Sharper Than Sterling?
There was a time when Viking wide receiver Cris Carter wondered if he would ever be considered one of the NFL's elite. Although he led the Vikings in receptions for the past three seasons, Carter didn't get an invite to the Pro Bowl until January. Even then he came in through the back door after Sterling Sharpe of the Packers bowed out with an injury. However, that week in Hawaii did wonders for Carter.
"Cris saw that he could be one of those guys," says Viking offensive coordinator Brian Billick. "He's committed to going in the front door this year."
Not only is Carter committed to making the Pro Bowl as a starter this season, but he's also determined to separate himself from the league's Big Four receivers—Sharpe, Jerry Rice, Andre Rison and Michael Irvin. Carter, who caught five passes in Sunday's 26-20 overtime loss to the Patriots at Foxboro Stadium, is leading the league in receptions, with 77. He is on pace to break the NFL record for receptions in a single season, 112, set last year by Sharpe. At his current rate of 7.7 catches per game, Carter will haul in 123 passes this season.
"Cris is the consummate inside receiver—tough, strong, elusive and unafraid to catch balls in a crowd," Billick says. "Yet he also has the grace of a basketball player. There aren't many who can make a full-speed cut as fast as Cris can in the open field."
After the Pro Bowl, Carter, who at times in the past has been accused of lacking dedication, worked hard to improve. Viking coach Dennis Green opted not to re-sign veteran wide receivers Hassan Jones and Anthony Carter during the off-season, thrusting the 28-year-old Carter into the role of wise old man among the Viking receivers. His work ethic became stronger than it has ever been, in part to set a good example for the youngsters. This year Carter has been well prepared for meetings, has gone all out in practice and has brought a sense of urgency on game day. His new attitude—and his success on the field—have made things easier for the other Minnesota receivers.
"Cris plays at such a high tempo that he brings us up to his level," says fourth-year man Jake Reed, who is second on the Vikings, with 58 catches. "Even if he's double-covered, Cris runs his routes hard so that one of us can get open. He'll run 50 or 60 yards downfield and come back to the huddle hollering. I'd be exhausted. Sometimes I ask him where he gets all that energy."
Adds rookie Andrew Jordan, who leads Minnesota tight ends with 25 receptions, "Cris even tried to block [ Green Bay defensive end] Reggie White—and got thrown 10 yards—but that shows he'll do anything to win. We take our cue from that."
Carter also seems to have settled down off the field. After his junior year at Ohio State, Carter was thrown off the team because he admitted to accepting illegal payments from two sports agents. With the Eagles, he was in coach Buddy Ryan's doghouse because Ryan didn't like his work habits. Philadelphia cut Carter before the '90 season. Carter tried to clean up his act—for starters he stopped drinking—but it wasn't until last spring that he really got his life together. Cris and his wife, Melanie, had been having marital difficulties, and they turned to religion for direction.
"Cris is finally at peace with himself," Melanie says. "I tell him, 'Live your life as an example, and you don't have to prove anything to anybody.' "