Play it again, Cordarrelle
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Cordarrelle Patterson can hardly hear the beautiful music he made in 2013. Returning kickoffs and riding the bench makes it difficult for Patterson to remember the melody; spins, jukes, and improbable catches compose what was the fourth-year pro’s lone symphony.

Drowned out by his own inability to master the playbook and his coach’s refusal to take a chance, Patterson is doing all he can to overcome the outside noise. Workouts in Los Angeles, throwing sessions with Teddy Bridgewater, and a renewed focus on football give hope that Patterson can ‘play it again’ in 2016. General manager Rick Spielman believes he’s ready to shine.

“Where Cordarrelle has made tremendous strides this year is on his route running ability and becoming a better receiver,” he said, per Vikings.com. “He is very tuned in and very focused trying to prove to everybody, including himself, that he’s going to be not just a great athlete with the football in his hands, but a true receiver in the NFL.”

Outside of the risk that Spielman took in 2013 — leveraging four draft picks to move up and select Patterson — there isn’t much keeping “Flash” in Minnesota.

He’s become one of the league’s most explosive kick returners, but such specialized positions don’t garner deals on par with wide receivers and other skill players. And with a decision looming on Patterson’s fifth-year option next spring, Spielman described the stakes of his receiver’s upcoming season perfectly.

“Telltale year.”

It’s a narrative that’s run its course. Yes, Patterson is more dynamic than Jarius Wright and Adam Thielen. He’s a better athlete than nearly every receiver on the roster. Heck, he could suit up and play running back if the coaches asked him to switch positions.

But Patterson was drafted to replace Percy Harvin; to become a versatile weapon in Minnesota’s then-stagnant offense. Since 2014, he’s watched his opportunities fade into the abyss, with just eight starts to his name in that span. He has all of Harvin’s talent without any of the beleaguered star’s production — why?

Blame it on Patterson’s lackadaisical work ethic. Blame it on Christian Ponder and instability at quarterback. Blame it on Mike Zimmer. Whatever the case may be, Patterson is still fourth or fifth on a depth chart that talent-wise, should feature his name at the top.

Like Zimmer said earlier this offseason, the declaration of Patterson as a kick returner is “kind of a broken record;” fans know exactly what they’re getting when Patterson stands on the goal line at the start of games. It’s when he lines up with the offense that fans ask themselves: “What can Cordarrelle Patterson do?”

A look at the tape — specifically, film from 2013 and 2014 — should remind them of a familiar song.

Guitar Solo

Image courtesy of Cian Fahey (Football Outsiders)
Image courtesy of Cian Fahey (Football Outsiders)

After Patterson’s rookie season, Cian Fahey broke down the young receiver’s route tree, highlighting the receiver’s strengths and weaknesses. He found that the majority (18) of Patterson’s catches came on screen passes, which meshed well with Patterson’s best qualities as a football player. Fahey identified vision as Patterson’s top trait, but it could be argued that Patterson’s short area burst is what sets him apart from other wide receivers.

The four plays highlighted below emphasize just that; Patterson’s singular ability to weave in and out of defenses, make defenders miss, and find the crease much like a running back would out of the backfield. These play designs echo those run by the St. Louis Rams, who employ such tactics with a similarly-talented weapon in Tavon Austin. Early on in his career, the Vikings asked Patterson to stop on a dime, catch the football, and get upfield. That strategy allowed offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave to mask Patterson’s deficiencies as a route runner and simplify Ponder’s reads.

The result was something beautiful; Patterson’s own “guitar solo” within the Vikings’ offense.

Example No. 1

Patterson makes the most of nothing against the Packers. At the snap, the offensive line takes one collective kick step before executing the screen. The right tackle uses a chop block to clear the throwing lane and both right guard and center pull out as lead blockers. Patterson takes one step toward the line of scrimmage before turning to the quarterback and hauling in the pass.

Here, Patterson shows off, attacking the middle of the field before recognizing the missed block by Greg Jennings. Although Jennings isn’t necessarily blocking the cornerback, his body creates a natural barrier between Patterson and the defense. Patterson accelerates to the edge, giving one head fake and turning the corner around Jennings before plowing through another two defenders for an extra yard. His vision allows Patterson to find the appropriate lane, but it’s his burst that allows him to succeed.

Example No. 2

The Vikings line up three receivers in a bunch formation, this time asking the two outside players to block downfield. They execute efficiently, creating a crease for Patterson toward the first down marker. Like the previous example, Patterson attacks the line of scrimmage, then turns back to the quarterback for the football. It’s a simple screen pass, but one that only works with an explosive player like Patterson.

As fans saw so many times at Tennessee and early on with the Vikings, Patterson goes from “0-to-60” in a split second, racing upfield with electric speed. He doesn’t stop his feet upon contact, though; instead, driving through would-be-tacklers for an extra few yards.

Example No. 3

This time, Patterson lines up split wide, with a slot receiver to his inside. At the snap, he takes a comfortable step forward before once again turning to the quarterback. More offensive linemen work upfield, receivers block cornerbacks, and so on and so forth. The routine feels familiar, because in 2013, it was; the Vikings designed plays for Patterson, many of which lived in the 0-10-yard range.

Regardless of the predictability, Patterson identifies the running lane and explodes upfield, shaking off arm tackles to pick up the first down. He weaves in an out of traffic like a seasoned running back, stopping and accelerating as Adrian Peterson would at the line of scrimmage.

Example No. 4

Like the previous play, Patterson lines up outside, but motions inside as if he’s going to take an end-around handoff. Patterson wasn’t just an explosive receiver in 2013; he had 12 carries for 158 yards and three touchdowns. Defenses adjusted to these wrinkles, and often, Patterson found the weakness.  A mix of play action trickery, adequate blocking upfield, and Patterson’s ball-carrying prowess turn a short screen into a 14-yard gain.

