Jerry Gray’s magic boxing gloves appear to be working.
When the Vikings reassembled at Winter Park the Monday after their bye seven weeks ago, Gray, the defensive backs coach, put a pair of boxing gloves on Xavier Rhodes, the team’s big and then-grabby cornerback, and sent him out to practice.
The idea was to make Rhodes use his hands without being able to grab. Rhodes was tied with teammate Everson Griffen for the league lead in penalties — seven in four games — and had just been docked $17,363 for a horse-collar tackle during a three-penalty afternoon at Denver.
Pre-boxing gloves, Rhodes cost the Vikings 61 yards on seven penalties, including three for pass interference and three for holding. Post-boxing gloves, Rhodes has been flagged four times in seven games. Two were declined. The other two cost the team 31 yards for one pass interference and one hold.
“I never wore the boxing gloves before,” Rhodes said. “We tried it one time. I heard that other players have done it. It just helped put it in my head not to grab, so I guess it helped.”
Sunday, Rhodes shadowed Julio Jones, the NFL’s leading receiver, for nearly the entire game as the Vikings won 20-10 at Atlanta. With Rhodes on him, Jones was targeted only three times and caught only two passes for 18 yards as quarterback Matt Ryan continued to look elsewhere to throw. Overall, Jones caught only five passes for 56 yards, including a long of 19 that came against a safety in zone coverage.
With only one penalty since Week 7, Rhodes has dropped into a tie for fourth in penalties behind Saints cornerback Brandon Browner (18), Buccaneers offensive lineman Gosder Cherilus (14) and Rams offensive lineman Greg Robinson (13).
It turns out magic boxing gloves aren’t the only atypical teaching tool that Vikings players have used over the years.
During offseason workouts, Gray put blinders inside the helmet of cornerback Josh Robinson.
“The idea was to basically teach me that when I’m in off coverage or some man-to-man coverages to not look back at the quarterback,” Robinson said. “If you peek back at the quarterback, you can lose your receiver in man coverage. With the blinders on, I’d catch myself trying to peek, but I had no peripheral vision.”
The notion certainly helps horses in traffic. But does it help NFL corners in traffic?
“Definitely,” Robinson said. “It made me get disciplined with my eyes.”
Offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles said he has considered doing some Ultimate Fighting Championship training to help with hand-eye coordination.
“In college, we had a one-day training thing with UFC,” Sirles said. “We did some hand-fighting combat stuff. Those guys are crazy. I’d never do it, but you can watch those guys and see their hand quickness and how when they get a shot to shoot, they know how to target their eyes and take the quick shot. That would help an offensive lineman.”
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was in high school when he experienced the most unusual directive from a football coach.
“Ballet,” Munnerlyn said. “They wanted us to do ballet. I said, ballet? I couldn’t believe it.”
Did it help?
“It did,” Munnerlyn said. “I can’t lie. It helped with footwork and body control.”
Then there’s linebacker Chad Greenway.
Greenway grew up on a farm in South Dakota. He was building muscles the old-fashioned, Old MacDonald way.
“I’d say loading pigs as a kid helped,” Greenway said. “You have to get down and move your feet. Tagging calves after they’ve been born. Chasing them, tackling them, getting them down and wrangling them. Then you give them a tag to identify who they are.”
At what age?
“Nine or 10,” Greenway said. “But the bigger pigs didn’t come until I was older. The bigger pigs are like 280-pounders. Loading them is tough. Change of direction, keeping a low center of gravity. Just basic stuff, but I guess it can’t hurt.”
Robinson said he didn’t like the blinders when Gray first put them on him. He grew to accept it during the time he wore them. After being told about Munnerlyn’s ballet classes and Greenway’s pig-rasslin’ days, Robinson was even more appreciative of his simple teaching tool.
“Ballet and wrestling pigs?” Robinson said. “Nah, I never did any of that. But I guess whatever it takes to get better can’t hurt.”