As the afternoon turned into evening and then night on March 15, and Latavius Murray’s agent took hammer and tongs to the pact that would send him to the Vikings, the running back sat in a room with a chopped salad, salmon and a couple candy bars, dutifully completing coursework for his MBA at Syracuse while biding his time.
The Vikings knew at the time that Murray would need surgery on his right ankle, and he had the operation a week after signing the three-year, $15 million deal that effectively ended the Adrian Peterson era in Minnesota.
Now, with less than a month before the Vikings begin the regular season against Peterson and the New Orleans Saints, Murray is testing the limits of his patience again.
The right ankle surgery that Murray had in March, with a view toward returning during training camp, kept him on the physically-unable-to-perform list until the Vikings’ final two days in Mankato. He says there is now nothing he can’t do on the field following his rehab from surgery, and he did some work with the Vikings’ top two offensive units during their Tuesday practice.
But the Vikings’ plan for Murray, which follows a cautious time line to guard against a setback for the 26-year-old, still hasn’t put him on the field for a full practice, and it remains to be seen whether he’ll play in their second preseason game against the Seahawks on Friday night.
“I want to be out there this week, next week,” he said. “I need to get as much repetition as I can. It’s not a thing where I want to wait until the season starts. I think any time I’m on the field, practice, preseason games, it’s a chance for me to get better. I’m not holding back or trying to wait.”
The good news for Murray is that a full return seems to be getting closer. Coach Mike Zimmer said “it won’t be too much longer” before Murray is ready for more extensive work, adding he is essentially waiting on medical clearance before turning the running back loose.
Until he gets game action, Murray can’t make a full case for a decent share of the carries in a backfield with Jerick McKinnon and Dalvin Cook, the second-round pick who has received most of the first-team work in training camp.
The Vikings signed Murray to a three-year, $15 million contract, planning for him to be a significant piece of their revamped backfield as they moved on from Peterson. He accomplished enough in Oakland the past three seasons — running for 1,066 yards and earning a Pro Bowl selection in 2015 before scoring 12 touchdowns last year — to solidify his reputation as a productive back.
Zimmer, though, made it clear again on Tuesday he won’t fully know what he has in Murray until he sees him in person. Murray doesn’t disagree.
“These players here don’t really know me that well,” he said. “I’ve only been on the team for a few months. I’ve got to earn their trust and get back on the field so they can see what I’m about. I think that’s the most frustrating thing for me because I want to earn their trust. I want to go out there and play alongside of them. But when I’ve been sidelined since I’ve gotten here, I’m sure it’s hard for them to see that at this point. The most important thing for me is getting healthy because if I’m at my best, then I can be at my best for them.”
He’s hardly the first athlete to walk the line between wanting to make a speedy return and guarding against complications in his rehab. Murray has absorbed as much as he can in the Vikings’ running back room, and Zimmer doesn’t seem concerned with the running back picking up the team’s offense in time for the regular season
“He’s been around long enough, and he’s seen a number of different protections, through the course of the practices he’s been in and the walk-throughs and things like that,” Zimmer said. “The terminology is always the No. 1 thing about learning an offense, but Latavius is a smart guy.”
He’s also perceptive enough to know there’s only so much he can learn without playing, and only so much he can ingratiate himself into the team fabric without getting on the field. That’s why he doesn’t want to wait much longer.
“I think when you get those live reps, I think that’s when you really learn,” Murray said. “The faster I’m able to come out here and practice and hopefully get into the preseason, when the season comes around, I’ll be right on schedule.”