Last week during team drills with the Minnesota Vikings, Adam Thielen stretched out his body and dived to try to catch an off-target pass.
Thielen immediately questioned aloud the wisdom of his decision to risk pain when ultimately the completion didn’t matter. Thielen, though, couldn’t resist. There’s hardly a ball in the air he doesn’t believe he can grab, and this is anything but blind faith.
Through six games, Thielen leads the NFL with 58 receptions and 712 yards. He is on a staggering pace to reach 155 catches and 1,899 yards over a full season, which would break the record for receptions (Marvin Harrison, 143 in 2002) and fall 66 yards short of the best for yards (Calvin Johnson, 1,964 in 2012).
”Adam has a great heart. He’s really a tough kid,” said coach Mike Zimmer, who revealed the anecdote about Thielen’s ill-advised practice dive. ”He comes over to me and talks to me during the game about stuff that’s going on, and it’s always about, `These guys can’t guard me.”’
That’s a brash declaration, decidedly un-Minnesotan, but this lifelong native of the state isn’t deluding himself. He’s not the biggest or the fastest of his peers around the league, the biggest reason he went undrafted as an NCAA Division II prospect at Minnesota State, but his route-running ability is just about unparalleled.
”That dog mindset, as far as how he approaches the game and how he wants to win each and every rep, that’s something we have in common and that’s something that goes far with me especially because I know how he feels,” said fellow Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who is on pace for 107 catches and 1,160 yards himself. ”I know if there’s anything bothering him or anything like that, he still never makes an excuse and he makes the plays. At the end of the day, we all only care about making the play.”
Thielen has the most receptions through six games in NFL history, and he is the first player since 1961 to start a season with at least 100 receiving yards in each of the first six games. The 28-year-old is on track to set all kinds of Vikings records, no small feats with a franchise that has featured Pro Football Hall of Fame members Cris Carter and Randy Moss.
This is not where Thielen’s motivation originates, though. He is noticeably uncomfortable when asked by reporters about such statistical accomplishments.
”I’m just trying to help my team win games,” Thielen said. ”Honestly, if you lead the league in receiving but you’re not winning games, it’s not a fun business to be in, so it doesn’t really matter what your stats are.”
His take was no different on Sunday after he had 11 receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown that helped the Vikings beat Arizona 27-17 .
”I feel like I sound like a broken record, but it’s such a team stat,” Thielen said . ”When you have great players around you, that’s the only way you can do those things. We have so many great players and great guys that are selfless.”
There was no better example of Thielen’s impact on the success of the Vikings’ offense than early in the third quarter against the Cardinals as they clung to a 13-10 lead. Latavius Murray had just taken a 4-yard loss on a smothered toss sweep on second down, bringing up third-and-13 from the Vikings 42.
Kirk Cousins was hit by Chandler Jones as he released the pass, one of 15 times he sent the ball Thielen’s way in a tight space in the zone coverage. With outstretched arms and dragging toes, Thielen secured the catch right in front of the first-down marker before tumbling out of bounds.
Cardinals coach Steve Wilks challenged the call from the opposite sideline, perhaps assuming the difficulty of the task would reveal a bobble on the replay, but there was none to be seen.
Five plays later, Thielen hauled in a 13-yard touchdown pass from Cousins for a 10-point lead.
”It’s kind of a hidden play because it’s not the one that scored the points or the one that people will talk about,” Cousins said, ”but that is a big, big play.”
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