The Numbers Game

A strong offense and a soft schedule have concealed the Vikings' Achilles' heel: An exceptionally generous defense
Craig Lassig

In this, the Minnesota Vikings' most promising season of the past two decades, the numbers have often been used to tell the story. All fall the local sports pages have been awash with statistics that presage Super Bowl glory. Hardly a week passes without some record of note falling. We learn, for instance, that with Sunday's 48-22 blowout of the lowly Bears, the Vikings tied their franchise mark for regular-season victories and, while they were at it, broke the team record for points scored in a single season. That Randall Cunningham, whose 111.8 quarterback rating is tops in the NFL, is at the helm of a fast-break offense that has so far tallied 12 touchdowns on plays of 50 yards or more. That Randy Moss leads the league in receiving yards and touchdown receptions and has shattered scads of NFL rookie and Viking team records. And that placekicker Gary Anderson still hasn't missed a field goal.

Things have gotten so giddy around these parts that the Strib has eschewed its old "Who's Hot? Who's Not?" feature in favor of "Who's Hot? Who's Hotter?"

Conspicuously absent amid all the frothing is any serious examination of the home team's defensive numbers. And those tell quite a different story: While the Vikings' scoring machine may well deliver a trip to Miami come January, all those points have served to obscure signs of vulnerability on the other side of the ball. In a 30-team league, Minnesota ranks 19th in defense as measured by yards allowed. They're even worse (24th) in the so-called red zone: Once they're inside the 20-yard line, Vikes opponents have scored 20 touchdowns on 35 possessions.

According to the time-honored football truism, defense wins the big games. That truism is born of statistical fact. Last season's Super Bowl contestants, the Broncos and Packers, ranked fifth and seventh in the league in overall defense. The year before, the Pack snagged the Lombardi Trophy thanks in large part to a defensive unit that was ranked No. 1 in the NFL. While some fans pooh-pooh the value of overall defensive ranking (the most common statistical measure of team defense) because it's indexed by yardage and not points allowed, over the years the ranking has proved a fairly reliable predictor of postseason success. In seven of the past eight Super Bowls, for instance, the team with the higher-ranked defense won. None of the victors ranked worse than 10th overall, and more than half featured defenses with overall rankings in the top five. Throughout the 1990s, the occasional Super Bowl teams with statistically weak defenses--the '91 and '93 Bills, both ranked 27th--were routed.

Of course, stats can be deceptive. For the most part, the teams that have fared well offensively against the Vikings have put up their gaudiest numbers while playing catch-up. When protecting big leads, defensive coordinator Foge Fazio has employed soft defenses, guarding against the bomb and, in the process, surrendering lots of garbage yards. One can also question the relevance of the much-touted time-of-possession stat. In five of the Vikings' past seven games, the opposition has controlled the clock--but largely because this team's offense tends to score quickly. So far this season, the Vikes have mounted 12 touchdown drives that consumed less than a minute. In the first quarter of the Dallas game, the Vikings held the ball for only five minutes and six seconds; during that time they racked up three touchdowns. Yet for all its virtues, a fast-strike offense gives the opposition both more opportunities and more time to score; that was the bane of the run-and-shoot experiment, a vogue that expired after practitioners in Detroit, Houston, and elsewhere kept collapsing in the playoffs.

One area where the Vikes defense has stood out is points allowed--in that category the team ranks sixth in the NFL. At the Metrodome, moreover, they've yielded a stingy average of just under 12 points per game. Three times they've given up seven points or less.

But on the other hand, by virtue of a fourth-place finish in the Central Division last year, the team has reaped the rewards of a soft schedule. Heading into the Bears rematch, Vikes opponents had a cumulative record of 41-55--the third-sorriest such record in the league. Only three times have they lined up against a team with a winning record. What's more, they've faced some of the NFL's lowest-rated offenses--New Orleans (28th), St. Louis (27th), and Cincinnati (25th).

All told, for a 12-1 team, the Vikings have seen a surprising number of opponents roll up big offensive numbers. In their first game against the Bears, journeyman quarterback Erik Kramer, no superstar, passed for a career-best 372 yards against the Vikings, completing 25 of 39 passes for four touchdowns. And in the Thanksgiving Day showdown with the Cowboys, Dallas QB Troy Aikman lit up the Vikings' pass defense with 455 yards in the air. Aikman fell just 6 yards shy of surpassing Don Meredith's record for the club, a mark that would have been eclipsed had Dallas receivers not dropped eight balls.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have so far produced the only template on how to beat the Vikes, never punted during the fateful November 1 contest at Raymond James Stadium. Instead they wore down the defense with a grueling running game that kept Cunningham et al. on the sidelines for more than half the game. Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn combined to establish a new Tampa rushing record of 246 yards. That should have had any knowledgeable Vikings fan shuddering just a bit at the prospect of a matchup against Denver's Terrell Davis--the NFL's leading rusher.

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.


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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