The Purple Point Machine
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."
As for Moss, no first-year player since--gulp--Tony Mandarich has generated so much national hype in a preseason, and naturally Vikings fans can't help but wonder if the Moss they've seen so far is too good to be true and will somehow wind up a Mandarich-sized bust. Twenty other clubs had their doubts about him, primarily because of so-called character issues, a dicey evaluation indeed when applied within the world of pro football. There's no intent here to minimize Moss's already well-publicized problems--a battery conviction that led to a month of jail time and, while he was on probation for that offense, a positive test for marijuana. Where his talent is concerned, however, no question marks exist. He's a rookie, so he'll experience some on-the-field lessons as all rookies do, and he won't be the second coming of Jerry Rice immediately. But as anyone who saw him light up the Chargers for four catches, 59 yards, two touchdowns, and one Lambeau-style leap can attest, if Moss avoids injuries and, er, trouble, he's as can't-miss a prospect as you'll find in the league this year.
Billick simply shakes his head when assessing Moss's training camp. "Constantly in practice, Randy will do something, and I'll be like, 'No, no, you've got to--OK, that'll work.' 'No, no, Randy, you can't go into that--OK, maybe you can do it that way,'" Billick says. "He's a phenomenal athlete, with the speed, size, and jump ratio that I've not seen in the 10 years I've been in the NFL."
If there's any reason to mitigate the optimism surrounding Moss's skills, it might be that he still has to prove he can stand up to the punishment and intimidation tactics that are sure to come his way. But even as a rookie, the 6-foot-4-inch, 197-pound Moss won't line up against many cornerbacks who are as big as he is. And if this exhibition season accomplished anything for the Vikings, it did allow Moss to test himself against exactly the kind of defensive backs that on paper should give him fits--Carolina's Doug Evans and Kansas City's trio of Dale Carter, James Hasty, and Mark McMillian, some of the best bump-and-run, physical corners in the league.
At Carolina, Evans did effectively use his hands and body to screen Moss from the ball on one deep sideline pattern, but on another, there was Moss, cleanly blowing by Evans, yet not quite able to haul in a slightly overthrown pass from Johnson. Against the Chiefs, Moss inflicted most of his damage on the second unit. Carter, however, did hand him golden opportunities to make an ass out of himself for the first time as an NFL player, invitations Moss coolly declined. The Pro Bowl corner woofed and poked mercilessly at Moss the entire time they were on the field together--and even after Carter had left the game, he ran off the visitors' sideline in the third quarter to once more get in the rookie's face after Moss drew a 27-yard pass-interference call against the Chiefs. But Moss, delivering only a few quiet words in Carter's direction, avoided the pushing and/or shouting matches the accomplished seventh-year veteran was undoubtedly trying to goad him into. So far, so good.
For his part, Moss has nothing but nice things to say about Carter and Hasty, adding that thus far they're the most physical cornerbacks he's had to face. "They showed me a lot of things to expect from other corners. They didn't really try to get in me too hard, they just wanted me to get the feel of how things are going to be. I learned from them, and I just give them a lot of credit."
One of the biggest questions facing the Vikings is how much credit to give their own defensive backs. Sunday's opener should be revealing in that the Buccaneers acknowledge they must improve their passing game to make it to the Super Bowl, while the Vikings, in that nowhere-to-go-but-up spirit, promise a better pass defense than the one that finished dead last in the NFC last season. Tampa Bay drafted University of Florida wideout Jacquez Green and signed free-agent receiver Bert Emanuel, who caught 65 passes for nearly a thousand yards with Atlanta in '97. The Vikes, meanwhile, showed free-agent cornerback Dewayne Washington the door, traded a third-round 1999 draft choice to the Patriots for restricted free-agent cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock, and crossed their fingers.
Advantage: Buccaneers, even with the underwhelming Trent Dilfer at quarterback. Hitchcock, believe it or not, might be a notch below Washington. The fourth-year veteran has been toasted early and often in preseason action--Carolina's Rae Carruth turned him around in the end zone for a three-yard touchdown, and later the Panthers' Raghib Ismail streaked past him down the middle for a 33-yard score. Also, Hitchcock played softly enough to practically concede square-out completions to Kansas City's Andre Rison and New England reserve Vincent Brisby. The very fact that the Patriots made Hitchcock available should've raised a red flag--teams just don't trade decent cover corners for third-round picks, they're too hard to come by.
Unfortunately, no backup Vikings cornerback looks even close to wrestling away Hitchcock's starting job. Uninterested veteran Larry Brown got cut last weekend, and during the second half against San Diego, Ramos McDonald, Tony Darden, and Antonio Banks (since waived) took turns getting schooled on patterns short and long by reserve wideouts Webster Slaughter and Tyrone Brown, who teamed up with deservedly obscure backup quarterbacks Craig Whelihan and Casey Weldon. "Some veteran guys did some things against our very young second group on defense," was Dennis Green's charitable description of the carnage. "They've still got a great deal to learn and a lot of plays to make." McDonald exhibits the most potential, but like almost all rookie corners, he must develop a much better sense for when to turn his back to the receiver and look for the ball.
