When the Vikings made tight end John Carlson their only big-money signing of the free agent period last March, the hard-core fan base became giddy with what appeared to be an attempt by the Vikings to replicate the offensive success that was started in New England with the two-headed tight end threat of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
As is often the case in the NFL, replication is the sincerest form of flattery (see the Wildcat formation). Some scoffed when the Patriots drafted both Gronkowski and Hernandez in the 2010 draft, but nobody was laughing when both Gronk and Hernandez became elite offensive weaponry in Tom Brady's arsenal.
The Vikings were so convinced they could replicate the tight end magic of the Patriots that they gave Carlson a five-year, $25 million contract that included a $5 million signing bonus, a guaranteed base salary of $2.9 million in 2012 and a guarantee of $1.2 million of his $2.7 million salary in 2013.
For the $7.9 million the Vikings invested in 2012, their return was eight catches for 43 yards and no touchdowns. As a businessman, Zygi Wilf realizes that, for 2012 at least, that translated to $987,500 per reception and $183,721 per yard gained. In short, not what the Vikings expected or hoped.
When approached to discuss the 2012 season, the first reaction from Carlson appeared akin to being approached by a process server. The Hutchinson native doesn't like to talk about his homecoming season to Minnesota. His first season with Vikings was, at best, bittersweet. He was exceedingly pleased with the team accomplishments, but when it came to his own short-circuited season? Not so much.
"I've always said the team always comes first and football is the ultimate team sport," Carlson said. "From that standpoint, I was really happy to be part of this team and proud of the successes we had this year as a team. A lot of great individual efforts led to that. I was disappointed in myself that I wasn't more of a factor. I didn't contribute as much as I anticipated coming in. There were a lot of reasons that went into that, but I take most of them on myself."
Professional sports are unique in that the people who are impacted by their job have a love affair with them when things are going well and downright venomous when they don't live up to expectations.
People don't scream "You suck!" at financial advisors if their investments don't bring in proper returns. A chef isn't booed if a $50 steak isn't prepared to the expectations of a patron. In the NFL, especially in the age of social media, reaction to player performance can be brutal. Whether in the conventional old-school media (television, radio, newspapers or the Internet) or the 21st century offshoots of the information age that give anyone license to ridicule, Carlson has been wearing a bull's eye for almost six months.
As the human punching bag for columnists, talk radio hosts, beat writers, bloggers and tweeters alike, Carlson has quickly learned that his return to his home state hasn't been the dream scenario he envisioned. He's learned to ignore what is said about him by outsiders and has leathered his skin somewhat in relation to criticism.
"I don't listen to the stuff that's said on the outside, because what's said on the outside doesn't matter," Carlson said. "People are entitled to have their opinions and we're in a business that gets criticized to an extreme degree. I understand that. I consider the source. If I'm getting criticized by the coaching staff and by my teammates, I take it to heart. If it's the fans, I kind of take it for what it's worth."
Carlson and guard Geoff Schwartz were both penciled as significant contributors to the Vikings offense. Following the draft in May, when the first 2012 depth charts were written up, Schwartz was going to be the starting right guard and Carlson was expected to have 50 catches, about 600 yards and somewhere in the neighborhood of a half dozen touchdowns.
Injuries in the first days of training camp shelved them both. In the interim, as the Vikings had multiple starting jobs up for grabs, both Carlson and Schwartz were on the outside looking in.
Schwartz lost his anticipated starting spot to Brandon Fusco, initially viewed as an interior line swingman who could play guard or center. Carlson was philosophical about his situation because Mankato was supposed to be his rebirth as an NFL player. His 2010 season ended on Soldier Field – which can be witnessed in Kennedy assassination-style clarity at on YouTube – and missed all of the 2011 season with a shoulder injury.
It seemed like a perfect storm of misery for Carlson. Coming to a new team and a new offense, he was one of the players that embraced the fresh start of training camp. Carlson's injury took the shine off the apple and deprived him of critical time with quarterback Christian Ponder.
"The timing of the injury wasn't the greatest," Carlson said. "It put me behind the 8-ball a little bit – both with being quick to get into the system and to build a rapport with Christian. Also, I missed last year with an injury and this training camp. Skill development-wise, it set me back a little bit. But injuries happen in football. It's something everybody deals with. We saw what Adrian did after his ACL (injury) and the things he was able to accomplish. Injuries are something you have to deal with every year and it's just a matter of what degree you have to deal with them."
Carlson's numbers reception numbers never came close to living up to the contract number, but Vikings general manager Rick Spielman found some solace in other aspects of Carlson's performance.
"You can't always look at the production numbers, you have to look at some of the other things that don't show up in the stat sheet because some of the things that he did from a blocking standpoint doesn't show up on a stat sheet, but he was excellent and had a specific role that helped us get there," Spielman said. "I'm sure he would love to have more big flashy numbers, but sometimes that's not always the case. That doesn't mean that that player didn't perform just because he didn't have the particular stats."
Given the investment the Vikings have in Carlson, it is unlikely they will part with him so quickly. While understandably dejected by the last two years, Carlson is convinced that occupational redemption is coming, just as the Vikings' 3-13 season in 2011 has been buried and forgotten – one of the primary reasons Carlson was brought into the fold in the first place.
"Injuries happened and the timing was unfortunate in camp, but I need to be more durable," Carlson said. "When I do have opportunities, I need to makes plays. This year didn't go as well as I wanted it to go personally, but I'm looking forward to this offseason and developing a plan with the coaching staff to improve, to get better and to be more of an asset to the offense of this football team."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Carlson reflects on season, criticism
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