There is one sure sign you have made it as a professional athlete, and it has nothing to do with money or rings. You know you’ve arrived when your teammates gleefully insult you in public.
“I worry about Adam,’’ Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “He’s kind of slow. I didn’t know that he could get all the way there. And he put his head back like he was tired.
“The doors were closed. If they were open, he’d never had made it going against the wind.’’
Adam Thielen on Sunday broke open the most impressive victory of an increasingly promising season. He took a short pass from Case Keenum in the fourth quarter of a close game, burst around one defender and outran another for the 65-yard touchdown that popped the cork on a 24-7 Vikings victory over the Los Angeles Rams.
The Vikings are 8-2 and positioning themselves to play in January, perhaps even February, in U.S. Bank Stadium, and Thielen is again altering expectations and busting myths.
The caption on his career keeps changing. Division II college athlete. Undrafted long shot at a tryout camp. Special teams contributor. Extra receiver. Starting receiver. Star receiver. And now one of the best receivers in the NFL, and the most productive receiver on one of the league’s best teams.
After making six catches for 123 yards and a touchdown, Thielen has 62 for 916 yards this season. In franchise history, only Randy Moss has produced more receiving yards in the first 10 games of a season.
So why are defenses not swamping him with double teams and complex coverages? Why are we still hearing the same backhanded compliments about his “smarts,’’ and “scrappiness?’’
“It’s almost like guys don’t believe it,’’ Vikings cornerback Terence Newman said.
Why don’t they? “Your guess is as good as mine,’’ Newman said.
The unspoken theory in the Vikings’ locker room is that Thielen falls prey to stereotypes about average-looking white receivers, so everything he accomplishes feels like an upset.
Here’s what is strange about that: Thielen is 6-2 and 200 pounds. He’s plenty fast, as he proved again on Sunday, and he’s quick off the line and when making cuts. He has tremendous body control, which helps him fool defensive backs and make acrobatic catches.
He didn’t hit a growth spurt when he was 24. He’s virtually the same player who starred in Mankato. The pros just blew it when evaluating him.
“He’s a good football player,’’ Rudolph said. “He prepares really hard. He’s playing at a really high level right now. It’s fun to watch. Now he’s starting to get those plays, where he catches a slant and goes for 65. You’re calling a play to get a 10-yard gain and he takes it 65.’’
The Vikings haven’t had a receiver reach 1,000 yards since Sidney Rice in 2009. They’ve been searching for a star ever since.
Percy Harvin was more of a hybrid than a pure wideout. Greg Jennings disappointed. Cordarrelle Patterson became a return specialist. Laquon Treadwell, despite a prototype NFL receiver’s body, can’t create separation. Stefon Diggs is an excellent player but hasn’t stayed healthy enough to amass big numbers for a full season.
Thielen has passed them all as if they were flat-footed safeties, and even before Sunday he ranked third in the NFL in receiving yards.
Newman noted that Thielen has a gift for setting up defenders, for leaning or feinting to create space. Thielen is also football fast. Remember, the Pro Football Hall of Fame is filled with receivers who had no chance to make an Olympic sprint team, including Jerry Rice and Cris Carter.
After the game, Thielen avoided saying anything hinting of arrogance, but did let his confidence show. Asked about a botched celebration in the end zone after his touchdown, Thielen said, “We’re not going to talk about it, because we want to save it.’’
Thielen has scored in three straight games. For a player who still seems overlooked by the league, the price of NFL success may be keeping a choreographer on retainer.