Patrick Reusse: Inch for inch, Winfield the best corner out there

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 20, 2008 - 8:18 AM

Antoine Winfield has been a Viking for a relatively short time, but he is already one of the best at his position in team history.

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Antoine Winfield, a 10-year veteran, is having perhaps his finest season as an NFL cornerback. In Week 3 against Carolina, he had a sack, a forced fumble and a touchdown all in one play.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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Antoine Winfield has been around for 11 games involving the Vikings and the Green Bay Packers. He's impressed with the intensity of the competition, even if it doesn't compare with what he experienced in college.

"The Vikings-Packers rivalry is great, but it's not close to Michigan and Ohio State," Winfield said. "I'd say the emotions of everyone involved in a Wolverines-Buckeyes game are triple what you get from a normal Packers-Vikings game."

Winfield was on the Buckeyes' side of things from 1995 through 1998. "I was 1-3 against them, and twice they cost us a shot at the national championship," he said. "It takes a long time to get over losing to Michigan in that situation."

Ohio State is a three-touchdown favorite to defeat Michigan on Saturday in Ohio Stadium. The anticipated Buckeyes victory would give them five in a row for the first time in the 105-game series.

"We've all been enjoying the results lately," said Winfield, meaning all Buckeyes.

It was during his time as a Buckeye that Minnesota's football fans first were able to gain an appreciation for Winfield. He was a junior cornerback when Ohio State came to the Metrodome to play Glen Mason's first group of Gophers in 1997.

There was never much doubt of the outcome -- a 31-3 victory for Ohio State -- but Gophers receiver Tutu Atwell was an annoyance to the Buckeyes in the first half, catching three passes for a robust 51 yards.

Coach John Cooper told Winfield to line up across from Atwell in the second half. Tutu caught one pass for 4 yards.

Winfield was listed at 5-9 and 180 pounds on the Ohio State roster. Asked about the thumps he delivered to the Gophers, Winfield said:

"I've loved the hitting part of football since I was 4-3 and weighed 58 pounds in Pee Wee ball."

Winfield won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back as a senior in 1998.

Buffalo overlooked the fact Winfield was an actual 5-8 and made him the 23rd overall selection in the 1999 draft. He became a free agent after five seasons with the Bills and signed with the Vikings ... Red McCombs' Vikings!

How did that happen?

"I'm still not sure," he said. "We were in New York, ready to sign with the Jets. My wife and I went up to the hotel room where my agents still were working the phones. They told me, 'This isn't done yet. The Vikings increased their offer.'"

Legend has it, coach Mike Tice was willing to resort to pleading to get McCombs to come across with the $10 million signing bonus on Winfield's six-year contract.

During that first season, Winfield's interception clinched a victory over Detroit and Tice said in a postgame news conference: "He's close to being a great player."

That sentence sat in the air for a moment and Tice blurted a correction: "He is a great player."

How great? The Star Tribune's current book on the history of the Vikings included naming an all-time team. The cornerbacks selected were Bobby Bryant and Nate Wright.

Presumably, the Vikings will be offering a more official team in their 50th season of 2010, and it's probable Winfield will have made the impact by then to replace one of those corners from the glory years.

Winfield missed six games because of injuries to a hamstring and then a pectoral muscle in 2007. Ten games into this season, he's healthy and his play has been tremendous -- 55 tackles (six for losses), two sacks, three forced fumbles, two recovered and two interceptions.

Asked on Wednesday if this 10th season could be his best, Winfield said: "I think so. There are a few more things I could've done, but with the plays I've made, plus being healthy and on the field all the time ... this is probably as well as I've played."

ATTENTION: There's a closing quote coming here from Winfield's college coach, and you are barred from following it with a one-liner aimed at Brad Childress.

Cooper's succinct assessment was, "Here's what I say about Antoine Winfield: He can play better than you coach."

You on the computer ... stop! Go ahead and add a comment if you intend to laud Winfield, but no Chilly jokes.

Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. • preusse@startribune.com

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