Vikings

Kyle Rudolph's Hands -- and Gloves -- Have Shown Their Value

Photo Credit: Chuck Cook (USA Today Sports)

Many receivers would covet Kyle Rudolph’s hands.

Apparently, a mystery reporter coveted his gloves.

Rudolph relayed on Twitter Wednesday that a media member had requested his game-worn gloves after the Vikings’ playoff win over the Saints under the pretense that they’d be used to raise money for a charity. The tight end cooperated, signing the gloves to increase their value. Wednesday they popped up on eBay with no mention of a charity and were sold for $375.

It didn’t take long for the saga to resolve once it spread on social media. While the perpetrator remains unnamed, the buyer of Rudolph’s gloves, collector Jason King, said on Twitter he would donate the gloves to the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, and he encouraged other fans to donate.

“Funny story that turned out good for the hospital,” Rudolph said Thursday.

Controversy aside, Rudolph’s gloves were in demand for good reason. Minutes before, he had snagged a game-winning overtime touchdown catch in the NFL Playoffs. It was without a doubt the biggest catch of the tight end’s career, and it utilized the tools that have made Rudolph a staple in the Vikings offense for nearly a decade. The 6-foot-6 tight end used his size — and perhaps a subtle pushoff — to create separation on the smaller corner P.J. Williams. And as he’s done so many times before, held onto the ball while tiptoeing in the back of the end zone.

“I played a lot of basketball in my life,” Rudolph said. “And they brought all-out pressure and Kirk gave me a chance, and I just go up and get the rebound. Go up and get it and make a play to help our team win.”

It was Rudolph’s 20th straight game without a drop.

THE OFFSEASON DRAMA

It was impossible to watch Rudolph’s touchdown without thinking back to the offseason that nearly signaled the end of his Vikings tenure.

With second-round pick Irv Smith Jr. under contract for the next four years, the Vikings in deep salary cap trouble and Rudolph’s deal expiring after the 2019 season, the veteran tight end’s future was as murky as it had ever been.

Rudolph insisted to reporters that he would restructure his contract to help the team out financially. Minnesota was pressing up against the cap thanks to a flurry of offseason transactions designed around keeping its core intact. The Vikings went to great lengths to make things work with Anthony Barr and Everson Griffen, re-signing the former and restructuring the latter. Despite some media reports, they held on to their deep group of cornerbacks rather than trading one during the NFL Draft. They extended Adam Thielen to give him a raise after his career-best season. The gang was sticking together, and Rudolph wanted to remain a part of it.

After weeks of negotiations, Rudolph agreed to a four-year extension in early June that relieved the Vikings’ cap pressure and ensured Rudolph’s 2019 season in Minnesota. Given his dead cap number of $5.8 million this offseason, the team still holds leverage moving forward. But Rudolph was given the chance to return for a ninth year with the team, offering him hope of another playoff run with roughly the same group that came one win from a Super Bowl appearance in 2017.

“I’m certainly excited that this is behind us and now I can just focus on football,” Rudolph said at the time. “I can focus on being a leader of this football team and doing everything I can to make sure that we’re the first. That’s my only goal, I want to be a part of the first team to win a championship here. We got a taste of it two years ago. When we got close, you got a feel for how important that would be to this state, to this community, to this fan base.”

For a good portion of the season’s first half, it wasn’t clear how much of an impact Rudolph would have as he acted as a highly-compensated blocking tight end. Important, no doubt, but not a role to which Rudolph was accustomed. Through six games, he only had nine catches but stayed busy blocking for Dalvin Cook in the Vikings’ run-heavy offense. Through six weeks, he led the NFL in run-blocking reps, per Pro Football Focus, with 175.

“I’m focused on whatever my job is, and to this point my job has been blocking — blocking a lot,” Rudolph said after the first quarter of the season. “I go back to guys like Jim Kleinsasser and guys that I’ve been around in the past, Rhett Ellison, David Morgan, that have been stud blockers. I’m trying to do them proud. … For me, it’s a lot of fun because no one thinks I can block, so to go out there, to not give up a sack to Khalil Mack, and block Leonard Floyd, Clelin Ferrell, no one expects me to do that. Everyone knows I can run around and catch balls.”

