EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Cedric Griffin's comeback from a second reconstructive knee surgery made the Minnesota Vikings proud.
His performance this season has become frustrating and problematic.
The sixth-year cornerback was benched Sunday after allowing a long touchdown pass during a loss at Detroit. He doesn't have any interceptions this year and has had persistent trouble keeping up in coverage, clearly missing some of the speed, strength and confidence he had before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in each of his knees.
Coach Leslie Frazier said Griffin is not in his "doghouse at all" and insisted he still has a place in the team's struggling secondary.
"He's a guy who has worked extremely hard for us and battled back from some tough injuries. He's had some moments that are a little bit difficult. But I haven't given up on him, and I hope that he hasn't given up on himself," Frazier said.
Griffin, a second-round draft pick out of Texas in 2006 who became a starter halfway through his rookie year, hasn't been completely unproductive this season. He's tops on the team with 10 passes broken up and is tied for the lead with four forced fumbles, giving him 15 for his career, the second-most in Vikings history by a defensive back. His physical style and tackling ability could create a spot at safety someday.
Plus, simply starting every game with six years of experience in the defensive scheme is not an insignificant contribution for a group of defensive backs ravaged by injuries and hindered by inexperience.
The lapses in important situations, though, have been glaring and costly for a team that has given up a league-high 26 touchdowns passing. The latest came against the Lions in the first quarter, when Griffin was supposed to be in basic man-to-man press coverage on wide receiver Titus Young, like cornerbacks Asher Allen and Benny Sapp were on their targets.
But Griffin played off the line, and then failed to redirect Young's route up the sideline. Jamarca Sanford reacted to quarterback Matthew Stafford's pump fake to star Calvin Johnson, taking away Griffin's safety help and Young was on his way to an easy 57-yard score.
"That comes back to me and Ced not executing and just doing our job," Sanford said.
Frazier made his feelings clear. That sequence was not an issue of knee strength.
"It's hard for me to explain that one. He's executed that technique time and time again in his career here. So to not get it done on that play, I'm not certain why that didn't happen. I know he's capable of doing it," Frazier said.
Sanford, though, echoed his coach's insistence that the Vikings still believe in Griffin's ability.
"This year really probably hasn't gone the way he wanted it to, but you know he had two ACL injuries. Playing corner, that's not easy," Sanford said, adding: "We know what we can do, and we're just going to keep working with him. I know he's a competitor, and he's going to do whatever it takes to keep getting better."
The Vikings (2-11) host New Orleans (10-3) this Sunday.
Griffin has three more years and $14.4 million in salary remaining on the contract extension he signed before the 2009 season, but he'll almost certainly have to take a pay cut to stay if he's not released. He was an important player on the 2009 team that came within four points of the Super Bowl, with four interceptions and two forced fumbles.
But he ripped up his left knee in the NFC championship game. He returned in Week 3 of last year, only to wreck the right knee in the next game.
Unwilling to discuss with reporters his remarkable rehabilitation or his physical condition all season, Griffin finally gave an extensive interview last week, claiming no frustration or problem with the way he's played.
"I'm doing really well for where I'm at, so you need to understand that," Griffin said.
Angered by the benching after Sunday's game, Griffin suggested he'll ask to be let go.
"My skills are what they are right now," he said, adding: "I'm going to keep moving, and I'm sure I'll be fine."
In a league now controlled by precision, rocket-armed passers, three quality, healthy cornerbacks are a must for any team to compete for a playoff spot. The Vikings didn't appear to be in bad shape there once the lockout ended given Griffin's recovery and the presence of savvy, sure-tackling veteran Antoine Winfield and second-year player Chris Cook, the team's best cover man.
Winfield missed four games with a neck problem and then broke his collarbone in his first game back, ending his season. Cook is out indefinitely while he faces a felony assault charge.
"No one expected this season to go the way it's gone," Winfield said. "The guys are still out there working hard. They have three games left. But it's been tough."
Winfield had surgery a month ago. He said he's supposed to be back at full strength by April.
The 34-year-old can only hope he'll return to a secondary that's at full strength, too. With two seasons left on his contract, Winfield said he's not ready to retire.
"Oh, no, no. I love the game. I still enjoy going out there, playing," he said.
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