EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — Michael Bennett's time to prove he can be a reliable featured back in Minnesota is running out.
The fifth-year player is in the final season of the contract he signed after the Vikings drafted him in the first round out of Wisconsin. Coming off consecutive injury-marred seasons, Bennett was healthy all summer until a sprained neck hindered him at the end of August — a setback that caused coach Mike Tice to use him sparingly in the opener against Tampa Bay.
Last week at Cincinnati, Bennett rushed three times for 36 yards on the first drive — before fumbling and finding himself on the sideline. He went back in the second quarter, caught a pass out of the backfield and lost another fumble.
"The guy wanted to have a big game and prove to everybody that he's the guy," Tice said. "He wanted to prove to everybody that he is the back that will help us become explosive on offense. Unfortunately, he had a couple of errors in there."
Tice noted that the fumbles were caused by unblocked defenders, relieving a bit of the responsibility on Bennett for the costly mistakes. Plus, Bennett has always been sure-handed — even if he hasn't been able to stay off the injury report. Until last Sunday's disaster, Bennett had fumbled only seven times and lost four of them in his professional career.
That's part of the reason why Bennett expressed his frustration over the benching against the Bengals.
"I want to be able to get a chance to get back in and make up for it right away," he said. "I sit out a quarter, I lose my rhythm, and I had to come back in and start all over."
Tice pinned his decision on psychology.
"I haven't lost confidence in Mike because he had a couple of fumbles," Tice said. "I always try to look at when a player makes a mistake how their disposition is when they come off the field and try to gauge how quickly I want a player to re-enter the game — or how quickly I want to rely on the player to make a play for us based on his disposition.
"Some players are different than others. Some players shake it off, and it's not a big deal. Some players let it wear on them a little longer. I thought he was fine. I let him calm down. I know he was angry at himself. He had a great week of practice last week. He carried it over to the game. It was an unfortunate thing, to be honest."
Without receiver Randy Moss, the Vikings are seeing more opponents put an extra man closer to the line of scrimmage — or "in the box," in football vernacular. That, and injuries and inconsistency on the offensive line, has made it more difficult for Minnesota to establish a running game.
"It starts with us up front," guard Chris Liwienski said. "We have to keep our playmakers clean and give them room to make plays, and we haven't done that on a consistent basis."
Mewelde Moore is right behind Bennett on the depth chart, and veteran Moe Williams has his role as a third-down and short-yardage back — so it's unlikely the Vikings will continue to give Bennett chances if the results aren't there.
But Williams disputed the suggestion that Bennett has lost confidence.
"I could see if it's a rookie coming right out of college ... but Michael just had a bad day," Williams said.
And again, a lot of his success — or lack thereof — hinges on the guys blocking in front of him.
"We've just got to get better as an offense," Bennett said. "We have to execute what's called."
If he doesn't get it going, or even if he does, Bennett could be traded before the league's Oct. 18 deadline. The Vikings have had talks about that in the past year.
"I can't do anything about it. Just do my job," he said. "If it's for me to have to be shipped out of here, then it's out of my hands."