On Labor Day Saturday last year, quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson was hoping and praying his phone wouldn’t ring.
He didn’t want to hear from family. He didn’t want to hear from friends. He didn’t even want to hear from teammates.
But, most of all, he didn’t want to hear from Winter Park. He didn’t want to hear his phone sound off, take a look at the screen and see a familiar number from the team complex staring him in the face.
Today, more than 20 Vikings players are going to get the call that some of them expect, some of them don’t expect, but all of them dread. It will be the call that informs them that they’re going to be among the 22 players released from the team or put on a reserve list as part of the final cuts that are due by 5 p.m.
A year ago, the Vikings had a difficult decision to make. They had four quarterbacks on the roster – Christian Ponder, Sage Rosenfels, Joe Webb and Bethel-Thompson. As the franchise golden boy, Ponder was a lock. Although he was No. 3 on the depth chart throughout the preseason, it was clear that Webb was on the roster. The big question was whether the Vikings would keep Rosenfels or Bethel-Thompson.
It was a legitimate reason for concern on MBT’s part. It was no secret that Rick Spielman had the general manager version of a “man crush” with Rosenfels.
When he was the GM in Miami, Spielman traded to get Sage in South Beach. When he came to the Vikings, he attempted to trade with Houston in 2008 to land him, but the Texans’ asking price was too high (a second-round pick). In 2009, the market value had dropped to a fourth-round pick and the Vikings and Houston cut a deal – only to have a gunslinger from Kiln, Miss., show up and put an end to the quarterback competition that had been the story of the preseason. In 2010, when Webb made an impression on the coaching staff, Rosenfels was traded to the Giants. But, in 2011, he came back in what many believe was an orchestrated move between the Vikings and Dolphins for Minnesota to release Donovan McNabb simultaneously when the Dolphins cut loose Rosenfels, and he was back in purple. To say the least, Spielman and Rosenfels had a long and storied history.
On Labor Day Saturday a year ago, Bethel-Thompson was on pins and needles – along with a couple dozen other “bubble players” hoping against hope that they would be on the roster. He was the longest of long shots. In the end, the Vikings opted to go with the young prospect as opposed to the known commodity and, when the final cuts were announced, Rosenfels was on the list and MBT wasn’t.
A year later, he has no such concerns. Webb is no longer in the quarterback mix. Webb’s move to wide receiver has put him on the roster bubble, but, with Ponder and Matt Cassel locked and loaded as the first and second quarterbacks on the depth chart, Thursday’s game was a chance for Bethel-Thompson to make his own statement as to why he deserves to remain on the Vikings roster.
He did his part, playing almost three quarters of the preseason finale and posting impressive numbers. The Vikings had planned to make Bethel-Thompson the primary quarterback in the Tennessee game, but few could have envisioned that the Titans’ first two drives would include 30 plays and give the Vikings their second possession of the game midway through the second quarter. Bethel-Thompson got the call and finished the game. And, unlike the previous three preseason games, he led the Vikings to victory. He was aware that much of the onus of the Vikings offense Thursday was going to be on him, but he didn’t know it was going to come in the second offensive series of the game.
“I didn’t know what the plan was, but I knew I was going to get a lot of time, so I was excited,” he said. “Every rep you get, you’ve got to cherish it. The O-line was blocking their butts off, Joe (Banyard) was running hard – he’s a heck of a player – and the receivers were getting open. It makes a quarterback’s job so easy. I just thank them for making my job easy because they were playing so well.”
Bethel-Thompson is in a vastly different position this year than he was last season as an undrafted rookie with a strong arm and, as they say in the poker world, “a chip and a chair” chance of sticking with the team. Unless the Vikings go with two quarterbacks, his roster spot has been written in pen since the start of training camp, while, ironically, Webb’s roster spot is very much up in the air as a receiver. But Bethel-Thompson hasn’t forgotten the uneasy feeling last year and has done everything in his power to keep his spot on the roster a continuing theme.
“It’s part of the business, so you can never feel too secure in your spot,” he said. “You don’t think about it. You approach it as, when you get your chance, you make the most out of it and play as hard as you can. You don’t play this game for the money or the fame. You play it because you love it. You cherish what you have and you can’t worry about what you can’t control. You worry about those things you can control.”
There will be almost two dozen players that will get the call they dread today. The conventional wisdom is that Bethel-Thompson won’t be one of them. He’s not overlooking the possibility, but is convinced he has done everything he can to keep his spot on the 53-man roster. Still, the memory of last year’s nail-biting whenever his phone rang on Labor Day Saturday still lingers. Yet, he has the confidence that he is markedly better now than he was a year ago.
While he isn’t willing to say he’s a lock to have his tightly-lettered nameplate above his locker, his fingernails won’t be chewed down to nubs like they were last year at this time.
“You never know,” Bethel-Thompson said. “It’s been great to have this offseason with the Vikes. This second offseason, I feel like I’ve improved. I give thanks to Coach (Bill) Musgrave, Coach C.J. (quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson) and (assistant quarterbacks) Coach (Kevin) Stefanski for giving me reps and working with me. I know I’m not the focus of the offense, but it is great because, in my second year, things have slowed down out there and I feel better out there. I feel good about how things have gone. Now it’s just a matter and waiting and seeing if the organization thinks I’ve earned my place on the roster.”
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.