With the revolving door at cornerback during training camp and the preseason, the one mainstay at the position has been veteran Antoine Winfield. Cedric Griffin has been sidelined and the Vikings have given three different cornerbacks – Lito Sheppard, Chris Cook and Asher Allen – the chance to start in their first three preseason games. All the while, on the other side has been Winfield.
A 12-year veteran, there have been rumors circulating that Winfield is contemplating 2010 potentially being his final season. While quarterbacks and offensive linemen can play well into their 30s without a significant dropoff in production, cornerbacks are a different animal. They must contend with world-class speedsters at the wide receiver position and consistently make plays. Few have done it better than Winfield, but, having turned 32 in June, he knows that he has much more NFL time in his rear-view mirror than he has laid out in front of him.
But is he considering hanging up after the 2010 season?
"Not all all," Winfield said. "After all this time, my body still feels good. I still believe I'm productive and can make plays on the field. When the time comes that I don't feel the same way about any of those things, then I might consider it, but I'm feeling great right now and I'm ready to get the season started."
Perhaps the reason for the retirement rumors concerning Winfield making the rounds was due to his 2009 season. Prior to the season, he signed a contract extension that included language that would modify the deal if he was no longer a starter and being used as a nickel corner. Then he got hurt during the year and, what was initially reported as a foot injury that could keep him sidelined just a week or two, stretched out seven weeks – missing six games with the bye week giving him additional time.
It could be argued that Winfield was showing the signs of breaking down. In his 11-year career, he has missed 22 games due to injury. But, 10 of those came in his first eight seasons and 12 in the last three. What made the 2009 foot injury so maddening for Winfield was that he was powerless to get it better. Extra hours in the training room weren't going to help, which added to his malaise.
"It was frustrating because it was an injury that needed time to heal," Winfield said. "I was hoping to get back on the field as soon as I could, but the only thing that heals an injury like that is time. I found that out last year. You hope that (the injury) would respond and you'd wake up one day and you were fine. That wasn't the case and the more it dragged on, the more frustrating it got. The concern about coming back too soon was that you could just make it worse, so the medical staff said they wanted it to be fully healed before I went back out on the field."
Winfield said that veteran savvy can only take you so far in this game and that you have to be 100 percent to play cornerback at the NFL level. It's an unforgiving position in which a player is often out on an island – even in a Cover-2 scheme. If you lose a step, it can be the difference between breaking up a deep pass and getting scorched for a long touchdown.
However, Winfield said he felt as good in this year's training camp as he has in the last few seasons and that he has no fear about being left alone on the outside and shadowing receivers deep down the field.
"The big thing for a cornerback is your legs," Winfield said. "When they go, you're in trouble. You need to be able to react quickly and stay with receivers down the field. I can still do that and I've felt very good about that all during training camp."
Winfield's high spirits for the season have extended into helping the new corners like Sheppard and Cook get acquainted with the Vikings' defensive scheme and learning the little nuances that a veteran with his experience can provide. In many ways, he's been like a coach on the field as the Vikings have mixed and matched their corners with the first-team defense. While it remains unclear which corner will ultimately win the starting job and which will be the nickel and dime corners, Winfield said that Sheppard, Cook and Allen have all been given the chance to put their best foot forward and make a case that they should get picked to be in the starting lineup Sept. 9 when the Vikings open the regular season at New Orleans.
"I think they've had an equal opportunity to get reps," Winfield said. "The coaches did a great job of rotating them all with the first unit and giving them a chance to play with them. They had an opportunity and I think it's going to be a tough decision for the coaches."
Winfield said helping out players that will eventually take his job isn't something that concerns him. As a team player, the veteran players have gone out of their way to mentor the younger players. That isn't always the case, where some veterans on the wrong side of 30 feel threatened that they might "lose their spot" to a young, hungry talent. He said that isn't how the Vikings are wired.
"We have a great locker room," Winfield said. "Guys want to make other guys better."
Although Winfield said he has no immediate plans of retiring, he did admit that the Super Bowl championship that has eluded him for 11 years isn't getting any less critical. Whether he plays one more year, two more or five more, he knows the clock is ticking down, which makes his 2010 season perhaps as critical as any during his long and storied career.
"Every year is important and every year is different," he said. "We came close last year, but we didn't reach our goal. Every year the window of opportunity closes a little bit, so this is a very important year for all of us."
Who will man the cornerback position while Griffin continues to rehab the knee in which he tore his ACL in the NFC Championship Game is still up in the air, but one thing seems certain – whoever that player is, he will be lining up opposite Winfield, who is preparing for a big year in hopes he finally will achieve the goal that has eluded him for more than a decade.
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.
Winfield far from done
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