Vikings: Henderson is no grousing understudy Mark Craig, Star Tribune
May 1, 2005 VIKE0501
A lot of professional athletes are just being paranoid when they complain that fans and media have counted them out.
But Vikings middle linebacker E.J. Henderson was absolutely right when he mentioned it Friday.
After all, who hasn't reached "10" and waved their arms over the 24-year-old Henderson's fledgling career? Who hasn't used an indelible marker to write 30-year-old newcomer Sam Cowart's name down as the starting middle linebacker for 2005?
"You can count me out, coaches can count me out, players can count me out," Henderson said. "But I'm not going to count myself out. And that's what really counts."
Rather than pull a Denard Walker and pout his way off the team, Henderson, according to Vikings officials, embraced the challenge put before him March 18 when the Vikings acquired Cowart from the New York Jets for a seventh-round draft pick. Cowart is working exclusively with the first unit during minicamp this weekend, while Henderson is on the second unit and special teams.
Because of Henderson's athleticism and professionalism, the Vikings aren't ruling out the possibility that he'll reclaim his starting job in training camp.
And if Cowart and Henderson both perform at a high level, Henderson will start in the middle and Cowart could move to the weak side, where Dontarrious Thomas and Raonall Smith are sharing reps with the first team this weekend.
"We'll find ways to get the best linebackers on the field," defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell said. "We might run some 3-4, too."
Henderson replaced the retired Greg Biekert in 2004 and led the Vikings in tackles with 125 despite a lingering knee injury. But his missteps and blown assignments, particularly in the passing game, were among the reasons the Vikings slumped to a 3-7 finish for the second consecutive year.
"My linebacker coach [Pete Bercich] called me and told me they were going to trade for Sam," Henderson said. "I said, 'Cool.' I can't blame them. I don't think I did terrible, but I definitely think I have a lot of things I can improve on."
Cottrell and Cowart have a history together in Buffalo and New York. Cottrell said he wants Cowart around beyond this season, but this could be a one-year fix.
Cowart is in his eighth season, has had Achilles' tendon and knee injuries and has a one-year, $1 million contract with about $500,000 in incentives based on playing time.
Cowart missed eight games and had only 25 tackles last season because of a sprained knee ligament. He lost his job to rookie Jonathan Vilma and then asked for a trade.
The Vikings convinced him to void the remaining three years on his contract and take a $500,000 cut in base pay for this season.
"It started out as a straight three-year deal," Cowart said. "Then my agent [Paul Healy] said, 'You know, if you stay healthy, you're one of the premier guys in the league at the inside position. If they have you locked in for three years, they aren't going to rip it up and give you a new one.'
"If I do well this season, I'd probably want to stay. I played for Teddy in Buffalo, and I went to the Pro Bowl under him in 2000. He's the reason I went to the Jets. And now I'm here."
Cowart and Henderson met for the first time Friday morning before the first minicamp practice. By Saturday morning, Cowart was pulling Henderson aside to explain the nuances of Cottrell's defense.
"Sam seems like a cool dude," Henderson said. "I definitely think we'll have a good feeling together."
To help put last season's mistakes behind him, Henderson said he has studied every defensive play from 2004 twice. It seems to be working: Cottrell said he's noticing fewer mistakes from Henderson this weekend.
"People can say what they want, but there is no job locked up, except for Pep [quarterback Daunte Culpepper]," Henderson said. "The rest of us are competing. If I want to play, I have to make them play me."
Spoken like a true VIKING, baby! GO EJ!!!