EDEN PRAIRIE —
Antoine Winfield's days in the NFL are winding down. He knows it. He feels it. And he's not ready to give up on this season and these rebuilding Minnesota Vikings.
The 35-year-old cornerback doesn't have an abundance of time for the young Vikings secondary to grow into prominent roles on this defense. After seeing his unit give up some big plays late in the first two games, the quiet leader had to speak up.
Winfield addressed the entire team — players, coaches, even front office members — this week to try to get his sense of urgency to sink into the rest of an organization that appears to be looking toward the future.
"I only stand up and say stuff when it's coming from the heart, when I think it needs to be said," Winfield said. "I don't get up there and stand up every week and say something. ... It's hard to win in this league. We could easily be 0-2. When there are games like that and it's on the line, where we have a chance to win, we need to win them."
The Vikings escaped with an overtime victory in the season opener against Jacksonville despite giving up a touchdown pass with 20 seconds to play in regulation that gave the Jaguars a three-point lead. Quarterback Christian Ponder and rookie kicker Blair Walsh were able to bail them out in that game, but not in Indianapolis last week.
Ponder drove the Vikings to two fourth-quarter touchdowns, the last a pass to Kyle Rudolph that tied the game with 36 seconds to play. But rookie Andrew Luck completed two 20-yard passes to move the Colts into field goal range, and Adam Vinatieri handed the Vikings their first loss of the season.
"You don't want to give games away, especially this early in the year," Winfield said.
The Vikings did that often in 2011 and were buried before the season was even half over. They finished 3-13 and in last place in the NFC North for the second straight season, and Winfield missed 10 games with a broken right collarbone.
He came back healthy this season, and surrounded by youngsters who have plenty to learn. Cornerback Chris Cook is in his third season but missed most of last year with off-field issues. They also have rookie third-rounder Josh Robinson, and the starting safeties are rookie Harrison Smith and Mistral Raymond, a second-year pro drafted in the sixth round in 2011.
"It's hard to win in this league," Winfield said. "We could easily be 0-2. Like I said, games like that when you have a chance to win, you need to find a way to win."
Of course, building the cohesion and confidence in one another necessary to have a chance against the pass-happy offenses of today takes time — one thing Winfield doesn't have in reserve.
"It feels like we're coming together," Raymond said. "We're communicating a lot more and everyone is just trying to be on the same page. We're still working on it and we're going to continue to work it."
Winfield's words haven't just hit home with the young players.
"He's one of our leaders on the team, the oldest guy on the team, so what he had to say was very pertinent," defensive end Jared Allen said. "We'll leave it at that. What's said in that team room is for our ears only. But it was good.
"Antoine's a hell of a player, and he has every right to call it as he sees it. And everybody agreed with him."
The Vikings face undefeated San Francisco on Sunday in Randy Moss' first regular season game at the Metrodome as a member of the visiting team. Moss has been used sporadically in the 49ers' offense the first two weeks, but there's no doubt he'll be looking forward to testing this new-look Vikings secondary under the roof that he used to own.
"He's still dangerous," Winfield said. "We all understand that. Can't let him loose."