The Purple Point Machine

With an easy schedule and the league's most exciting rookie added to an already potent offense, this year's Vikings need to deliver on suddenly high expectations

What a difference an off-season makes. By the time the 1997 Vikings had finished drop-kicking six of their last eight games, including a quiet 38-22 loss to the 49ers in the divisional playoff round, many local fans and sportswriters seemed convinced the team was light-years away from being a Super Bowl contender and that head coach Dennis "Hostile Takeover" Green was a borderline nutcase. Meanwhile, the Vikes were up for sale, with all kinds of faraway cities panting for a franchise. And offensive coordinator Brian Billick, appearing desperate to scurry away from this rudderless organization, resigned to pursue the same job with the Cowboys, a move that NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue quashed.

But now the team has lucked into a ridiculously talented first-round draft pick and put together an undefeated exhibition season under new owner Red McCombs. Shaking hands and slapping backs in the home locker room after the Vikings' 34-0 whitewashing of the Chiefs, a preseason game his hucksterism transformed into a sellout, McCombs was heard to crow, "They'll be hollering around the league, 'Break 'em up! Break up the Vikings!'" Many once-moribund fans, some players, and even a few national analysts are talking Super Bowl. Should the Purple take the big steps that so many anticipate, Green, who is the only NFL head coach unsigned for 1999, would be in line for a nice little contract extension--or a better deal and a cleaner slate in another city. But that's a situation he doesn't want to talk about.

"As I said, guys," Green reminded reporters after Friday's 42-28 win over San Diego, "I'm not discussing anything about contracts. I said it back in January, and I meant it back in January." He was equally cautious in assessing how this Vikings team rates compared to his others. "I think it's all about playing the game," he says. "Last year we started 8-2. I don't think anybody has to say anything. We're going to play, and I think we'll all find out."

Given his situation, Green has as much reason to try to dampen expectations as McCombs has for raising them. But barring a multitude of injuries (or maybe just one if it involves Robert Smith or John Randle), it's hard to see how the Vikings can avoid adding two wins to last year's 9-7 regular-season record--and, more important, going deeper in the playoffs. So whom do we have to thank for this reversal of fortune from just eight months ago? Rookie wideout phenom Randy Moss, who, after losing scholarships at two collegiate football factories (Notre Dame and Florida State), experienced a draft-day free fall into the arms of the overjoyed Vikings brain trust, which waited at pick number 21? An apparently healthy Brad Johnson, who, at the time of his season-ending neck injury last December, was second only to Brett Favre in NFC passing yardage? The bubbly McCombs, who promises to turn his team's indoor home into the "Thunderdome"?

Give a nod to all of the above, but first and foremost, thank the schedule maker. The Vikes' second-half slide last year turns out to be the gift that keeps on giving: In '97 it cost the team a wild-card-round home playoff game, but sent Minnesota to play the mediocre division-winning New York Giants; now, in '98, it lands them a fourth-place schedule for the upcoming season. Among other benefits, that means the Vikings will dodge the Steelers in their matchups with AFC Central foes, and, despite all the Jacksonville hype, Pittsburgh's defense still makes them the class of that division. The Vikes do play the Jaguars, but it's in the Dome on December 20. The other AFC Central opponents--Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Tennessee--are eminently beatable teams based on talent disparities alone, although a final regular-season game against the hard-rushing Oilers in Nashville could present a challenge.

The fourth-place Vikings also avoid NFC divisional champs San Francisco and New York, in favor of less fearsome foes such as Dallas and St. Louis. New Orleans invades the Dome--a matchup that's the very definition of an NFL laugher--as do the Redskins, who are no slouches, but nevertheless appear to be a notch below the Vikings, especially playing in Minnesota.

The real danger, of course, comes from the NFC Central, which, with the ascent of the Buccaneers, the perpetual hanging-around of the Lions, and the still-rock-solid lineup of the Packers, has unquestionably emerged as the toughest division in football. If the Vikings seem likely to lose at least five games, surely three or more of them will come at the hands of Tampa Bay, Detroit, and you know who.

Sunday's opener against the Buccaneers, a team picked by Sports Illustrated to go 13-3 and win the NFC championship, should provide a healthy dose of regular-season reality. Nevertheless, nobody doubts the Vikings' offense can give Tampa Bay's first-rate defense--hell, any team's defense--all it can handle. "It's like that analogy," Billick says, "if someone wants to kill the president, they can, if they don't mind giving up their own life. If you want to stop our passing game, you can do it, you can commit the resources to it. But you better hope we're not handing the ball off to Robert Smith that play. If you want to stop Robert Smith, you can do it. But you better hope we don't have a pass on to Jake Reed, Cris Carter, or Randy Moss."

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