The Vikings have been making a season out of rotating their go-to receiver, and the depth at the position dictates that.
"Everybody wants to be that go-to guy," said Koren Robinson, who last week became the first Vikings receiver this season to get 100 yards in one game. "You want to be the No. 1 receiver, that No. 1 guy. To be given limited opportunities, it's hard. If somebody told you it's not hard, they'd be lying to you. At the same time, the receivers are close, we feel good about each other. We want to see everybody succeed, so we don't mind the opportunities that we get, however many plays we make, but in the back of our heads we want to make more plays and be given more opportunities. Right now, we have five receivers that can do anything basically. It's hard to keep us happy, but we're working within the receivers."
Among those five receivers – Koren Robinson, Travis Taylor, Marcus Robinson, Nate Burleson and Troy Williamson – are three (Koren, Taylor and Williamson) who were once top-10 draft picks.
Even with that lineup of first-rounders, it was 2003 third-round draft pick Nate Burleson that entered the season expected to be the primary target of Daunte Culpepper. Three months later, Burleson has struggled through injuries and it now looks like each of the players has a contributing role.
Koren Robinson appears to be a starter for the rest of the season and their main deep threat. Taylor has been the starting slot guy, a consistent albeit not as explosive presence. Marcus Robinson is the big red zone target, a guy that can go get the jump ball on a fade to the sideline. Nate Burleson, when healthy, is another reliable slot receiver who is adept at gaining yards after the catch. And Williamson is the fast rookie looking to find his way onto the field.
This week against the St. Louis Rams, head coach Mike Tice expects each of them to play.
"Our wide receivers are all healthy and it is going to be a hell of a competition this week, not for spots because we are suiting up all five, but there is competition for who is going to make the most plays," Tice said. "We've got some healthy guys now and they all want to outdo each other. That is a good thing when you have guys that want to outdo each other."
Of course, it is quarterback Brad Johnson who is responsible for dishing out the passes.
"I've played with two three-wide receiver sets that were unbelievable. I really didn't get to play with one, which was Jake Reed, Cris Carter and Randy Moss. The other was Keenan McCardell, Keyshawn Johnson and Joe Jurevicius. As a fivesome, I have never played with this many talented guys," Johnson said. "Whether it is injuries, or finding different ways to utilize their skills, it's a tough five to deal with. At some point in the season they have all stepped up and made big catches and big plays for us. Last week, I thought the receiving corps had their best week of catches. They stretched out and made some catches, catches on the sidelines, one-handed grabs or whatever it was. I thought the receiving corps really stepped up. Last week was their best week I think."
Marcus Robinson says they try to make their limited opportunities a fun competition.
"It's fun because we're always edging each other on, like if you get three catches you might get 100 yards. We're like, ‘If I can get a five route or an eight, that's probably 40-some yards,'" he said. "We're all looking forward to each other doing great, but as well we're all looking to be in position to get on that pass route and get that ball. A lot of guys like the football and have these different egos, but these guys have egos but we're all collectively as a group looking for each other to do well."
It hasn't always been easy for the receivers to simply accept a demotion and cheer for the other guy, but the position has been a revolving door of starters since the beginning of the season.
Burleson has started six games, but none of the last three. Taylor has started 10 games. Marcus Robinson, the veteran of the group in his ninth season, has started seven games, four of those being when the Vikings started the game with three wide receivers. Koren Robinson has started three times, each of the last two games and three of the last four. Williamson has started only three games, one of those coming when the team employed a three-receiver set to begin the game.
None of the wide receivers has more than 40 catches and none more than 500 yards receiving. Taylor has 38 catches for 460 yards, Marcus Robinson 27 for 424, Williamson 20 for 292, Koren Robinson 16 for 290 and Burleson 16 for 192.
Marcus Robinson, who caught three passes for touchdowns two weeks ago, then didn't start last week, says he handles the fluctuating roles by simply trying to be ready when called upon.
"I've been in this league for nine years. I understand that you go out, make some plays and the next week you may be the best blocker. Definitely what you have to understand in this league is control what you can control," he said. "Once you get your opportunities, make the best of them. I don't let myself get up or down, like I need the ball this many times, I need to be doing this or doing that. It's all about winning the Super Bowl and right now you just want to be a small piece of that puzzle."
Koren Robinson, who came to the Vikings at the start of the season with a checkered resume on and off the field but who might have biggest star potential of the group, said his situation at the beginning of the season warranted that he leave his ego behind in Seattle.
Coming off a 28-day alcohol treatment program, Koren Robinson was just gratified to get a chance to play in the NFL again. He wasn't sure that would happen when he was dealing with his off-the-field difficulties in August.
"I was prepared to not even play a snap, not even play offense period. I was just willing to do whatever. If I never played, I was just happy to be on a team," he said. "I don't have an ego, not this year. This year, coming into a different situation, I couldn't have an ego to think I was the man or whatever."
While he started the season primarily as a kick returner and has excelled in that role, he has become more a part of this offense in the last month. He has had 11 catches over the last three games for 228 yards. In all the other games this season, he had only five.
His explosiveness was never more evident to Vikings fans than it was Sunday against Detroit. On Minnesota's first offensive play, Koren Robinson split out right, Brad Johnson faked the handoff to Mewelde Moore and lofted an 80-yard touchdown bomb to Robinson.
But, in true fivesome fashion, the play wasn't necessarily designed to go to Robinson.
"It was designed to go at (cornerback) R.W. McQuarters, so if he would have lined up on Travis, then I feel like Travis would have gotten the ball because we wanted to go at R.W.," Robinson said. "Being that I was the man last week as far as my numbers and the week before it Marcus Robinson, still we don't really have an identity as far as the offense. It's up in the air; anybody could get it. We just don't want nobody to be snoozing at that time when there's an opportunity to make a play.
"We're winning, it's working for us, so we're not changing."
STARTING UPON RETURN
If Mike Tice is still the head coach next year, Daunte Culpepper will be his starting quarterback, Tice said Wednesday.
"Absolutely, Daunte is my guy. He always has been my guy," Tice said. "I am just like everyone else, praying that he can get through this thing with the great spirits that he has shown us that he has. Coming out there for the game the other day shows everybody that he has a great attitude. Diane (Tice) and I were able to spend some time with him and Kim (Culpepper) on Friday night and he was a gracious host and he told us about his injury. He was very positive about it. Absolutely, if I'm the coach he is my guy."
In a little more than six starts this season, Culpepper completed 64.4 percent of his passes for six touchdowns and 12 interceptions and a 72.0 rating. In a little more than five starts, since Culpepper's season-ending knee injury, Brad Johnson has completed 61 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns and two interceptions and a 92.6 rating.
For the Rams, QB Marc Bulger (shoulder) is out; T Alex Barron, CBs Terry Fair (neck) and Travis Fisher (groin), and DT Brian Howard (concussion) are questionable; S Jerome Carter (foot), CB DeJaun Groce (hamstring), RB Steven Jackson (ankle) and NT Ryan Pickett (knee) are probable.
Tice said there is an outside chance Williams would play, while the Vikings will see how Smoot's shoulder responds to practice this week.
Farwell, a special teams ace, impressed Tice with his toughness.
"He doesn't want to not suit up. You get these college free agents and they will play with two sprained knees, two sprained ankles, no teeth and no fingers," Tice said. "They just want to go out and play, and Heath Farwell is one of those kids. I was very impressed that he put on a knee brace, taped up his knee and went out."