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From Henderson to Henderson

Erin Henderson's impact plays in Tuesdays practice could precipitate a second run at a Vikings defense led by a Henderson from Maryland. If the results are anything like they were before, Minnesota will take it.


It only took two seconds for Erin Henderson to bury Toby Gerhart. In some ways, the crack of pads could signal the moment that the defense became his.

In an unusual twist from the familiar hand-me-down narrative, Erin could easily be said to have inherited the defense from his brother, and today he made his first strides in demonstrating his ownership.

Erin Henderson first joined the team in 2008, as an undrafted free agent from Maryland, which also happened to be E.J.'s alma mater. E.J. had joined the team five years earlier, a second-round pick.

E.J.'s tenure with the Vikings has been a striking story in itself, and has its own intriguing parallels to what Erin has recently been able to do.

In 2004, E.J. Henderson saw himself starting for the Minnesota Vikings in the middle after spending 2003 as the backup weak-side linebacker. After the Randy Moss trade, the Vikings moved E.J. back to the weak side and played Napolean Harris as the middle linebacker, on occasions when he wasn't injured.

Harris himself has an unusual track record of playing for the Vikings, but most significantly, he couldn't find ways onto the field—allowing E.J. to move inside.

In 2004 and 2005, the Vikings ranked 32nd and 23rd in Football Outsider's DVOA metric, an opposition-adjusted measure for determining how effective a unit is. In 2006, the defense ranked 6th—also the second year into Pat Williams' tenure with the Vikings, but a year before Chad Greenway was healthy enough to play.

Between 2006 and 2010, the Vikings defense consistently ranked in the top half of the league, and twice in the top ten.

While E.J. had his own issues to sort through, including a devastating injury in 2009 (a year they ended up ranked 15th in DVOA), he had to hang up his cleats after a disappointing 2011 season marked by complications from his 2009 injuries.

The Vikings defense in 2011 floundered. Not only because of E.J.'s injury concerns, either. Pat Williams had retired, and the Vikings were fielding a whose who of defensive backs. That year, they fell back down to 23rd.

The brief intercession of Jasper Brinkley between the two Hendersons did not mark a significant improvement in the Vikings' DVOA, despite a massively improved secondary.

When the Vikings announced that they would be moving Erin Henderson to the middle linebacker position, the general response had been tepid, from fans and media.

Minnesota's decision to sign Desmond Bishop brought the same reaction, with the presumption that Henderson would move to the Will position. He bristled with this assumption.

Given that the general reaction of moving E.J. Henderson back to the middle in 2006 was seen as a mistake before the season started, it seems to be a familiar problem for the family.

So, it was safe to say that by the time camp rolled around, Erin Henderson had a fair bit to prove—something he willingly acknowledged.

"It's hard not to be [hungry to prove myself]; you guys keep bringing it up and throwing it in my face every chance you get, I have to keep defending myself," he said with a fair bit of fire, before cracking a smile.

"It's cool though. I've got my pads on now so I don't have to do quite as much talking."

His passionate but tempered reaction isn't new. In fact, it's nearly a template. When Tim Yotter of Viking Update asked him about whether or not he intended to stay at the Mike position, his response was nearly the same.

"I'm playing the Mike," he told the media. "It's cool. I hope it goes well for (Bishop), the Vikings like what they see."

This pattern isn't out of the norm. As an undrafted free agent, he's always been playing with a chip on his shoulder. In fact, that may be where he's best. He's been asked to take that anger and turn it into something productive.

When talking to Tom Pelissero, formerly of 1500ESPN, he seemed nearly fatigued of the questions.

"I've kind of had to deal with it my entire career," Henderson said. "A lot of people have said I shouldn't have been starting as the will 'backer. Coach was saying the same thing going into the season last year -- 'Well ... Erin's going to start out camp as the will backer.' It's never really been just outright, 'OK, this is Erin's position. This is Erin's spot.'

"So, I'm used to it. Just like now I've got to hear they might want to bring in Urlacher. Cool. Bring him in. And if he's better than me, if he can outplay me at that position, then let him play -- but just make sure it's a competition, you know what I mean? Make sure I've got a fair shot at it and I get my fair shake that I deserve at the position. That's all.

"And to the fans who don't believe that I can do it, you haven't seen me do it. How can you say that I can't do something if you haven't seen me do it? They say different things about my abilities or whether I should be a starting linebacker or everything else, but my numbers and the fact that I'm still here speak for themselves."

He's insistent that he can prove himself on the field, honing a craft that he's been at for years but specializing in for only a few months.

"I can go out there and let it take care of itself on the field, to continue to gain the trust of my teammates; that's all that really matters to me. I know that people on the outside are going to have their opinions look at things their way, but as long as everybody in this camp trusts me and believes in me, that's all that matters."

A message he's reiterated.

It seems clear that Henderson draws his motivation from a lot of sources—his teammates, his perception and his abilities—but that's a charge he denies.

When I asked if these questions drove him to prove his doubters wrong, he replied with an emphatic "No."

"I've been motivated for a very long time. I've never needed any help from anybody on the outside to get me going, to get my juices flowing. I've always been motivated."

He's had to have been motivated. Being an undrafted free agent is extraordinarily frustrating. Seeing one or two reps a day until he could somehow prove he deserved more can be a grind, and anyone who watches Hard Knocks knows that many rookies simply quit instead.

He's been candid about this, too. Back when he was simply "E.J.'s brother," he didn't think about starting at the middle linebacker spot. Then, his source of pride was something simpler.

"Honestly, I was just eyeing a roster spot; I just wanted to make the team. Coming in as an undrafted free agent, you never know how things are going to shake out."

But as he's evolved and matured as a linebacker, he's seen his responsibilities—and the defense—do the same.

"It's pretty fun to watch," he said of the defense's growth. "Everybody understands now how the defense works as a whole—It's no longer a bunch of individuals out there on the field."

He's emphasized the importance of operating as a unit, and how the defense didn't always do that in the past.

"I think that's huge for us. It's not something that's been a day-in day-out thing for us in the past. We could be sometimes "we'll all be in it together" then other times you have guys stray this way or guys stray that way,"

It's certainly frustrating, and reports that players ignored former defensive coordinator (and current linebackers coach) Fred Pagac when he made calls on the field bring credence to that account. There's no question that consistent and unified play is important for any defense, and Henderson thinks they're finally there.

"I think right now, everybody understands that they have to do their job in order for us to be successful and I think that's what you see happening."

In order to keep things running smoothly, Alan Williams hasn't decided to tinker with what's been working.

"It's still pretty simple, you know? Keep it simple, let us run around, let us play. That's what they're doing right now, I think that's the thing for the future. Just giving us a chance to run around and make plays."

That seems to be all a Henderson ever asked for: a chance.