Million Dollar Baby

Michael Bennett finds himself at a crossroads thanks to injuries and faith shown in him by coach Mike Tice. It's time for Bennett to justify the love.

From the day he was drafted, Michael Bennett drew comparisons to Robert Smith. Both had great speed. Both learned the game in the Big 10 and, unfortunately, both were victimized by fluke injuries that wiped out much of the early part of their careers.

As Bennett enters the final year of his rookie contract, he feels the pressure to succeed. With Onterrio Smith out for the season and unproven players like Mewelde Moore and Ciatrick Fason behind, Bennett has a chance to make a big splash.

Then again, it's been the same story the last two years. That was, until injuries sidelined Bennett both seasons.

Head coach Mike Tice has tried to build his offense around the running talents of Bennett, but those plans have had to be scrapped each of the last two seasons. The third needs to be the charm because of depth concerns and Bennett's future.

When Smith had a chance to go out via free agency, because of his injury history, no outside team was willing to dive in with a big contract and he returned to the Vikings. The same may end up happening with Bennett. But there is one major difference between the two.

When Smith wasn't in the lineup, the Vikings offense tended to struggle. The same hasn't been true with Bennett. In 2003 with Bennett on the shelf, the Vikings got off to a 6-0 start. In 2004, the team got out of the gate 5-1. In those games the Vikings had a combined record of 11-1. With Bennett in the lineup, the team has been well under .500. Coincidence? Tice wants to think so.

With all the changes on the Vikings roster, one of the critical areas in the post-Moss Vikings offense will be to establish a running game so teams can't lock in on Daunte Culpepper. That will fall on Bennett. How he holds up will be key not only to the 2005 season, but to his long-term finanical future as well.

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