardinals, the streaking Cincinnati Bengals and the New York Giants.  But sweeping  Seattle and the Bears almost certainly would give the Vikings the NFC North championship and a bye in the January playoffs.

Elsewhere in the NFL
The pro football scene elsewhere is not all that jolly. The me-first mentality that is a downside of the player free agency surfaced again in Cleveland. The Browns may have the worst team in pro football, an impressive distinction considering all of the competition. Jamal Lewis, a 10-year veteran running back who wants out of Cleveland, publicly denounced Coach Eric Mangini for overworking the players. The Browns, he said, were tired and worn out from all the work.

Mangini does have a reputation for maintaining demanding workout schedules. But there is no record of any request for intervention by OSHA in the working culture of millionaire football players.

There is something awkward about a pro football player claiming to be overworked while he is drawing a $3.5 million salary for playing in 16 games spread out over four months.

It is even more awkward when placed against a national scene of massive worker dislocation, 17 percent of working age Americans out of jobs or underemployed, tens of millions of Americans  without work, and younger men and women out of college or high school finding nothing available.

Making $3.5 million playing football and working hard for it can’t be that onerous or degrading.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Jon Larson on 11/16/2009 - 04:10 pm.

    You know something, Jim? Just because Jamal Lewis makes $3.5 million does NOT mean that some damn Les Steckel wannabe isn’t making his life miserable, shortening his career, and threatening his health. Oh yeah, these demented “coaches” / drill sergeants all have another characteristic–they lose and lose often. The ONLY reason they get jobs is because there are billionaire owners who take great joy in watching their world-class athletes being abused by sadists.

    Most pro athletes spend their retirement years in great pain. Many have serious brain damage. Even more will die early deaths. But you attack a brave person who organizes a protest against a sicko posing as a coach.

    And all this time I thought Amy was this right-wing Democrat because she went to the most reviled university on earth–the University of Chicago. Apparently she learned this worship-the-boss attitude at a MUCH younger age. We are SO fortunate—NOT.

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