Just two short weeks ago, while prioritizing my view on the offseason needs of the Minnesota Vikings, I placed inside linebacker at the top of the list and wrote this sentence:
Audie Cole and Michael Mauti have plenty of fan support, but it just seems like they are not destined for stardom.
Well, maybe I jumped the gun a little there. Maybe, just maybe, I underestimated how much perception could change over the course of two (or one, really) NFL football game.
In Week Seventeen, against an uninspired and lackluster Chicago Bears team, Audie Cole filled in for Chad Greenway and the results were genuinely impressive. In fact, I would personally go so far as to say Cole had one of the best linebacker performances we’ve seen since Antoine Winfield’s prime (I still stand by my assertion that Winfield was more linebacker than corner).
Cole received a higher game grade (+7.8) from Pro Football Focus than Greenway ever has in his career and, from what I can tell, is the highest grade given to a player of the same position all year. That, to say the least, is a pretty impressive “next man up” effort.
Right out of the gate, Cole appeared to have a hot hand, as he had four tackles (one for a loss) on the first drive of the game. He finished with 14 tackles, 11 solo, one for a loss, a beautiful pass deflection, and an interception that was called back due to an offsides penalty.
What’s more, as part of taking over for Greenway, it was Cole that wore the defensive green dot communicator and relayed the defensive calls to his teammates. He was quite literally the leader of a defense that gave up zero touchdowns for the first time since the season opener against St. Louis.
Cole will win VT‘s final “Player of the Game” award as voted on by our readers, but one can’t help but wonder if he didn’t win himself something far more important… a real crack at the starting lineup in 2015. This performance, coupled with previously impressive starts as outlined here by Carl Knowles, have to leave Mike Zimmer at least considering Cole and his production for 2015.
If that happens, then our guest poster Brent Butler from back in July can send us all a big huge “I Told Ya So” card. I’m cool with that, without a doubt. I’d frame it.
“Audie played in there in all of the sub groups, nickel packages, the whole bit today,” Zimmer said following the win. “He made all the calls and checks. The more you can do, the longer you get to stay.”
“He wasn’t mistake-free,” Zimmer, a vocal critic of Pro Football Focus, continued, “but his heart was big.”
That heart, with mistakes and all, might have been just big enough for me to reconsider my list of offseason needs very, very soon.