The Wild lost 3-1 to Columbus at Xcel Energy Center on Monday, but during and after the game most people weren’t talking about what was happening on the ice.
Rather, they were fixated on a fan seated directly behind tthe Wild’s bench holding a simple but memorable sign that read: “HAHAHAHA PACKER FANS.” We tweeted about it, as did countless others. The fan — 31-year-old Ryan Rhody of St. Paul — earned instant Internet fame and heard himself being talked about Tuesday morning on ESPN’s SportsCenter. He was also kind enough to chat with us Tuesday to paint a fuller picture of his big night and big idea.
As you might imagine, Rhody is a big Vikings fan — he went to 13 games in person this season, including five on the road — and an equally big anti-Packers fan. Sunday’s NFC title game was about as good as it gets for him, he said.
“I hate the Packers fans more than anything. So I will do anything to chirp them in any way possible,” Rhody said. “With the amount of texts and Facebook messages I got when they were (ahead on Sunday). this was my way to laugh right back at them.”
So Rhody made the sign and headed to the game with his sister and parents.
“I didn’t tell anybody,” he said. “I just pulled it out of my jacket right when the game started. And it just went nuts.”
Indeed, it kept coming in waves on social media every time there was a fresh shot on TV of the Wild’s bench, with Rhody and his sign perched just to the side of head coach Mike Yeo. But Rhody — who says he has made plenty of signs for games before but never experienced anything like this — didn’t anticipate just how popular he would become Monday night.
“I had easlily 20,000 tweets or retweets. I couldn’t even keep up with my Twitter,” he said. “My phone went from 70 percent battery down to 7 percent like nothing. I got like 200 or 300 texts. My phone died and I turned it back on. In that time I had 120 texts in 45 minutes.”
Some of it was backlash from Packers fans, but most of it was positive — either from Vikings fans or neutral parties who thought it was funny.
It will be hard to top in the future, but Rhody already has some ideas. He’s going to be in Arizona during the Super Bowl, which offers a much bigger stage than a Wild game.
“I don’t have tickets yet. I wouldn’t go if Green Bay was there,” Rhody said. “I’ve had the trip planned for over a month. I think I can figure out a way to do something good at the Super Bowl.”
Over the next two weeks, we will take a position-by-position look at where the Vikings stand heading into the offseason after their 7-9 season in 2014. Today, we tackle the running backs.
The running back position figured to be the least of the Vikings’ worries heading into 2014, but it quickly became their biggest headache when perennial Pro Bowl back Adrian Peterson was charged with child abuse down in Texas two days before their second game of the season.
Peterson would not suit up again in 2014, leaving a sizable void in the backfield as offensive coordinator Norv Turner had built his offense around Peterson and the power running game. Matt Asiata got the first crack at replacing Peterson, but after a few starts the team went with rookie Jerick McKinnon, a more explosive athlete. McKinnon surprised by rushing for 4.8 yards per carry. But after 538 yards on 113 carries, he was lost for the season with a back injury.
The Vikings finished the season out with a three-man committee of Asiata, Joe Banyard and Ben Tate, whom the team claimed off waivers from the Browns and then released a few weeks later.
The Vikings ranked a respectable 11th in the NFL with 4.4 yards per carry without Peterson. But the 29-year-old was missed, and his uncertain future will be the story of the offseason.
ONE REASON FOR OPTIMISM: Questions remain about McKinnon’s ability to be an every-down runner, but the third-round pick out of Georgia Southern showed that at the very least he is capable of playing a large role in a backfield committee, an approach the Vikings could soon adopt. He has the wheels to get to the outside and he can be a receiving weapon out of the backfield. He also showed at times that he may have the willingness and power to run between the tackles some, too.
ONE REASON FOR CONCERN: It’s a big one. The Peterson era in Minnesota may be over, and it has more to do with his contract than his legal issues. Both head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman have said they would like to have Peterson back in 2015. But Peterson, who turns 30 in a few months, will carry a cap hit of $15.4 million, a league-high for running backs. And in an ESPN interview he scoffed at the suggestion that he take a pay cut to remain with the Vikings. Can he and the Vikings find common ground? Or is Peterson ready for a fresh start elsewhere?
GRADES WITH A GRAIN OF SALT: Since the Vikings (understandably) won’t make their player grades public, we turn to Pro Football Focus, whom some players and coaches have been critical of. For context with these grades, a grade of 0.0 is considered average. Positive grades are good. Negative grades are not. There was a lot of red when looking at these backs. Asiata had one of the NFL’s lowest grades at negative-10.0. McKinnon was a negative-1.6 (mostly due to a poor grade in pass protection). Tate was a negative-1.3. And Peterson was a negative-0.2 in one game. Banyard led the tailbacks with a plus-1.9 grade in limited action. Fullback Jerome Felton was a plus-3.7.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT: 336 — yards after contact for Asiata. That means 234 of his 570 yards came before contact, an average of just 1.43 yards before contact per carry for the plodding back.
POTENTIAL DEPARTURES: If Peterson does return to the team in 2015, he will be lining up behind a new lead blocker. Felton, seeing the writing on the wall, has said that he plans to opt out of his contract next month to become a free agent. Felton is a good blocking fullback who should find work elsewhere, but $2.5 million would have been a lot to pay for a player at a position used sparingly.
OFFSEASON LEVEL OF NEED: High, if Peterson does not return. McKinnon showed promise and the Vikings like Asiata because he is a selfless player who can do a bunch of things for them. But as we saw in 2014, losing Peterson would leave a sizable void. If the Vikings need to replace Peterson, look for them to do it in the draft. Spielman recently remarked that there are a lot of talented running backs in this draft class, and from a value standpoint, it makes more sense for the Vikings to spend a pick on a young back instead of shelling out cash for a veteran with more tread on his tires.