The Numbers Game

The Vikes' scoring machine sure does look unstoppable. But can the defense get it done come January?

For all their merits, the 1998 Vikings pose an interesting contrast to the legendary Norsemen of the past. In the four years the Vikings went to the Super Bowl (1970, 1973, 1974, and 1976), the Purple People Eaters never once surrendered more than 27 points in the course of regular-season play--a mark already surpassed three times by this season's edition. Perhaps these new Vikings, with an offense poised to mount a credible challenge to the 1983 Redskins' all-time scoring record, can prove that old football adage wrong. Perhaps their quick, gritty defense is better--considerably better--than some of the numbers suggest. But, for the nervous fan, those numbers remain the stuff of small anxieties.

SIDELINES

THE CASTING OF veteran wide receiver Cris Carter in the role of mentor to rookie phenom Randy Moss has been one of the more popular story lines to come out of Winter Park this season. It goes like this: Carter, the wise and now deeply religious veteran who has been through hard times, would help keep Moss out of trouble, teach him about life in the pros, and give him a few useful tips on playing wideout. In a television spot airing for ESPN Magazine, the notion even receives a comic nod: Carter plays an indulgent big brother making a go-cart for the appreciative youngster, portrayed by Moss.

This past Wednesday, after reporters crowded around Moss for a midweek Q&A, Carter assumed an aspect of the role in earnest. The group interview was Moss's first since his much-criticized refusal to talk to the press after a spellbinding three-TD performance in Dallas. (On that day Moss rankled some columnists with a pair of curt utterances, "Y'all not TV" and "I ain't answering no questions. I don't feel like it!") This time, Moss, looking like a man awaiting a root canal, spent a few minutes with the beat reporters, answering the usual beat-reporter questions in subdued yet cooperative tones. But before any of the sportswriters could work up the gumption to query Moss about the Dallas flap, Carter stepped in and put the inquiry to an end. "That's a good way to finish. Let's go," he said, and proceeded to conduct a brief press conference of his own.

That turned out to be a dress rehearsal for the main event: a not-very-revealing edition of ESPN's Sunday Conversation, in which host Joe Theismann, who always had a soft touch as a passer in his days as a Redskins quarterback, lobbed easy questions--"What were your goals when you first started this season?" "Are you ever amazed by something you did?" and that old favorite, "Who is Randy Moss?" The 21-year-old Moss, a quick study on the field, responded with a generic blend of modesty and confidence--evidence, perhaps, that he is acquiring the rudimentary media savvy the league demands of its superstars.

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