The most wicked dagger to ever rip through the hearts of Minnesota sports fans came in 1998.
It took aim as Viking Gary Anderson -- then the perfect kicker for the NFL's highest-scoring offense ever -- whiffed what would've been a game-winning field goal against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. Then, seven minutes later, it plunged down as Falcons kicker Morten Andersen drilled a walk-off field goal in overtime.
Twenty years later, the loss still stings. But the players (Randall Cunningham, Chris Carter, Robert Smith), coaches (Brian Billick), executives (GM Jeff Diamond, president Tim Connolly), beat writers (Don Banks), and even late coach Dennis Green's wife, Marie, are ready to reflect on the ecstasy and heartache in "The Greatest Team Never to Make It," a brand-new oral history of the '98 Vikes from Sports Illustrated.
Denny Green was convinced Randy Moss would be available at the 21st pick
Even with the character concerns, a generational talent like Moss shouldn't have been available with the 1998 NFL Draft's 21st overall pick, and almost nobody in Minnesota thought he would be. Except for head coach Denny Green.
"[Denny Green] had been talking about Randy Moss for weeks," Marie Green tells SI. "He had his eye on him, and he was thinking, Wow, this could really happen. We could get this guy. He was so excited about Randy. Really, genuinely, he knew that Randy could make a difference for the Vikings, but he also wanted to give him a chance."
Nobody could overthrow Moss
Moss' pre-draft workouts at Marshall University are the stuff of legend -- a silky smooth 6-foot-4 athlete who can blaze a 4.25-second 40-yard dash and record a jaw-dropping 47-inch vertical jump. Ahead of the '98 season, that speed was on display.
"I got healthy for training camp, and after the third practice we just said 'Let’s see if we can out-throw him,'" says quarterback Brad Johnson, who started the year at quarterback before getting injured and, eventually, supplanted by Randall Cunningham. "We just stood around taking five-step drops, launching the ball as far as we could. We couldn’t make it happen. He caught everything unless we line-drived it. And this is the crazy thing. Randy told me later on, 'I’m never running full speed unless it’s Deion Sanders or Darryl Green.' He said 'I’m just setting them up. Throw it out there and I’ll get it.'"
The prodigious offensive made game-planning irrelevant
The Vikings put up 556 regular season points, an all-time NFL record at the time. Moss and Chris Carter snagged 29 combined touchdowns, while Robert Smith rampaged for 1,478 total yards. Cunningham, the freshly born-again Christian who was out of football in 1996, posted a QB rating of 106. Eventually, even coaches realized the machine didn't need much -- if any -- prepping.
"We almost got to the point where we stopped looking at film," admitted Billick, the team's offensive coordinator. "You try and prepare the players and say, OK, this is what teams usually did, they’re single high or three deep or whatever. So we’d come into the game and it would be totally different. They figured they’d have to try something. So we’d just get into the game and adjust to whatever they were doing. Looking at all that film was a waste of time."
Green revolutionized how the NFL approached charity work
Nowadays, NFL teams encourage players to spend their Tuesdays contributing to charitable efforts in the community. It wasn't always that way.
"Denny almost made it mandatory that every guy get out in the community," safety Robert Griffith says. "We, and I want to make sure you write this in capital letters, please, as a personal quote because there’s not a lot of acknowledgment that goes out to Denny Green man -- Denny Green is the NFL’s Community Tuesday. He started it. He did, I was there. If you were at home on Tuesday, you were reaching out on Tuesday and doing something -- going to a hospital and visiting a sick kid or speaking at elementary schools."
The team was churchy, but also loved gambling
Cunningham and Carter brought heavy doses of bible-thumping, Billick reports.
"We had five or six different church services," Cater says. "We had services in the stadium for the families, so if you wanted to still go to church on Sunday there was a Christian non-denominational service and we also a priest who came and did a Catholic service. If you wanted to get 30 to 45 minutes of a church service we provided that. Guys who wanted Bible study, we provided that."
But the players still gambled on everything. The theoretical outcome of a foot race between the team's two fastest players -- Moss and Smith -- was an especially popular wager.
"As you’d come down from the home team’s locker room," Connolly recalls, "you’d go down this ramp and make a right hand turn onto the field, and when the offense came out of the locker room to run down for pregame warmups and they’d be yelling at each other '$100 for first touchdown, longest touchdown and most touchdowns.' 'No, make that $200, $300 for long distance.' They were like high school kids. They were great."
All eyes were on the Super Bowl ...
After scoring home-field advantage for the playoffs and crushing the Arizona Cardinals in the Divisional round, Minnesota was justifiably cocky as they prepared to face the 14-2 Falcons at the Metrodome.
"If they had made the Super Bowl, Randall and I were going to do a book that year on his Christian transformation, on his faith, on his career turnaround," Banks says. "He took notes into a tape recorder all year anticipating that we were going to do a book, since everyone knew they were going to the Super Bowl."
... then all eyes were bursting with tears.
After Anderson shanked that infamous kick ("Like, I don’t even know if Gary even missed in practice -- that’s how good he was," Johnson notes) and the Falcons punched their ticket to the Super Bowl, the Vikings locker room was a place of emotional devastation.
"There were some guys sobbing, sincerely," says Fred Zamberletti, the team's trainer. "Very deeply. I don’t remember ever seeing athletes cry as much as I did after that game.
"I’ve never seen anything like the psychic toll of that game on those guys in the locker room," adds Banks.
The Falcons loss haunted Green until his death in 2016
That's a sad fact revealed by the coach's wife. But, even while reliving 1998's miserable conclusion, Orr manages to end his oral history with a delightful anecdote from Marie Green.
Click here to read it.