When others saw Everson Griffen in his purple Vikings helmet, Minnesota defensive line coach Andre Patterson saw a metaphorical crown placed on the fifth-year pro by the Carolina Panthers.
By the time Minnesota hosted Carolina in Week 13, there were plenty of stats and visuals of how Griffen had been doing in his first year as a starting defensive end. The Panthers opted to chip him with a running back after he cleared the first line or double team with a tackle and tight end. They even appeared to have three players focusing on him at times.
"I walked over to him during the game and said, 'Be careful what you wish for,' " Patterson said. "He goes, 'What do you mean, Coach?' I said, 'You wanted to be an elite pass rusher. Well, they're treating you like one, so the crown is heavy. You've got to deal with it. They can't do it the whole game, but you may only get a couple of shots at it, and you've got to be successful.' "
Patterson counted four one-on-one opportunities, and statisticians recorded two sacks and an additional quarterback hit by Griffen on Cam Newton on those plays.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said those rewards were reaped because Griffen maintained focus and kept working hard but within the system.
"The thing that impressed me more (in that game) about him, was he got double-teamed and chipped a lot with the backs, and sometimes (defensive ends) get frustrated and they … try and do their own thing, and he did not," Zimmer said. "He stuck with the plan and when he got the opportunities to get some one-on-ones, he took advantage of them. Those kinds of things, to me, are where I see progress."
Patterson called Griffen's performance a "proud moment" for the coach and player because it was an illustration of benefits that can happen when focus is maintained through double teams.
It can be easier said than done, and that's part of the reason that Zimmer and Patterson invited Vikings Hall of Fame defensive tackle John Randle to visit a recent practice.
"John saw (double teams) worse than anybody," said Patterson, who coached Randle from 1998-99. "He knew, 'I may only get four one-on-ones in the whole game, but I've got to win. I can't let them double-teaming me and doing all this to get in my head so when I get those four shots, my head is in the wrong place.' "
Randle said he likes Griffen's style of play, saying he has the "speed to go around a guy and the strength and power to go over a guy."
"I love his personality. His personality reminds me of myself, just a happy-go-lucky guy who is excited to be playing football," Randle said. "It's almost like this is his first day, and that's unique to see guys like that because a lot of times, from the wear and tear of a season, guys kind of have a tendency to kind of frown a bit, but he looks at it as his first day of the season."
Griffen said it has been an adjustment process to avoid the frustrations that come with double teams, but he's seen how other teams alter their game plans and how continuing to do his job every play with 10 teammates helps the overall success of the system.
"I used to get frustrated by not being able to get back to the quarterback but you learn how to stay tuned into the game and keep on working and once you get the opportunities for one-on-ones, that's when you win, and that's what I've been doing," Griffen said. "I've been trying to help this team win by making sacks, by making tackles, by being in the right spot and just doing my job. That's what football is, 11 guys on the same page, doing their job to the best of their ability. We're almost getting there. We have a real good team here, and it's going to be high hopes for us."
Although this season is the first in which Griffen has faced double teams from the defensive end position, this isn't the first time he's lined up against two players trying to test his patience. After staring in college at Southern Cal, he was behind Jared Allen, Ray Edwards and Brian Robison as a rookie in 2010. Special teams became Griffen's ticket to playing time.
"I played mostly every position (on special teams)," Griffen said. "I was gunner on the punt team, I did kick returns. I was a big-time teams player. I would run down and be the first one down on kickoffs and just try to help the team. Special teams, defense, it didn't matter where they had me, I was doing my job to the best."
The gunner lines up at the end of the line of scrimmage, often with a pair of facemasks staring him down across the line to survey the player they will harass for 50 or so yards down the field. Their goal is to keep the gunner away from the returner at almost any cost while avoiding penalties. Griffen racked up 33 special teams tackles in his first three seasons, including 18 (second-most on the team) in 2011 despite those challenges.
"That was hard," Griffen said. "You've got two quick guys on you trying to block you and get you away, so I just used my quickness that I've got as a big dude and my power to beat them and outrun them because they didn't know I could run like that."
When Allen left for Chicago via free agency, the Vikings signed Griffen to a multi-year contract and began planning for him to join Robison as the bookends of the defensive line. Griffen responded emphatically and authentically and leads the Vikings with 12 sacks, 20 tackles for loss and 61 quarterback hurries entering today's finale against the Bears and was named NFC Defensive Player of the Month for October.
"Everson got his opportunity to be the starting right end, and he's really embraced that role," Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said. "I think he's matured tremendously from where he was at as a rookie to where he's at now, and he wants to be good. Even though he's a great athlete, they have to want to be good, want to be coached and want to learn. I think Everson is a prime example of a player that finally got his opportunity to be the starter, and he's done everything he can to make himself the player he's showing he can be."
Griffen and Robison have developed quite a friendship in the locker room, often trading barbs or playing jokes on one another, but it's clear that there's a sincere respect between the two. They both demonstrate a hunger to help the team however they can.
"We all knew he was an athlete, we all knew the things he could do on the field," Robison said. "When you get into a starting role, it's a whole different playing field. For him to be able to come out this year and have the pressures of a big contract, it's very good to see the way he's played this year and the way he's come through. Now, he's become one of the leaders on this defense for sure."
For Griffen, the increased leadership has been about applying lessons he's gained from others that were ahead of him.
"It was rough coming from college and being a starter, to the NFL and not being able to get that many plays," Griffen said. "It was an adjustment for me. You learn how to be patient, how to be humble, how to wait on opportunities, and any opportunity I got when I got in the game, I tried to make it worth my while. I tried to go out there and help the team win, do my job and the biggest thing was being patient, learning, absorbing, and trying to become the best player possible without getting the reps and opportunities out there."
Patterson said Griffen can run like a linebacker, but also has explosive and powerful movements that make him so hard to handle on the defensive line.
Sacks are often one of the most conspicuous plays in the game. They fire up fans and can be quickly seen and measured. The unsung element of playing defensive line is stopping the run, and Patterson said Griffen performs even better in that aspect of the game than in rushing the passer.
"I think that's the thing that makes him unique," Patterson said. "I know that defensive linemen get their so-called publicity for sacks, but I think the thing to me that makes Griff' a great player is that he's a total defensive lineman. He's even better against the run than he is as a pass rusher in my opinion. As the season has gone on, you've seen people stay away from his side in the running game because he has the ability to get on a block, get off a block and make a play. Most pass rushers are pass rushers, but he's a complete defensive lineman."
Patterson said he had heard about Griffen's time as a gunner but didn't review the film. He's seen Griffen chase down running backs and catch them from behind and said Griffen's recent assignment of covering Detroit's Reggie Bush "shows his unique speed and explosiveness. That's a trait that's very hard for a d-lineman to have."
As this season winds down, there is excitement among Vikings players for the obstacles the team overcame in 2014 and the improvements they made in the first year in Zimmer's system.
Griffen and undrafted free agent Marcus Sherels are the last two players who joined the Vikings in 2010 (Sherels was on the practice squad that season) on a roster that's become younger in the past four NFL drafts. He is optimistic that other young players and he can be a core of something special in Minnesota for years to come.
"There's a lot of hope. We've got a lot of young guys still developing. I'm only 26 years old, still developing," Griffen said. "This is my first year as a starter, I'm still learning how to become a starter and learning how to become a good pass rusher, learning how to play the run right. It takes a toll on your body, but it's fun and we've got high hopes. We've got great coaches here that are teaching us how to play, how to study the film, how to break down the film, how to become the player you want to become if you want to take your game to the next level."