The inspiration for Adam Thielen’s NFL career was rooted some three-and-a-half hours southeast of where he grew up in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.
Thielen spent his formative years watching Randy Moss’ high-flying heroics ignite the fan base inside the Metrodome and spark a Hall of Fame career. As a kid, Thielen aimed to mimic the moves that made Moss -- and his other Vikings favorite, Cris Carter -- the best receivers of their day.
In a picture that has made the rounds on NFL broadcasts this season, a young Thielen paid tribute to his football hero on Halloween, wearing Moss’ No. 84 jersey, eye black and Moss' signature bandana to complete the look.
Thielen crossed a surreal threshold during Minnesota’s 24-7 win over the Rams on Sunday, when he became the first Vikings player to reach 900 receiving yards in the first 10 games of the season since Moss did so in 2003 (he also did it in 2000).
“Obviously, Randy is an idol of mine, a guy who made me want to play the game and made me want to play receiver,” Thielen said. “I’m very thankful for what he did for me and this game. I have a lot of respect for him, but I’m really not even thinking about stats right now or anything like that. Just trying to win games.”
Thielen’s six catches for 123 yards against the Rams, which included a 65-yard touchdown, put him at 916 receiving yards, which ranks second in the NFL. After he didn't reach the end zone in his first seven games, the Vikings receiver has a touchdown in each of Minnesota’s past three wins.
His unlikely journey from an undrafted standout at Division II Minnesota State to one of the best wide receivers in the NFL is referenced at every turn. What he has done this season shows that his journey is more than just a great story.
The Vikings knew long before Thielen’s crazy catches made highlight shows on a weekly basis that he was the real deal. He has followed his breakout 2016 campaign, in which he amassed 967 yards, by setting the pace to become the first Vikings receiver to reach 1,000 yards in a season since Sidney Rice in 2009.
Coach Mike Zimmer used to be in awe of what Thielen can do. Now nothing the receiver does surprises him.
“... he’s just a playmaker,” Zimmer said. “I think they named that show [ESPN’s Playmakers] after him.”
Thielen’s chemistry with quarterback Case Keenum is the basis for those astonishing plays. That’s what gave Keenum the confidence to launch, while trying to evade the Rams’ pass rush, a miracle throw that appeared to effortlessly land in Thielen’s hands for a 12-yard reception.
“That one was crazy,” Keenum said. “We had called out a little roll-out pass. Just trying to find somebody open downfield. Adam did a great job finding space.”
Thielen has 19 catches for 387 yards and three touchdowns the past three weeks. He’s fourth in the league among wide receivers in yards after the catch with 294, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That number was bolstered by a short pass that Thielen took 65 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, shimmying past one defender and blazing past another to all but seal the game.
“You know, [Minnesota wide receiver] Stacy [Coley] has been telling me to just run,” Thielen said. “Last week, I looked back, so this week I just looked forward and ran as fast as I could.”
Back in Moss’ day, defenses employed the “Randy Rule” to try to limit his impact during games. Maybe teams will give a name to some strategy to stop Thielen from breaking a game open. Like Moss, he has become Minnesota’s top deep threat, catching 16 passes of 20 yards or more through 10 games.
Neither Thielen nor Stefon Diggs, who has 532 receiving yards after missing three games with a groin injury, have been shadowed much by opposing corners. It’s a sign of respect but also a challenge they invite. Their individual skill sets make them one of the hardest receiver duos to defend. Teams know they have to pick their poison.
“As far as shadowing or taking away one guy, with that being the plan, we have a lot of different guys that can do some special things,” Diggs said. “Hopefully we’re maximizing all of it.”
In the Vikings’ eight wins, Thielen’s impact has come through more than catching passes. At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, the fourth-year player isn’t the most physically imposing threat, but he isn’t afraid to do the “dirty work” on offense.
“Adam does everything,” Zimmer said following the Vikings’ win over the Redskins. “Adam blocks defensive ends, he blocks linebackers in the running game, and he runs great routes.
“Sometimes he just finds a way to make a play. He’s been doing it all year. He found a way to make the team. That’s just him. He finds a way.”