Zulgad: Vikings appear to be OK with letting Percy Harvin go full tilt
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. - Leslie Frazier's approach to managing Percy Harvin's playing time last season seemed to go something like this: If Harvin isn't on the field too much, he can't take the type of beating that will land him on the sideline.
So Harvin's kickoff returns dipped from 40 in 2010 to 16 in 2011. He also ended up playing only 600 snaps, or 57.9 percent of the time, despite being one of the NFL's most dynamic playmakers. This put him 76 snaps behind the far-less dynamic (and we're being kind) Devin Aromashodu.
Frazier honestly believed he was doing the right thing, but it didn't take much to pick up on Harvin's frustration about how he was being utilized. At one point, Harvin cut off someone asking about his lack of use on kick returns and said he was tired of the subject.
The wide receiver hasn't had to worry about that question being repeated so far this year.
Two things seemed to happen to change this during the offseason.
The first occurred when numerous opposing coaches at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine did themselves no favors by telling Frazier how big of a matchup nightmare it was to face Harvin.
The more times Frazier heard this, the more he began to realize that limiting Harvin meant he was severely limiting his own offense and thus doing himself no favors when it came to the potential of extending his stay as Vikings coach.
The second factor, and this is more guesswork than fact, is that Frazier also realized that Harvin had no appreciation for the fact the coach was trying to, in some ways, save Harvin from himself.
To call Harvin a violent runner would not be doing him justice. Harvin doesn't just invite contact, he seems to embrace it. His athletic abilities mean that at times he can be elusive for opposing tacklers, putting moves on them that leave them looking foolish.
But if he can't be elusive, Harvin doesn't seem to care.
He will then simply use his 5-foot-11, 185-pound frame to run over you.
Harvin isn't going to back down from any defender and welcomes their attempts to bring him to the ground. The man is made of what appears to be almost all muscle and seems convinced he will either bounce off of defenders or drag them with him en route to getting extra yards.
This isn't a very good way to stick around the NFL for the long term but Harvin doesn't seem to care. It appears Frazier has realized this and now is simply letting Percy play like Percy.
Harvin entered Sunday's game against Washington already bothered by a nagging hamstring issue and appeared to aggravate it once or twice. There was a point when the Fox cameras showed him on the sideline as an athletic trainer tended to a nasty cut on his leg.
Despite this, Harvin was still the target of a game-high 14 passes from Christian Ponder and caught 11 of them for 133 yards. He also had two rushing attempts and returned three kicks, averaging 33.3 yards in doing so. His 49 catches this season put him one ahead of New England's Wes Welker for the NFL lead.
So how did Harvin feel on Monday after all the hits he took in Washington?
"This is the best I have felt in a while," he said, only somewhat joking. "Nah, I'm a little sore. But no sorer than anybody else. I've got two days off. I'll be ready to go Wednesday."
Getting Harvin a rest in a practice here or there might not be the worst idea - early in his career reported migraine headaches cost him countless practices and a few games - but limiting him on Sundays now appears to have become another issue.
In six games this season, Harvin has returned 12 kickoffs for an average of 37.1 yards, with one touchdown, and also has played 74 percent (308 of 416) of the snaps on offense. His 603 total yards from scrimmage, including 63 yards rushing on 15 carries, puts him eighth in the NFL.
"Percy's unbelievable," Vikings running back Toby Gerhart said. "He's the premier player in this league. He can do it all. Running, returning, catching the ball. For as little as he is, he runs harder than most guys out there. So he's an absolute monster, absolute beast and nothing but respect for him. He's one heck of a player, one of my favorite players to watch."
Frazier was asked Monday if there were certain players that are simply impossible to protect from themselves.
"We're going to always try to do what's best for the team and what's best for our team is to have Percy on the field," Frazier said. "That's obvious. His style of play is not going to change, so we're going to utilize his talents to the fullest. We'll be conscious of how we use him when we do have him on the field but to say we're going to use him less or use him in different ways, I can't stand here today and say that's going to be the case.
"We all know that injuries are part of our game. We're going to try to protect him as much as we can but at the same time, the way he plays, his style of play, it's no different for a lot of our guys. They're going to play 100 miles per hour and play full-tilt. That's what keeps you from getting injured at times rather than trying to play to not get injured."
But Harvin doesn't play at 100 miles per hour. He plays at about 500 miles per hour and seems happy to do it.
If this is how Harvin wants to play the game, the Vikings should embrace it and, at the same time, hold their breath. There is little doubt that eventually it's going to catch up with him.
But the flip side is using Harvin less, which would only serve to harm the offense and get him mad at the coaching staff. If Harvin is willing to take this type of abuse, and he seems to welcome it, the Vikings might as well go along for the ride.
The only real question is going to be how the Vikings proceed when it comes to giving Harvin a new contract. He is due a base salary of only $915,000 this season under the five-year rookie deal he signed in 2009 and is scheduled to make $1.55 million next season.
Harvin is only 24 years old and is sure to get plenty of money up front in his next contract. NFL deals aren't guaranteed so the up-front money is the important thing. But what type of investment do you make long-term in a guy who literally plays every play like it could be his last?
That's tricky and the Vikings front office is eventually going to have to make that decision.
For now, the most important decision the Vikings and Frazier must make on Harvin is how much to use him. And this season, they have made the right decision when it comes to their star receiver.