EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The pass from quarterback Christian Ponder appeared too long and bound to overshoot receiver Jerome Simpson late in the third quarter of the Minnesota Vikings’ loss Sunday at Detroit.
Simpson was left to turn his back completely to the ball, almost tilting his head straight back to keep his eye on the ball and doing what he could to try and run underneath the pass. Simpson leaped at the last moment and hauled in the pass with his fingertips for a 47-yard reception, his biggest play since joining Minnesota last season.
“I just kept running,” Simpson said Monday. “That’s one thing that you have to do. Just keep running and always just believe in yourself. I just kept my eye on the ball and made a play and rolled with it.”
The play, his longest since hauling in a 47-yarder in Week 10 in his final season with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2011, was just what the Vikings were hoping for when they took a chance on signing the maligned receiver. More importantly, the run-and-leap demonstrated just what Simpson has been saying all offseason: He’s finally healthy again and has regained his trademark athleticism.
Simpson’s leaping ability had been seen before. He became famous for somersaulting over an opponent at the goal line for a touchdown in 2011 with Cincinnati. In the preseason last year, he jumped over a defensive back on his way to a 33-yard reception.
Simpson’s athleticism was missing much of last season, his explosiveness sapped because of a back injury that caused pain down his leg and foot. He started to recover late in the season, crediting a new mattress with helping to alleviate the pain. Simpson showed up this season, after signing another one-year deal with the Vikings, healthy and looking forward to earning a long-term contract.
“I’m healthy this year, have nothing hanging over my head,” Simpson said. “I have my confidence back, and I’m ready to just play ball and make plays for this team.”
Minnesota is pleased to see a healthy, happy Simpson. He had a team-high seven catches and 140 yards on Sunday, his biggest single-game output since that Week 10 game in 2011 when had eight catches for 152 yards. Simpson had the Vikings’ three biggest pass plays, catching two passes for more than 40 yards.
“He played some really good football for us,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “That catch he made on the stutter-go (the 47-yarder), that was a spectacular play. That’s the stuff we saw a year ago, when we got him in training camp, and we’ve seen it this off-season as well. He has that bounce, that spring, back in his legs, and it showed up on Sunday. … It’s good to have him back at top speed; those big plays make a difference.”
Simpson’s disappointing 2012 season was well-documented. Minnesota took a chance on Simpson, who was facing a three-game suspension for a drug-trafficking related arrest. He returned in Week 4 and had four catches for 50 yards and also drew two big pass-interference penalties. A week later, he woke up with back trouble, saying he had issues with his legs, and was never the same. He changed mattresses late in the year and finished with 11 catches over the final three regular-season games.
The Vikings stuck by Simpson, choosing to re-sign him in the offseason and he rewarded the patience on Sunday.
“I just used my good coaching by coach (George) Stewart and my offensive coordinator, Bill Musgrave, and I just ran the route that I needed to and I got the separation and I just made a play for my team,” Simpson said of his big reception.
Simpson was one of the few bright spots on offense Sunday. Only running back Adrian Peterson had a longer play from scrimmage, on a 78-yard touchdown run, which came with the help of Simpson’s blocking down field.
“We definitely have to learn from it,” Simpson said of the offense’s struggles. “We’ve just got something to build on. We have 15 more games. And we just have to keep building each week to get better.”
Ponder targeted Simpson eight times for the seven catches, but had four turnovers. Simpson said he isn’t worried about Ponder’s ability to bounce back from Sunday.
“It’s always frustrating, but you’ve just got to forget about it and move on to next week, the Chicago game,” Simpson said. “And I believe in the guy, and he’s going to come back even stronger and more confident this next week.”
Simpson seems like he’s come back stronger and more confident.