It was hardly a pillow the size of the Metrodome's roof, but the Vikings looked at Nate Burleson in the offseason and they saw a receiver who they thought could legitimately cushion the blow of losing a Pro Bowler like Randy Moss.
Burleson's emergence last season, especially at midseason when Moss was injured, convinced the Vikings that there could be life after Moss. Certainly no receiver can fill the void left by a potential Hall of Fame playmaker like Moss, but the Vikings watched Burleson's progression from 2003 to 2004 and felt he was ready to elevate his game to elite status.
As a rookie two years ago, Burleson made 29 catches for 455 yards and two touchdowns. Last season, he had 68 catches for a team-high 1,006 yards and nine touchdowns. That, combined with the notion the organization would spend money on a free agent receiver (Travis Taylor), helped persuade the Vikings to deal Moss.
But a sprained left knee that he suffered in the second game of the season at Cincinnati has put a severe dent in Burleson's production. Burleson missed three straight games before his return last week against Green Bay, when he made three catches for 37 yards. With 10 games to go in the regular season, Burleson has nine catches for 130 yards and no touchdowns.
Fans can rightfully point to several reasons for the Vikings offense's swoon so far this season. A makeshift offensive line, a slumping Daunte Culpepper, and the lack of a feature running back can all factor in to why the Vikings are 2-4. But the lack of a primary playmaking receiver has plagued the Vikings offense as much as anything.
That's why the Vikings are happy to see No. 81 running routes and more importantly, gaining yardage after catches in patented Burleson fashion.
"When his number is called he is going to do what he needs to do to make it happen," Culpepper said. "Nate is the type of guy that lifts people up. He is the guy that loosens people up. He is a jokester, but everybody knows he is all about business. Everybody knows he wants to make a play."
During Tice's tenure at Winter Park, a read-in-between-the-lines type of trend has evolved where the head coach occasionally will take a jab or a subtle rip at an injured player. The thinking is it might motivate the player to return to the lineup soon. Running back Mewelde Moore has been on the receiving end of a couple of those messages ever since he joined the Vikings.
Burleson told VU he never felt that pressure to return to the lineup earlier than he should. In fact, Burleson said, Tice issued comfort, not criticism.
"Coach Tice didn't force me to be out on the field," Burleson said. "He hasn't said any remarks that would make me feel uncomfortable about being hurt. He just told me if I was healthy, they'd love to have me. So with him being relaxed it made me feel relaxed when I got out on the field.
"But I went out there on my own. I did what I had to do because I wanted to be out there and I felt good enough to be out there."
Burleson said he felt like 100 percent during the game against Green Bay. "With the way that Coach Tice was confident in me and the way the team was confident in me, I felt 100 percent," Burleson. "But that always changes in the morning."
As expected, that changed as soon as Burleson woke up. While he hasn't appeared on the injury report all week — meaning he didn't miss any practice — Burleson's knee hasn't reached optimum health yet.
"He said he really can't open up," Tice said. "Anything short and moving he said he really doesn't feel it at all. Anything over a certain amount of yards he feels it a little bit, but he is close. He is probably closer than some of the other guys coming back."
Good news for the Vikings offense. With no wide receiver averaging more than 3.8 catches per game the Vikings will need Burleson's emergence as soon as possible.
Burleson's Return Welcome By All
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