Audie Cole understood the plan and the reasoning, but even a temporary pink slip brought a jolt of NFL reality.
Depleted at offensive tackle because of injuries, the Vikings placed Cole on waivers and promoted tackle Kevin Murphy from the practice squad the day of the Washington game on Nov. 7. Cole received the news at the team hotel.
The Vikings had every intention of bringing Cole back after the game, provided he wasn’t claimed by another team. This wasn’t a permanent goodbye, but more of a necessary business decision in a pinch.
That didn’t make it any less awkward for Cole, a second-year backup linebacker. He had scored tickets for a college friend who was in town for business.
“I just called her and said, ‘Hey, we’re not going to the game,’ ” he said.
He also had rounded up pregame sideline passes for a group of teachers who are friends of his aunt. The teachers stopped by the team hotel to pick them up after Cole had been released.
“I didn’t tell them anything,” he said. “I gave them field passes and just left.”
Cole watched the game at the home of injured safety Harrison Smith. No team claimed him, which Cole anticipated, he said, because the game was on Thursday and teams had already set the rosters for the week. And, he noted, his NFL résumé is fairly short.
“It wasn’t like I really had anything for anyone to go off,” he said. “I was kind of planning on just being back here the next day.”
Even so, Cole, who returned two days later, described the entire episode last week as “not cool.” But given how much has changed since then, he’s able to smile and shrug it off now.
“I guess it’s kind of weird if you think about it, but honestly I kind of forget that it even happened,” he said. “You just have to have a short memory and you can’t worry about what’s going to happen in personnel decisions.”
Cole is a textbook example of the NFL’s fluid nature. The 2012 seventh-round pick made his first career start at Green Bay last week in place of Erin Henderson, who missed the game because of personal reasons.
Rookie Michael Mauti might have earned the start, but he was listed as questionable after tweaking his knee in a loss at Seattle the previous week.
Cole burst through that opening by delivering the best performance by a Vikings linebacker this season in a 26-26 tie at Lambeau Field. Cole was credited with 18 tackles (two for loss), one sack and three quarterback hurries.
His 18 tackles were a season high by a Vikings defender, and he nearly produced as many quarterback hurries in one game as Henderson had (five) in 10 games.
Cole also wore battle scars befitting a middle linebacker. He suffered a gash on his forehead during a collision with a Packers lineman. He believes the wound required six stitches to close.
“I just counted as he was putting them in,” he said.
Henderson’s recent drunken-driving arrest came to light last week, but regardless, coach Leslie Frazier said Cole deserved the opportunity to remain the starter Sunday against the Chicago Bears based on his performance.
“When we came back on Monday and looked at the tape and verified some of the things we saw in the game, you say, ‘How do you just sit this guy down and not give him a chance to show if he can continue this?’ ” Frazier said.
Hard on himself
Cole evaluated his play with a more pessimistic eye.
“I missed two tackles, made a few mistakes, gave up a third down on me,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I could have done better.”
Geez, that sounds overly harsh for a guy who played all 94 defensive snaps, compared with only six plays total the first 10 games.
“I’m real critical of myself,” Cole said. “Usually, when I watch film, I’m a pretty negative person about it. I just focus on what I could have done better.”
He mentioned one play in particular. On a checkdown to James Starks in the third quarter, Cole darted in and made an ankle tackle with one arm. Never mind that the play resulted in a 5-yard loss. Cole wasn’t satisfied with his technique.
“I almost missed the tackle,” he said.
He didn’t miss his target — quarterback Matt Flynn — on third-and-9 with 3:33 left in overtime. Cole came untouched on a blitz up the middle and flattened Flynn, causing an incomplete pass. Cole disguised his blitz by looking at the receiver in the slot pre-snap.
“I was trying to look it off so no one knew I was coming,” he said. “It just worked out perfectly. It opened right up and I got a running start at him. That play couldn’t have worked out any better.”
Cole made a splash as a rookie and secured his spot on the roster by recording two pick-six returns on back-to-back plays in a span of 13 seconds in a preseason game against Buffalo last season.
“I don’t know without that if I would be here,” he said.
He primarily has played special teams his first two seasons, leaving his back story and potential at linebacker still relatively unknown. Raised in Monroe, Mich., he was a three-sport star who also dabbled in boxing and received college scholarship offers as a pitcher/outfielder in baseball.
He went 3-1 in Golden Gloves bouts as a high school sophomore and regularly sparred in gyms in Detroit and in Toledo, Ohio. A college friend of his father’s trained him.
“My buddy said, ‘He’s got a heavy right hand,’ ” said Cole’s dad, also named Audie. “To be honest, I’m glad that [interest] passed.”
What’s in a name?
The elder Audie is named after Audie Murphy, a decorated World War II hero who later became a Hollywood actor. Father passed the name on to his son.
Cole played quarterback in high school and was recruited by several colleges at that position before signing with North Carolina State, which offered no such promises. He arrived in the same recruiting class as Russell Wilson, now a star quarterback with the Seattle Seahawks.
“North Carolina State said, ‘We’re not really sure what you’re going to play, but you’re not playing quarterback,’ ” Cole said, smiling.
He settled in at linebacker and led his team in tackles his final three seasons. Cole is tall and rangy (6-5, 239 pounds) for a middle linebacker and he showed good instincts in coverage against the Packers.
An assistant coach pulled Cole aside last week and asked if he was nervous for his first start. Not at all, he said.
“You’re not going to rattle Audie,” said Smith, one of Cole’s closest friends on the team.
Not even being released the day of a game?
“We knew he was down about it,” Smith said. “But he still didn’t [show it]. A week later he’s starting. It’s pretty awesome. I think that would be hard for most people to handle mentally. He’s the perfect guy for that. You’re not going to shake him.”