Shortly after arriving in Phoenix last Saturday for a nationally-televised showdown against the Cardinals the next night, Vikings rookie Percy Harvin headed to a conference room at the team's downtown hotel for a pre-arranged photo shoot. Minutes later he emerged through double doors and was asked what job description he would put in the caption beneath the picture: wide receiver or football player?
Harvin, one of the game's top all-purpose threats and a virtual shoo-in for Offensive Rookie of the Year, thought about it for a few seconds and smiled.
"If I had to say one, I would say football player just because I return kicks and I play running back sometimes," he said. "It's funny, though. A lot of my success this year has been coming from the receiver spot. I didn't expect that. I went into the season thinking I was going to make plays on reverses and screen passes. I thought I would be effective in the special teams aspect, too. But I have to admit I wasn't too sure how good I was going to do as far as pure receiver-wise because I had heard the history of other receivers struggling as rookies."
Harvin is an exception. Despite starting only six games, he ranks second on the team in receptions (48) and yards (681) and first among the wideouts with six touchdown catches. Sometimes he lines up wide, other times he's in the slot, and occasionally he can be found in the backfield. The only constant is he's usually effective.
In the 30-17 loss at Arizona last Sunday, he had six receptions for 79 yards and a touchdown. He caught passes along the sideline, between the numbers and down the seam, the last for a 31-yard score. Afterward, Cardinals defensive coordinator Bill Davis shook his head.
"Percy's a load," he said.
Harvin was the fourth receiver and 22nd player selected in the 2009 draft. He slipped due to questions about his character -- he tested positive for marijuana at the Scouting Combine -- and concerns about whether he could be effective as a receiver after playing in a spread offense with the Gators. The coaching staff in Gainesville asked him to do a little of everything, and Harvin obliged by ending his career with 1,929 yards receiving and 1,852 rushing.
Questions about his ability as a receiver seem silly now. The only thing that has slowed him is migraines, which caused him to miss practice Wednesday.
"My teammates have done a tremendous job helping me come along," Harvin says. "And once we got Brett Favre ..."
"Brett has taught me so much," Harvin continues. "He has taught me how to look at film -- what I should look for and things that he looks for. I couldn't have come into a better situation than what I have."
The Vikings have an All-Pro runner in Adrian Peterson, a future Hall of Fame QB in Favre, a speedy veteran wide receiver in Bernard Berrian, a rising star wideout in Sidney Rice and a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end in Visanthe Schiancoe -- who ranks second at his position with nine touchdown catches. With so much talent at the skill positions, the Vikings know that defenses can't focus solely on Harvin, who has the speed to stretch defenses and the toughness and fearlessness to make catches in traffic over the middle.
Harvin's biggest impact, however, might extend beyond the field. Normally teams are reluctant to use high draft choices on all-purpose players, but Harvin's success as a running back, 113 yards on 13 rushes, and two scores on kickoff returns could make them more receptive to similar players. Notre Dame's Golden Tate, perhaps.
Like Harvin, Tate is a former prep running back who switched to wide receiver in college. Like Harvin, he is leaving school a year early, with career totals of 157 receptions for 2,707 yards and 26 scores. This year he had 25 carries for 186 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 14.2 yards on 12 punt returns, one of which went for a touchdown.
Like Harvin, Tate is listed at 5-foot-11 and highly regarded for his speed and toughness.
"He has some things working for him," one scout says of Tate. "He was in a pro-style offense the last few years and he's probably as ready as he could be to make the jump. Skill guys have easier transitions if they've been in a pro system coming up and coming out. The hardest transition could be lining up for a play that could change two or three times before the ball is snapped. And he has to learn a new vernacular. We have to find out how good of a learner he is. That's going to have an effect on him."
Harvin seemingly has had few problems. Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who set a league record with 217 yards receiving in his pro debut and was the only rookie to appear in the Pro Bowl during the 2003 season, credits the Vikings coaches for part of Harvin's success. "When guys come in and have an immediate impact, it's just a situation where they have good coaches around them and make them comfortable right off the bat. And they understand the system and what the coaches want out of them. When a guy plays fast, the only thing that means is he understands what he's trying to get done. If a guy doesn't understand, he's always going to second-guess himself. He's always going to hesitate and be a step slow. But if a guy's sure about himself and what he's doing, he's able to play with speed."
One of the biggest adjustments for Harvin was accepting that he was an option anytime he was on the field for a pass play. He came from a system where if the quarterback was supposed to look left and he was on the right side of the formation, the ball was going left. With Favre, there's no telling where the ball will go when the Vikings slip into their four-receiver sets.
"When you have a gunslinger like Brett, he can look at you without even looking at you," Harvin says. "He does things that I don't think the average quarterback can handle and can do. I credit my success to him."
A wide receiver has been voted Offensive Rookie of the Year only once since 1998 (Boldin, 2003). Harvin should be a lock for the award, although his sights aren't set on it. The Virginia Beach native won a national title in Pop Warner, a state championship in high school and two national titles in college. He is what Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson admiringly calls a "winner."
That's why Harvin isn't caught up in talk about an individual award.
"Rookie of the Year -- it's a great achievement and I would love to have it," he says. "But our team goal is a championship. An individual award without the championship is a failure. If I get the award along the way to a title, I'm more than happy. But that's not my goal."
Wide receiver/football player/winner.
It's an awfully crowded caption.