There are few more frustrating players on the Minnesota Vikings’ roster than Cordarrelle Patterson. The third-year wide receiver/kick returner flashed his considerable talent again on Saturday against the Dallas Cowboys with a 107-yard kick return that left Vikings fans yearning for more.
It's easy to understand why Vikings fans desperately want more of Patterson -- because his talent once he gets the ball in his hands is tantalizing. He holds the NFL record for longest kick return (109 yards vs. Green Bay in 2013). He led the NFL in returning kicks his rookie season and was named to the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro teams. Then he opened the 2014 season with a 67-yard touchdown run off a jet sweep against the Rams.
And then… the man they call “Flash” disappeared in a flash.
Patterson scored one touchdown the rest of the 2014 season. He finished with 33 receptions for 384 yards and the lone touchdown catch. On the ground, after picking up 102 yards in Week 1 against St. Louis, Patterson compiled a meager 15 yards on seven carries the rest of the season. He had another nice season returning kicks – finishing sixth in the league with a 25.6 yards per return average – but failed to take one all the way. Opponents focused their efforts on kicking away from Patterson or booming kickoffs out of the end zone.
Frustration mounted throughout the 2014 season, going from “Why aren’t they getting the ball in his hands more often?” to “Where’s Patterson?” to “He can’t run routes or get open.”
Head coach Mike Zimmer stated at the end of last season that he had a secret plan for helping Patterson during the offseason – presumably a plan that would help him refine his route running and overall wide receiver game. That Patterson Plan never came to fruition, though. Reportedly, following one conversation with the tutor Zimmer had in mind, Patterson instead opted to work on conditioning this offseason. That’s all fine and good, but to many Vikings observers it was a tone deaf move by Patterson since he already seemed to be in good shape. It was his wide receiver skills that needed fine tuning. The move left many shaking their heads, wondering if Patterson gets it – or even cares about becoming a meaningful NFL wide receiver.
It got to the point that some in the media wondered aloud in print and on airwaves whether Patterson would even make the Vikings’ 53-man final roster this season. It seems kind of silly to even question that, but in fairness, he’s the fifth or sixth wide receiver on a depth chart and the Vikings will likely only keep six. That’s the bubble range for wideouts, but his kick return acumen (and the first-round draft pick investment) has assured him of a job all along. Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer routinely refers to Patterson as “the best kick returner in the game” so you know he was going to bat for him in every meeting that involves roster discussions.
We witnessed his game-breaking potential again on Saturday night as he darted through the Cowboys kick return defense, followed great blocking and glided to the end zone.
Yet then there are times such as last week’s game against the Raiders where Patterson ran the wrong route on a pass play – resulting in an interception. Shaun Hill threw it to the right spot, but Patterson wasn’t home. Or how about the week before when Patterson scored a touchdown but also picked up a taunting penalty? Or how about during training camp practices in Mankato where I witnessed him letting a pass go through his hands and then later reaching around and over a defender to make a spectacular, athletic catch down the sideline for a huge gain.
The talent is there. No doubt. Get the ball in his hands and good things can happen. The trick is getting the ball in his hands. Are his route running mishaps and lapses correctible? Probably, but Patterson is the one who needs to make that happen. At some point the Vikings coaches are bound to tire of his inconsistency. If a player can’t be trusted to do his assignment and be where he is supposed to be on the field, that player doesn’t get to play as often. That’s apparently what happened in 2014 and we’ve seen glimpses of it again this preseason – along with glimpses of his formidable talents.
So what exactly is the Patterson Plan? Yes, he’s going to make the team and he should be a heckuva kick return threat again this season, but beyond that… who knows? It’s a puzzle.
It’s up to Patterson himself to put all the pieces together.
Bo Mitchell is the Vice President of Content at Sportradar US, head writer at VikingsJournal.com, co-host of the Fantasy Football Pants Party at 1500ESPN.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.
You can follow Bo on Twitter at @Bo_Mitchell