This summer, on a field in North Miami, numerous top NFL players worked out together once or twice a week in a scene that I’m not fully convinced wasn’t filmed for an episode of Ballers. According to the Miami Herald, Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr., and Jarvis Landry received passes from Geno Smith (“the Jets’ beleaguered quarterback,” the paper couldn’t resist explaining, and nor can I) and faced off against corners including the Minnesota Vikings’ Xavier Rhodes.
After the Vikings’ 24–10 win over the New York Giants on Monday night, it’s easy to see why these receivers wanted to practice against a player like Rhodes, whom Jarvis deemed a “longer corner.” It’s not just because Rhodes, like Brown, is a Miami local. On Monday, the 26-year-old corner was one of the key players in the Vikings’ win, driving Beckham bonkers all game and hauling in a deflating third-quarter interception.
Fans expressed to ESPN’s Jon Gruden that Rhodes ought to win his weekly “Gruden’s Grinder” award. (Gruden overruled them.) The Twitter hashtag #RhodesClosed moved along at a healthy clip. In many ways, it was a breakout performance for the corner in his second start of the season. (He saw 57 snaps in Week 3 after missing two games and parts of the preseason with knee and hamstring injuries.)
But that doesn’t mean Rhodes hasn’t played like this before. As recently as last week, Rhodes could be found blanking the Carolina Panthers’ Kelvin Benjamin, who was coming off a two-touchdown game. He denied Demaryius Thomas a touchdown last season and held Julio Jones to five catches for 56 yards. After the game against the Falcons, Rhodes’s teammate Terence Newman pointed out: “This isn’t a surprise … he did it with Calvin Johnson twice.” In a Vikings victory over the Packers that won them the NFC North last January, Rhodes hauled down an Aaron Rodgers pass in the end zone.
Last season, the Vikings made Rhodes practice with boxing gloves on in order to break him of some of the grabby habits that were leading to penalties. On Monday night, Beckham looked like the one who wanted to fight. Whether Rhodes figured out how to get into Beckham’s head this summer in Miami, or whether he has just absorbed the many NFL examples of the emotional wide receiver losing his cool, his coverage was good enough (and/or the Giants’ play calling was weird enough) that Beckham was the target of zero passes until halfway through the second quarter. The receiver earned a personal foul for taunting after a run-in with Rhodes, very nearly earned an ejection for a second, and finished the game with just three catches for 23 yards.
With 10 minutes to play in the third quarter, Beckham and Eli Manning failed to communicate effectively on an audible and Manning aired out a long third-down pass that was easily brought in by Rhodes. It wasn’t game-ending; the Giants had plenty of chances to tighten things up. But it was one more solid play by the Vikings that stood in contrast to the disheveled Giants’ performance.
While Manning panicked, spiking balls like he was training for some, well, Spikeball, Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford continued to turn Kyle Rudolph into a bit of a thing. For the third straight week, the pair connected for a touchdown. (It has felt a bit like traveling back in time to a late-aughts collegiate all-star game.) In the same way that Newman wasn’t surprised about Rhodes, Rudolph pointed out that Bradford’s talent isn’t news. “There’s a reason why he was the first overall pick in the draft when he came out,” he recently told the Star-Tribune. Bradford has been on such a good run lately, in fact, that even his out-of-bounds throws turn into Vine magic.
And so, for the first time since 2009, the Minnesota Vikings have started a season 4–0. And not just any season: a season when the team’s franchise quarterback and running back were both lost to injury by the end of Week 2. Bradford is a factor, but the Vikings defense, freshly bolstered by Rhodes, has been the driving force.
Gruden, on ESPN, made reference throughout the night to the nickname he claims to have coined for the Minnesota Vikings D: Purple Reign. (“Dude that’s been a fantasy team name for like 15 years,” was a representative viewer response.) Play-by-play man Sean McDonough wistfully recited the first two lyrics of the similarly titled Prince song — “I never meant to cause you any sorrow / I never meant to cause you any pain” — and then quipped that the way the Vikings had treated the Giants was the exact opposite. Maybe the Vikings defense, and the whole franchise, is starting to fall more in line with the lyrics of Future’s “Purple Reign”: “Started off local, got the cribs bicoastal / I don’t want no words with you ’cause you mad bogus.”