It may have been an injury to Thielen that opened the door for Rudolph to get re-involved in the passing attack. Or perhaps a realization by the new-look offensive coaching staff that Rudolph’s hands could still be put to good use. After losing Thielen in the first quarter at Detroit, the Vikings passed to Rudolph five times for 58 yards and a touchdown against the Lions. It began a stretch of 10 games where Rudolph ranked third in the league in tight end touchdowns (6) and passer rating when targeted (140.4). Even as Smith, the rookie, has seen his role increase, Rudolph has remained effective.

In the Vikings’ final practice before flying west to San Francisco for their Divisional Round playoff game, Rudolph caught passes in the back of the end zone from Kirk Cousins while the special-teamers worked on punt coverage. That drill has been traditional for Rudolph going back to Case Keenum’s season at quarterback in 2017. The chemistry between Cousins and Rudolph has been noticeable in the second half of the season, and it came to fruition last Sunday in the game’s biggest moment. But before his touchdown catch, Rudolph was on the field for 49 blocking snaps, the most of any tight end in the Wild Card round.

“He’s just such a versatile guy and he’s such a great leader because he shows up every day and doesn’t care what his role is,” Thielen said of Rudolph, “and he’s going to grind and do whatever it takes to help this team win. It’s guys like that that people don’t talk about in the national media that are so crucial in the success of our offense.”

RED ZONE RUDOLPH

Rudolph has two one-handed touchdown catches this season. That’s also how many drops he has since the start of 2017.

The sure-handed target is a big reason why Cousins’ red-zone passing has improved with the Vikings. In three years as the Washington starter, Cousins posted the league’s 24th-highest passer rating in the red zone (93.7) out of quarterbacks with over 10 attempts. He threw five red-zone interceptions over three years.

In two seasons with the Vikings, Cousins has the fourth-best red-zone passer rating in football at 107.0, over 13 points better than it was in Washington. He has Stefon Diggs, Thielen and, of course, Rudolph to thank for that.

In a four-game stretch between Weeks 9-13, Rudolph caught five touchdown passes, including two TDs and a two-point conversion in a win at Dallas where he delivered his finest highlight of the season — a one-handed, falling-down grab along the back line of the end zone. Rudolph said in December he doesn’t practice one-handed catches; he just relies on his big “Mickey Mouse hands,” referring to the cartoon character’s white gloves.

“We don’t really go into the game saying, ‘Hey, ‘Rudy’s going to get X-number of touches and we expect him to have two touchdowns,'” Cousins said. “I think it’s really just been a result of the play-calls, coverages, and then Kyle making some spectacular catches. Certainly he has had a bit of an uptick through the middle of this season, and I think that’s been great not only for him but for our offense. It’s made a difference, and it’s been great to see how he’s made us right so many times when we give him the football in a tough catch, a tight window, making the play.”

Many of Rudolph’s scores have come in high-leverage situations. His 15-yard touchdown against Detroit put the Vikings up by 11 with less than six minutes remaining. His 3-yard touchdown in Kansas City gave the Vikings the lead with 11:03 to go. His 32-yard touchdown with 6:10 left against the Broncos completed a 20-point second-half comeback. And his 4-yard score at New Orleans gave the Vikings their first road playoff win in 15 years.

The Vikings’ previous road playoff game didn’t go as well. In the NFC Championship Game two seasons ago at Philadelphia, Rudolph scored a touchdown on the game’s opening drive. Then the Eagles strung together 38 consecutive points to oust the Vikings from the playoffs, one game after they delivered the Minneapolis Miracle at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Rudolph is determined to help the Vikings learn from that experience. He’s preached to younger players not to take these opportunities for granted, since they don’t come around all the time. After his future in Minnesota seemed up in the air seven months ago, Rudolph can appreciate the Vikings’ position as much as anyone.

“I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t learn from two years,” Rudolph said. “It’s an opportunity for us to realize that, hey, the last time we won on the last play of the game and had a huge emotional victory, we went and laid an egg the following week. I hope the guys that were around here are able to learn from that and realize that it was a great game, it was a big win for us, but it was just the first step in the direction that we’re going, and going to San Francisco this weekend is the next step.”

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