Percy Harvin (Greg Smith/US Presswire)
Percy Harvin has the leading average of the Vikings’ three kickoff returners, but he doesn’t get that role too often. That may change with the Vikings’ need for field position and Adrian Peterson offering returning on offense.
Percy Harvin wasn't waiting until the Minnesota Vikings returned home. He wanted to make his feelings known well before the team's plane touched down in the Twin Cities.
Harvin is as competitive as anyone on the Vikings, and Sunday's 34-28 loss at Detroit wasn't sitting well with the multi-talented offensive threat. So, Harvin started lobbying for more kick-return opportunities on the plane home. His first target was special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer.
"He got me on the airplane flying home from the game last week," Priefer said. "You know, every time he touches the ball something happens and you are hoping that goes along with the kickoff returns like it has in the games whenever he has gotten those opportunities. Obviously, I have been saying this since Day 1: Whenever I have a chance to use Percy, we are going to use Percy."
Harvin's use on kick returns has been a subject of discussion all season long for the Vikings, Priefer and coach Leslie Frazier. Knowing Harvin's injury-plagued past and his value to the offense, Minnesota has often chosen to protect Harvin from the rough life of a kickoff returner.
Harvin has been used only sporadically to provide a late-game spark. He knows the benefit he can provide as a returner while also putting together some of his best games on offense recently.
"Anything I can do," Harvin said. "Any chance I can get for a big play, this team, definitely with our offense and our defense kind of struggling right now to get us to start the ball at the plus-40 or plus -50 is a must right now. It's just something I feel is a need for the team right now."
After talking with coaches, Harvin said he might have an increased role on kick returns over the last three weeks. He doesn't need to prove his worth to Priefer, who has made his case for using Harvin as much as possible. Frazier, though, is a harder sell.
"We actually talked a little about that today," Frazier said Thursday. "We'll try to find when it's the right time. It helps that Adrian (Peterson) is back. You're not as nervous about him being back there as you would with Adrian not in the lineup. We'll see."
Peterson has missed three games and left in the first quarter four weeks ago with a high ankle sprain. Without Peterson, Harvin has become the offense's go-to player. In the past four games, he has 32 catches for 393 yards and five touchdowns. Along the way, he has set single-game career highs with 10 catches (last week) and 156 receiving yards (two weeks ago).
The kick-return opportunities have been lacking as a result of his increased offensive load. When he's had the chance, he's demonstrated his explosiveness though. Harvin has had only three returns over the past six games. His last two returns have gone for 47 and 104 yards.
"Anytime he touches the ball as a returner, he can hit a seam faster than most guys can and you don't have to hold the seam as long," Priefer said. "With the deeper kicks we are getting across the NFL, they're 4 or 5 yards deep. I think the one he took against Detroit they said it was 7 deep. I think it might have been 8 deep, and he hit that seam so hard that it makes it very difficult for him, A, to tackle and B, to close over and get there in time to make a play."
Harvin's 104-yard return against Atlanta three weeks ago set up the Vikings at the 3-yard line with 6:28 remaining while facing a 24-14 deficit. It was the longest play in league history that didn't go for a score. He also returned the opening kickoff of the season 103 yards for a touchdown.
On 12 returns, Harvin is averaging 37.1 yards, which would lead the league if he qualified (an average of 1.25 per game, or 17 through Week 13 is needed). New York Jets' returner Joe McKnight leads the league with a 32.4-yard average. Harvin has the best average of any returner with at least two returns this season.
Harvin has also been back for returns that were eventual touchbacks and Frazier said the circumstances dictate when Harvin receives his opportunities.
"He's still such a major part of what we do on offense," Frazier said. "If we're playing a team that's kicking touchbacks, it doesn't really matter. If we're playing a team that you're going to have some opportunities to return the football, then you think about it a little bit more. We'll continue to try and utilize his strengths as best we can without jeopardizing what he brings to the table from an offensive standpoint too."
Lorenzo Booker has taken a team-leading 19 returns with a 23.7-yard average. Marcus Sherels has been the main kick returner the past three weeks and is averaging 28.9 yards per return.
Harvin has done his lobbying for more returns. Now he's just waiting for his chance.
"I told coach if there are any kick returns that he wants me to get, then definitely I'm going to start taking a lot more," Harvin said. "Like I said, we have nothing to lose at this point. We're only three weeks away. I'm sure I'll be in there."
Brian Hall writes about the Vikings for Fox Sports North.