[size=10pt]Thin secondary, short memories[/size]
Vikings vets tell new DBs to forget bad plays
Pioneer Press


NFL cornerbacks are notorious for their short memories and horse-with-blinders outlook on their futures.

But Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield made a prediction late last season: Fellow cornerback Brian Williams would not wear purple in 2006.

That vision became clearer in November, when Williams seamlessly replaced the injured Fred Smoot as a starter and asserted himself as one of the Vikings' top playmakers.

"I kind of knew that last year would be his last," Winfield said. "The way cornerbacks are getting paid now, you're going to see double-digit signing bonuses and $30 plus-million contracts. So I didn't think they'd keep three corners at that price.

"Brian was too good of a player to take a pay cut."

With one of the NFL's highest-paid cornerback tandems — Winfield and Smoot both are playing on six-year contracts worth a combined $69 million — the Vikings simply could not pay Williams anywhere near his market value. And given the premium placed on his position, Williams got a six-year, $32 million contract that included $10 million in guarantees from the Jacksonville Jaguars on the first day of free agency.

Still, the Vikings were confident in their depth in the entire secondary heading into training camp. But before the season started, two key defensive backs, safety Tank Williams and cornerback Dovonte Edwards, were placed on injured reserve.

Although the starters boast plenty of experience, their backups have combined for just four NFL starts.

"We just can't get hurt," safety Darren Sharper said. "But if it does come down to that, those guys are prepared to step up and play well."

Rookie safety Greg Blue didn't make any glaring mistakes in the season opener, when he replaced veteran Dwight Smith, who was benched for disciplinary reasons, and rookie Cedric Griffin and first-year cornerback Ronyell Whitaker have looked solid, save for one key play Sunday against the Chicago Bears.

With just under two minutes remaining, Whitaker was beaten by Bears receiver Rashied Davis for the game-winning 24-yard touchdown.

Whitaker was initially upset about being the "new guy" who gave up the key play. But that feeling was fleeting.

"My teammates gathered around me and said not to sweat that," Whitaker said.

"I looked at him," Smoot said, "and I'm like, 'Man, don't worry about it. It's you today, it'll be 'Toine tomorrow, and me the next day. It's inevitable.

"You can't dodge it. I know he feels bad because of the time it happened. But it happens. That's the life of a cornerback. You can shut someone down for four quarters, and with one minute left they catch one pass, and (people say) 'He burned him all day.' "

Sharper didn't feel compelled to encourage Whitaker.

"Ronyell is not really a young guy," Sharper said. "He's been in the league a while. If it was a rookie or someone who might get shook up, I might say something. But Ronyell doesn't need that. He's going to bounce back and make a play next time."

Although he is a first-year player, Whitaker has been in the NFL since 2003, when he jumped from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' practice squad to the active roster for the final four games. Whitaker spent the 2004 season on the Bucs' practice squad, and he was out of the league in 2005, after the Bucs released him following training camp.

Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin pushed for Whitaker's signing in February, and Whitaker excelled in NFL Europe.

"He's just a competitor," Vikings safety Dwight Smith said. "He's going to compete in every situation, and he won't let anybody outwork him."

Smoot said he'd rather Whitaker and Griffin make their mistakes now, early in the season.

"Make it when we can do something about it," Smoot said. "You don't truly learn anything until you get it out there and learn it yourself."

Griffin said he is looking forward to playing for extended periods, instead of plays here and there.

"I want to just play and get into a rhythm," Griffin said. "When the opportunity comes, I'll be ready to go."

In the meantime, Griffin is learning the nuances of the Cover 2, which he did not play much in college at Texas. He said he has adjusted to the speed of the game, but he is still working on the physical techniques that the scheme demands.

"I just got to be patient," Griffin said.

Smith said the young players must learn through "trial and error," but he noted that there's one non-negotiable key: "Don't go in the tank."

In other words, they need to bounce back after giving up a play.

On the touchdown Sunday, Smith said he could have done more to help Whitaker.

"I mean, I feel I should have been there," Smith said.

But Whitaker accepted the blame, saying he was too conservative on that play.

"I didn't want to be too aggressive and maybe get a flag," Whitaker said. "We had everything going so good. I didn't want to get a penalty to mess up our momentum. But that's my game (being aggressive). I think I could have jacked him up. Lesson learned.

"I'm kind of glad I saw it now," Whitaker said, "and next time we play them, maybe I can make a play on them."

By then, though, Whitaker might not remember.