Pelissero: Doubters in his ears, Erin Henderson ready to play angry
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Erin Henderson is sick of hearing about Brian Urlacher.
He's sick of hearing about a lot of things, really. But nothing gets under Henderson's skin like the suggestion he can't, or shouldn't, or won't be the Minnesota Vikings' middle linebacker in 2013.
"Coach told me all the time, 'Play angry. You're too nice sometimes. Play angry,'" Henderson told 1500ESPN.com by phone on Wednesday. "I haven't been more pissed in -- I couldn't tell you. I don't think I've ever been this pissed in my entire life, to just hear people talk about stuff that they have no idea what they're talking about.
"I guess it's getting to a point now where it's like, 'Dang, I just want a little bit of respect.' I'm not asking you to call me the greatest linebacker to ever play the game yet. Maybe one day we might get to that point, but show me a little bit of respect for what I've done and what I've accomplished in this league."
Henderson, 26, can rattle off all the statistics. Coaches credited him with 91 tackles (56 solo) in 2011, his first season replacing Ben Leber as the Vikings' weakside linebacker. In 2012, Henderson had 112 tackles (72 solo), good for fourth on the team.
He put up those numbers despite playing less than 60% of the snaps, primarily in the base defense. And for all the hand-wringing over some glaring mistakes in coverage, the Vikings were 6-4 last season when he at least split time with Jasper Brinkley as the nickel mike.
"People can say I'm not a three-down 'backer," Henderson said. "They can say whatever they want to say. But it's right there in front of your face. The proof is in the pudding. And I'm only going to get better from here. I'm going into my third season, and I've never felt more confident about myself or about my game than I do right now."
Brinkley signed with the Arizona Cardinals on March 19, six days after the Vikings opted to re-sign Henderson for two years and $4 million in part because of his versatility. Henderson soon approached his longtime advocate, co-linebackers coach Fred Pagac, about taking over in the middle and began bulking up to nearly 250 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame.
But coach Leslie Frazier has been noncommittal about Henderson's role, saying during the recent rookie minicamp he's "in the conversation" along with second-year pro Audie Cole, journeyman backup Tyrone McKenzie and rookie seventh-round pick Michael Mauti, who is coming off knee reconstruction and won't practice until training camp.
The uncertainty has helped perpetuate on-and-off rumors the Vikings want Urlacher, a five-time All-Pro with the Chicago Bears who is in obvious decline at age 34 -- speculation Frazier tried to shoot down "at this point" in an NFL Network interview on Wednesday.
"I've kind of had to deal with it my entire career," Henderson said. "A lot of people have said I shouldn't have been starting as the will 'backer. Coach was saying the same thing going into the season last year -- 'Well ... Erin's going to start out camp as the will backer.' It's never really been just outright, 'OK, this is Erin's position. This is Erin's spot.'
"So, I'm used to it. Just like now I've got to hear they might want to bring in Urlacher. Cool. Bring him in. And if he's better than me, if he can outplay me at that position, then let him play -- but just make sure it's a competition, you know what I mean? Make sure I've got a fair shot at it and I get my fair shake that I deserve at the position. That's all.
"And to the fans who don't believe that I can do it, you haven't seen me do it. How can you say that I can't do something if you haven't seen me do it? They say different things about my abilities or whether I should be a starting linebacker or everything else, but my numbers and the fact that I'm still here speak for themselves."
Henderson calls himself a rhythm player who gets better as he watches the game unfold. He does have good instincts and may be better off reading and reacting from 5 or 6 yards off the scrimmage at the mike, where the only real rule is don't overrun the ball, rather than just 2 to 3 yards at the will, where protecting the backside "B" gap is essential.
The question isn't his ability to play downhill in the run game, though. It's whether he can make up for what he lacks in speed and range and limit the sorts of memorable miscues that drive the perception of him in coverage -- most notable, on touchdowns last season to Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne (he slowed his feet) and Green Bay's Greg Jennings (he got nosy).
"You can try to crucify me for that," Henderson said. "You can keep holding the past against me. But you live and you learn. So, if I keep making the same mistakes repeatedly over and over and over, then yeah, you might have a case. But because somebody makes one mistake, you're telling me that they're just terrible at coverage and they're awful in coverage and they don't deserve to be a starting linebacker in the NFL -- that's not true."
Henderson suffered an elbow injury and a concussion against the Colts. He sat out the next two games, played only in the base defense until Week 10 and didn't return to the full-time nickel mike role until Dec. 23 at Houston -- another sign coaches still have questions about him as a full-time player.
At Pagac's behest, Henderson has been working on his footwork to get depth and come back to the ball without wasting steps. He has been working on his leverage and his knee bend. He has been working on his cardio to avoid the fatigue that can hurt his technique if he does end up playing 70 or 80 snaps a game, rather than 30 or fewer.
He says he's maturing personally, too, with a wife, Maleah, he married last spring and a young son, Lennox. He admits he was immature in his early days with the Vikings and feels his growth off the field is finally starting to follow the same path he hopes to take on it.
When he speaks about disrespect, though, Henderson sounds every bit like the player who went undrafted out of Maryland five years ago and signed with the Vikings for a $20,000 bonus. He remembers what it was like to be unwanted and probably will exit the NFL someday the same way he came in: sick of hearing what he can't, shouldn't or won't do, intent on silencing the doubters.
"They could have easily let me go," Henderson said. "They could have easily moved on to somebody else, brought somebody else in or done something. But for whatever reason, I'm still here. Evidently, I'm doing something right."