EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Time spent with world-famous country singer and showman Garth Brooks during Minnesota's bye last week made it quite a birthday weekend for tight end Kyle Rudolph.
Rudolph accompanied Brooks' Teammates For Kids Foundation on a visit to the Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota in St. Paul for the dedication of the Child Life Zone, a therapeutic play area, last Friday. Rudolph was invited on stage at Brooks' show at the Target Center Saturday, and his brother was able to help at a hockey camp that the foundation held in St. Louis Park Sunday.
"He's awesome, about as good a guy as they come," Rudolph said. "As good as an artist and as good as a singer he is, he's an even better person and what he does with his foundation, Teammates for Kids. I know a lot of guys in the locker room participate in it, and it's pretty special what they're able to do for kids around the country and here at the Children's Hospital in St. Paul with the Child Life Zone."
Rudolph, the 2012 Pro Bowler who has been sidelined for the past six games, is ready to stop "Standing Outside the Fire," as one inspirational Brooks song is titled and start stepping in and out of the huddle.
His status for Sunday, when Minnesota (4-5) visits Chicago (3-6) at noon (CT) in a game that will be cross-flexed to be broadcast on CBS, remains to be determined but he did fully participate in practice Thursday.
"For me, I'm going to do everything I can to get out there on Sunday," Rudolph said. "I'm tired of watching, so it's (a decision for head trainer Eric Sugarman and Head Coach Mike Zimmer). They're the ones that kind of protect me from myself. I'm my own worst enemy in that if it was up to me I would have tried to get out there last week, so to have those guys there to reign me in a little bit and remind me it's only Wednesday, it's only Thursday, we're working toward Sunday and I hope to keep things going to stay on schedule."
Chase Ford and Rhett Ellison have handled most of the load at the position in different ways in Rudolph's absence. Ford has been the primary pass catcher, and Ellison has been the primary blocker, but each has added elements of the other.
Zimmer and Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner said there will be areas in games where all three players can contribute once Rudolph is back in action.
View images from the Thursday, November 13 practice at Winter Park.
"We've got to see if we use him on Sunday," Zimmer said of Rudolph. "We have to see where he's at as we get going and we'll have a plan for him. We'll be smart with him. We've got to watch the tape, see how he did today with two days of work and then go from there."
Turner said a benefit of Rudolph's eventual return is the opportunity to keep players fresher for the final seven games of the season.
"The thing it does, it takes some pressure off of Rhett (Ellison)," Turner said. "Rhett has been playing about 50 plays a game and still playing on special teams, he's kind of been an unsung guy for us in terms of what he's done in the run game, in protection and then being able to contribute like he did last week with the catches he did, particularly in the red zone, that all adds up. He is really playing at a high level."
While Rudolph didn't wish to be sidelined, he said he's liked seeing teammates at the position contribute.
Ford caught his first career touchdown in the first half on one of his five catches against Washington, and Ellison added four catches, including a 13-yarder during Minnesota's go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter.
"One of the things I've said all preseason about Norv is how special he is as a coordinator and he does great at getting playmakers involved in any way so that's something that the guys upstairs, if we have the opportunity to be out there together, I think is definitely to our advantage."
TURNING TRAJECTORY: Since 1990, when the current playoff format began, there have 20 teams who have opened the first nine games of a regular season with a losing record have made the postseason. At least one team will do so again because the 4-5 Saints are leading the NFC South, which will be guaranteed one of the conference's six spots.
Two teams have accomplished the turnaround in each of the past two seasons. In 2012, Cincinnati (where Zimmer was defensive coordinator) opened 4-5 but won six of seven games to finish 10-6, and Washington started 3-6 but won seven straight for the same record.
Last season, Philadelphia turned 4-5 into a 10-6 final record that won the NFC East, and San Diego won five of its final seven to finish 9-7 and nab a Wild Card spot.
Zimmer said the Vikings aren't thinking about anything ahead of them except the Bears.
"We're not looking at the playoffs," Zimmer said. "We're the underdogs in this ball game, so we have to prove that we can win this week. I'm assuming that's what we did in Cincinnati. I think we probably got on a role and started playing pretty good."
LOOKING BACK ON TAKING IT BACK:The first play of Cordarrelle Patterson's career against the Bears was a 105-yard highlight-reel return of the opening kickoff for a touchdown in Week 2 last season.
"I almost took a knee," Patterson recalled. "I had to squat and catch it. It was a little rainy, and those 10 guys in front of me, I couldn't have done it without those guys blocking each week and trying to set me up with holes. This week I hope they do the same thing for me."
Patterson's long return so far this season is a 49-yarder, and he's averaged 24.5 yards on 22 returns this season.
"It's been a struggle for me these couple of weeks in the kickoff return," Patterson said. "I've been seeing seams and I've taken some out when I should have taken a knee and things like that. I do things like that, and this week we have a great game plan like we always do."
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said Patterson is making the right reads on returns, but said there have been a couple times when Patterson should have taken a knee for an automatic touchback. One instance, Priefer said, occurred against Washington when Patterson had to move a considerable distance toward the sideline on his right and made a nice catch of the ball, but didn't have much opportunity to shift his momentum.
"I know he's learned from that and he's going to continue to learn as he gets more and more experience," Priefer said.
Chicago has one of the lowest touchback percentages in the league 48.7 percent and the third-lowest percent of kickoffs that have reached the end zone (73.2), but the longest return allowed by the Bears this season is 31 yards. Opponents are averaging 20.2 yards on 19 kick returns against the Bears this season.
Patterson used his bye week to return to Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, where he played two seasons and was twice a JUCO All-American, for the retirement of his jersey.
"They retired my jersey last weekend. It was a great experience, probably one I'll never forget in my life, just to see all those people. A shout out to my old community college for having me out there and all the great people I got to see again.
PARTICIPATION: For Minnesota: Ford (foot) participated fully, Jerick McKinnon (lower back) was limited and Scott Crichton (hip) did not practice Thursday.
For Chicago: G/T Eben Britton (illness), T Jordan Mills (ribs), WR Josh Morgan (shoulder), CB Terrance Mitchell (illness) and DE Trevor Scott (knee) did not participate Thursday. TE Martellus Bennett (ribs), WR Brandon Marshall (ankle) and LB Darryl Sharpton (hamstring) were limited. CB Tim Jennings (knee) and DE Cornelius Washington (illness) did not participate.