Patterson made these types of plays look routine in 2013, but gadgets players don’t last in the NFL for a reason — they’re too predictable. More than that, the wrinkles offensive coordinators add to the playbook become easy to spot and sniff out. Unfortunately, Patterson’s limited route tree coming out of college forced Musgrave’s hand, and the offensive coordinator had no choice but to play to Patterson’s strengths.

Still, Patterson’s top qualities didn’t just jump off the screen; they launched themselves into the national media spotlight. A 6’2″ wide receiver wasn’t supposed to run that fast, juke with such finesse, and dance around professional football players with such ease. But he did, and for Patterson, those traits created a platform for continued growth. The question, then: “How would Patterson continue to grow in 2013 and beyond?”

Adding Instruments to the Orchestra

To make his own melody, Patterson would have to expand his game and succeed elsewhere on the field. For that, he needed help from Musgrave and the receiving corps. He had all of the tools to thrive, but with such raw abilities, couldn’t do it on his own. If Patterson was the lead guitarist, the offense made up the rest of the band — the bass, the drums, the lead singer.

And Musgrave, the band’s director at the time, found new music to play. He made small tweaks to get Patterson the ball, from hiding his star receiver in bunch formations to simply asking Patterson to “go up and get it.” He even stole ideas from previous sheets of music, borrowing concepts from the Percy Harvin era in Minnesota.

Example No. 1

Lined up outside in a bunch formation, Patterson is already at an advantage. Like the lead blockers on screen plays, the two other receivers in the bunch serve as natural barriers between Patterson and the Browns’ defenders. They don’t necessarily need to block anyone, but rather, occupy space and “sell” their dummy routes.

The two receivers release off the line and sprint down the field, clearing out the intermediate area of the defense. This pulls two Browns out of the play and distracts the point defender, the player responsible for covering Patterson at the snap. Patterson is the clear target in this design, as he’s the only receiver from the bunch running a route worth throwing.

Ponder drops back and steps up in the pocket, holding on to the ball as if he’s waiting for Patterson to get open. Patterson is technically open, but his next move highlights his subtle development as a route runner. Rather than continuing straight across the field, as he would on any other ‘drag’ route, Patterson breaks his route off and angles himself toward the first down marker. Doing this creates separation from the trailing defender and gives the offense an opportunity to move the chains.

Example No. 2

A song doesn’t need to be new to be beautiful, and this song was all too familiar for Vikings fans in 2013. Taken straight from Minnesota’s red zone, “Percy Harvin Package,” this play isolates Patterson for an easy touchdown. The design, which asks Patterson to start on the left of the formation and work his way across the field, takes advantage of an aggressive defense.

The play action at the snap gets the defense flowing to the left, at which point Patterson begins his journey to the opposite side of the field. He would’ve had an edge on the trailing defender regardless, but the play action only serves to give Patterson an even bigger cushion. He finds his way to the goal line, but again, notices his positioning on the field. He adjusts his route to give Ponder an easier throw, stemming to the corner of the end zone.

Ponder makes the throw, and Patterson snags the ball out of the air for six points. It’s not one of the “body catches” that Patterson made so many times at Tennessee, but a professional-level reception that requires elite hand-eye coordination. And the awareness to change his route and find the soft spot in the defense is a skill many players can’t learn; it’s an innate trait shared by some of the game’s best.

Example No. 3

The traits that made Patterson so dangerous on screen passes also revealed themselves within the framework of the offense. Lined up in the slot, Patterson benefits from another natural pick, this time created by the outside receiver. While Patterson is running an out-and-up route, the outside receiver is running what looks like a curl or a slant.

This shallow route holds the defender underneath long enough to create a tight, but manageable throwing window for Ponder. Patterson also succeeds in his own right, giving an expert head fake at the top of his “out” before breaking upfield. That head fake holds the deep safety long enough to create the window, which Patterson finds in an instant. His catch, an even more impressive feat, highlights the ball skills that many believed Patterson didn’t possess coming out of college.

The Music Died

Patterson had it all in 2013 and early parts of 2014. He out jumped cornerbacks, seemingly mastered the back shoulder fade, and learned how to beat press coverage. But something happened, something that brought an end to Patterson’s time on stage. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where it all went wrong, as it’s a mystery that Vikings fans are still asking themselves.

But one play in the middle of 2014 shined an unfortunate light on Patterson’s mental development. Fans remember it well; Patterson breaks free down the left sideline against the Washington Redskins, running full speed with nothing but green grass in front of him. Teddy Bridgewater unfurls a pass in his direction, only to overshoot his receiver by five or six yards. Or, does he? Some argue that Bridgewater missed the throw, while others say Patterson lost the ball in the sun.

Patterson’s body language, though, reveals frustration and a willingness to give up when things don’t go exactly as planned. On a Zimmer-led football team, that apparent attitude won’t last, and Patterson seemingly suffered the consequences of his actions. Over the final seven games of the season, he was targeted just 11 times and hauled in just seven passes.

Unlike Randy Moss, the former No. 84 in Minnesota, Patterson’s play on the field hasn’t transcended his unique personality. Moss was too often in the headlines for the wrong reasons, but on Sundays, he masked all of that with his otherworldly performances. Patterson’s silence in the Vikings’ offense, then, is an enigma.

He has a chance to recapture the sweet sounds of 2013, but this season may be Patterson’s last to pick up the guitar in Minnesota. He can play every note, but for now, the music has died.