The Returns Are In

How much of an effort has it been to find a consistent, healthy kickoff returner? Last week, Tyrone Carter became the fifth player with five or more kickoff returns for the Vikings this year.

The returns are in and (for once) they're good.

Throughout the season, most of the Vikings' weaknesses have been exposed. Their record certainly indicates that. Yet hidden in this dark abyss of a season are tiny beacons of light, such as the soon-to-be-reached Michael Bennett's 1,000-yard rushing season, Randy Moss' 1,000-yard receiving season, Daunte Culpepper's 3,000-yard passing season and the defense's ability to stop the run.

An overlooked area where the Vikings have shined is on their kickoff-return team.

"That's one of the areas where we are really close to doing really well is the kickoff return," head coach Mike Tice said. "We've been close on a lot of returns over the last month. We put some new schemes in and the guys are starting to feel comfortable about some of the schemes and starting to gain confidence in the schemes."

It's a unique situation because five players have had five or more kickoff returns for the Vikings this season. Moe Williams and Nick Davis have 18 returns, Doug Chapman has 11 returns and Cedric James has 10 returns.

Defensive back Tyrone Carter entered the kickoff-returning picture against Atlanta. Williams, James and Chapman were injured. Davis had been taken off the return team because of his recent history of fumbling. So Carter, who had been lobbying and promoting himself to coaches for half the season as a kickoff-return option, was given a chance. He returned five kickoffs for 111 yards, a 22.2-yard average. He impressed coaches with how he protected the ball.

"Tyrone did an excellent job for us," Tice said. "We're very excited that he's back there, (being) very concerned about having the ball in his hand at the end. He's been bugging us for six weeks to do it and I'm finally glad that he had an opportunity to do it, and he did a nice job.

"He's done it before, he did it in college (with the Gophers), he did it when he first got here. He reminded me of that. He wants to do it, and a lot of times if a guy bugs you enough you finally figure, ‘Alright, go in there and do it.'"

Making December count
Under head coach Dennis Green, the Vikings became known as a team that excelled in the final month of the season. Even though the Vikings often suffered a swoon in November under Green, they usually managed to right the ship for December and head into the playoffs with momentum on their side.

In Green's first eight seasons with the team, the Vikings were 21-11 in December games. But in their final two seasons under Green, the Vikings were a paltry 1-7.

Even though the Vikings are far removed from any playoff race, there is still much to prove in December.

"Absolutely, these last games are going to be something to build on for us in the future," offensive tackle Chris Liwienski said. "We're looking to show up big."

Said Culpepper: "It's very important that we go out and do our best to try to win each game. … It's very important for that because that's all we really have to work for. We're not in the playoff picture so we've got to work toward the future. The best way to work toward the future is right now. That's why we've got to do the best we can right now."

One source of pride for the Vikings is they enter the Green Bay game with a 3-1 NFC North Division record. Their final game of the season is at Detroit, meaning the Vikings are already guaranteed of not finishing below .500 in their division.

"That's definitely one of our goals, to be strong in the division," Liwienski said.

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