EAGAN, Minn. – Every Wednesday at TCO Performance Center, the same few offensive stars hold their weekly press conferences. Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, and Stefon Diggs speak to the media, and all other players get in and out of the locker room pretty quickly.
This week was different. Xavier Rhodes walked in with a member of the Vikings PR staff, and it was announced that the cornerback would be holding a presser of his own. Without waiting for questions, Rhodes spoke for nearly two minutes. He started by apologizing for his actions on Monday night, when he was seen throwing his helmet in the midst of a tantrum on the sideline after allowing a 60-yard touchdown. The outburst, which came after it appeared Rhodes was expecting safety help on the play, included a heated conversation with Mike Zimmer.
"I just want to start off by saying I apologize to the organization, my team, my family, how I reacted out on that field Monday night," Rhodes said. "That's not the way I should carry myself, especially as a leader on this team. I apologize definitely to Coach Zim, and the things he's taught me, I should never react that way towards him or towards my team period."
Rhodes went on to take full responsibility for the play, which gave the Seahawks a 10-point lead at the end of the third quarter. "It was 100 percent my fault, no one else," he said. "I was supposed to be at a certain spot at a certain time, and I wasn't there."
The play – and subsequent sideline reaction – was the boiling point of a season that has been a constant struggle for Rhodes, who was one of the best cornerbacks in the league just two years ago. In 2019, he's been more of a liability than a strength of the defense, getting burned week after week on both short routes and deep balls. To his credit, Rhodes isn't oblivious to it.
"I'm just at a place right now where I feel like I can do better and I can help my team out much more," Rhodes said. "We can be in better situations and make the game a lot easier on my team rather than me hurting us in the middle of the game. Like I said, I'm a leader on this team, I've been a leader for a while, and I need to do better and play my role a lot better than I've been playing lately."
As Rhodes stood in front of a swarm of cameras and reporters on Wednesday, he did what he's done several times throughout this season: owned up to his struggles. He's not making excuses by blaming refs or coverages or anything else. He knows he isn't playing at the level he's capable of, and no one is more frustrated about that than him.
"I've been battling some things, but that's no excuse," Rhodes said. "It's no excuse. When I'm out there on that field, everything I'm battling has to go away. I have to go out there and play for the guy beside me because I know if I mess up like I messed up on that one play, that's what it's going to lead up to. I've been in this league for a while, seven years, and I should know that. It shouldn't come to point where I'm just figuring that out. I know now what I need to work on, what I need to do."
The shocking downfall of Rhodes' play has been one of the more obvious reasons why the Vikings' defense is giving up more yards per game than it ever has under Zimmer. The former first-round pick grabbed five interceptions and made the Pro Bowl in his fourth season (2016), becoming the latest shining example of Zimmer's ability to develop star defensive backs. After the year, he was rewarded with a 5-year, $70 million extension. As a first-team All-Pro in 2017, that contract looked like a bargain. He was arguably the best corner in the NFL, a true shutdown player who used his size, speed, and technique to limit some of the league's best receivers.
Two years later, Rhodes looks like an entirely different player. His decline began last season and has only gotten worse this year. He's regularly a step slow to the ball, and even when he's in position, he's been unable to make a play. After averaging 12 passes defended over his first five seasons, he has 12 in 26 games since the start of last season, including just five this year. The big plays aren't there, either. Rhodes had seven combined interceptions in 2016 and 2017; since grabbing one in Week 1 of 2018, he's now on a 25-game drought.
Adding onto his lack of production is the fact that Rhodes leads the NFL in penalty yardage with 8 penalties for 139 yards, 33 more than the next-highest player. He's committed four pass interference penalties for 99 yards, and has also been flagged for 15-yard roughness fouls twice.
The most frustrating part for Rhodes is that he doesn't know exactly what's wrong. He says he still feels like the same player he's always been. Every time he speaks to the media, he stresses that he's working hard and knows he has to be better. But as of yet, there has been no improvement in his play.
"Me being the guy that I am, each and every day working on my craft and not getting the results I want, of course you're going to be down on yourself," Rhodes said. "You ask any player that puts so much work and time into their craft, that's how they're going to feel. Like I said, I tell my guys each and every guy, I'm never going to give up. I'm always a fighter, and that day is going to turn, that switch is going to flip, and when it does, it's over. I'm just waiting on that moment."
The uncomfortable reality the Vikings have to confront is that with just four games left in the regular season, that switch may never flip for Rhodes. And if it doesn't, can they afford to keep him on the field? There may come a time, before this season is over, when Zimmer is forced to look past the player Rhodes used to be and come to terms with the player he is right now. And that would mean sending him to the bench.
Attention must also turn to Rhodes' future in Minnesota beyond this season. Scheduled to make roughly $41 million over the next three years, Rhodes is a serious candidate to be cut this offseason. The Vikings would save $8.1 million next season by cutting or trading Rhodes, though they would assume $4.8 million in dead money. With the much cheaper Mike Hughes showing signs of being able to start opposite Trae Waynes, the Vikings could figure to afford getting rid of Rhodes.
If he doesn't show signs of life over the final stretch of this season, they may be left with no other option.