DETROIT – Sunday afternoon, “Hail Rudy” became a turning point and a rallying cry. Most days, it’s just a reasonable suggestion.
At the end of the first half of the Vikings’ must-not-lose game against the Lions, Kirk Cousins tossed a high pass from midfield into the end zone. The so-called “Hail Mary” is a football staple even though it rarely works. The play is a lottery ticket — a prayer defined by unlikelihood it will be answered.
Kyle Rudolph — the “Rudy” from Notre Dame who is taller than a hobbit — sprinted into the middle of the end zone, leapt and caught the pass before defenders reacted. That play turned a 9-7 deficit into a 14-9 halftime lead.
After trailing 9-0, the Vikings would ease to a 27-9 victory.
Rudolph would catch a season-high nine passes for a career-high 122 yards and two touchdowns. Only once in his eight-year career has he caught more than nine. He had not reached 100 receiving yards in a game since 2016, and only twice before had he scored twice in a game.
Sunday, the man of the year became the man of the moment, and perhaps a man of momentum.
Rudolph is the Vikings’ man of the year, making him their nominee for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. He is known for his charitable good works and even demeanor. When you’re standing in an end zone surrounded by superior athletes, likability won’t do you much good. Being 6-6 and a former high school basketball star will.
“I joked earlier that I had a lot of rebounds in high school basketball,” Rudolph said. “At that point, it just turns into another rebound. Maybe I’ll see if I can get that added to my career total in high school rebounds.”
When the Vikings hired former Eagles assistant John DeFilippo to be their offensive coordinator last winter, Rudolph’s prospects brightened. He has produced one statistically-impressive season as a pro — when he caught 83 passes for 840 yards and seven touchdowns in 2016. Otherwise, the Vikings have treated his receiving ability more as a luxury than a necessity.
The Eagles used their tight ends extensively on the way to winning a Super Bowl. Now it seems that Zach Ertz’s talent had more to do with that than the Eagles’ schemes.
In the first game called by new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski last week against the Dolphins, the Vikings scored 41 points, yet Rudolph had only three passes thrown his way and produced only 23 yards.
Entering Sunday’s game, Rudolph had gone a career-worst 11 consecutive games without a touchdown. “It was my time,” he said.
There was more to it than that. “It was a little bit of we thought we could get him open on some things, some of the coverages they were running and honestly, Kyle hasn’t run some of those routes for a long time this year,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “We thought we could hit some things on him and it turned out good. It’s good to get Kyle involved, too.”
Zimmer said that using play-action fakes and the bootleg creates openings for Rudolph and easy throws for Cousins. For a team struggling to protect the quarterback, those plays can produce safe yards and punish defenses concentrating on wideouts Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. “The more guys we can use, the better it is,” Zimmer said.
The Vikings practice the Hail Mary usually only on Saturdays, and then not a full speed. Zimmer once had a linebacker injured leaping for a Hail Mary pass in practice, so the team walks through the play. Cousins said it worked because the offensive line gave him time to roam. “The way he caught it, so easily and so naturally, makes you realize the kind of athlete he is,” Cousins said.
The Vikings might need to beat the Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday to make the playoffs. Against a frightening pass rush, a pass-catching tight end can be a quarterback’s best friend. A Hale Rudy could make a difference.