The news on the rest of the defense is mixed and situational, especially among the linebackers. If the Vikings are up by 10 in the second half at the Dome, you're likely to love what this athletic group does to opponents forced to pass. If the situation is reversed on the road, particularly on grass, you'll undoubtedly groan as these relative smurfs get plowed under by good-blocking fullbacks and tight ends. Still, it doesn't make much sense to bemoan the fact that Ed McDaniel, Dwayne Rudd, and Dixon Edwards aren't all big and fast enough to make every play on every field; the last linebacker who could do that was Lawrence Taylor, and he's not available.
Second-year weakside linebacker Rudd, at 6 feet 2 inches and 248 pounds, has better size to take on the run than do McDaniel (5-11, 231) and Edwards (6-1, 234), and he moves just as well. The justifiable knock on Rudd during his first season was that he showed questionable instincts and was easily fooled by misdirection and play-action offensive schemes, but his preseason performance indicates that was mostly a rookie's learning curve. He sure looked like a ball hawk on his touchdown against the Patriots, when, as New England's Terry Glenn juggled the football after a hit by Corey Fuller, Rudd broke from his pass coverage in the middle of the field to make the pick and explode down the sideline. Even on this play, though, Rudd left some doubt regarding his decision-making skills. With no defender in sight, he exuberantly dove into the end zone at full speed, landing squarely on his right shoulder, and no doubt inducing cringes throughout the state. Without this guy, 11-5 can turn into 8-8.
And without undertackle John Randle, 11-5 can become 6-10, for there's really no underestimating his ability to keep the Vikings in games. Of all the players the Vikings locked up with big-dollar, long-term deals in the past two seasons--including Brad Johnson, Todd Steussie, Robert Smith, and Cris Carter--Randle is the one whose signing prompts zero second-guessing. He stays healthy. He plays the run well and rushes the passer superlatively, registering 841/2 sacks since 1991, more than any other NFL player. He's unblockable with one offensive lineman, partially blockable with two, and usually worth the three he sometimes attracts.
Which is where Randle's colleagues on the defensive line come in. If at least one of them doesn't consistently make the opponent pay for shifting personnel in Randle's direction, the defense will routinely expose an already shaky secondary, and the Vikes will ultimately rack up stats similar to those of last year, when they yielded more first downs and more total yards than anyone in the NFC. Granted, with the Vikings' potent offense and the occasional timely takeaway (Minnesota finished with plus five last year, fourth best in the conference), you can still win nine nerve-racking games this way, but that no longer sounds good to anybody associated with the team.
If most of the higher expectations are based on the offense, well, there's not much to dislike on that side of the ball. Robert Smith is his usual productive, error-free self, averaging 4.2 yards per carry with zero fumbles during the exhibition season (and he hasn't been hurt yet, either). Brad Johnson's play has been spotty, but it's raised no concrete reason to doubt that he's fully recovered from last December's surgery on a herniated disk in his neck. Billick says that as offensive coordinator he's paid to nitpick, and even he can only cite the general concerns any coach would--reducing mental errors, using the proper technique, communicating better, "getting into the groove."
Nitpicking gets a little easier when looking at the Vikings' collection of tight ends. Andrew Glover is easily the best receiver among the bunch, but his hands are still only average, and his blocking, though improved, would rank in the bottom half among his peers. Hunter Goodwin, a converted tackle, blocks more like a lineman, but unfortunately tends to catch the ball like one, too. Glover and Goodwin were also penalty-prone in the preseason. The number-three tight end, Greg DeLong, blocks better than he catches and probably isn't good enough to move up on Green's depth chart.
Sure, a Carter/Reed/Moss unit sounds potentially unstoppable--if the blocking holds up, Johnson retains his arm strength and mobility, and Carter can handle sharing the glory with a budding superstar such as Moss. But if any of that breaks down, the Vikings will lack the personnel to get much benefit out of a double-tight-end formation. If both tight ends have decent hands, this set gives defenses nightmares. With three potential blockers lined up on each side of the center, they still have to respect the run, even without a lead-blocking fullback. If the two tight ends run patterns, one and sometimes both draw single coverage, often with winded linebackers.
For now, Billick defends the current trio. "They show up when they need to show up. They're doing a good job blocking. They've been available for us. Again, the tight end is going to catch three, four balls a game for us, and that's about it. That gives us that 50 that we need out of the tight-end position."
In other words, Billick prefers to contemplate how opponents will have trouble coping with his team's three-headed wideout monster. "Other than say a team like Kansas City, that can go three deep with some of the best man-to-man, pressure guys in the league, most defenses are going to have a tough time coming up with a third guy, if that's what you want to do, pressing up on a Randy Moss."
Fair enough. With so many weapons on offense and John Randle, Dwayne Rudd, and nine other guys on defense, this team should have enough to deal with much of the 1998 schedule. Glancing ahead, road games against Green Bay, Tampa Bay, and Detroit look like logical losses. Add in a home defeat versus Jacksonville or Washington along with a defeat at Dallas, which will struggle but has the best cornerback tandem in football. There are your five L's.
Of course, pro football being pro football, some of those logical losses will turn into upset victories, but these things have a way of evening out--e.g., the Vikes break Green Bay's winning streak at Lambeau Field but then find a way to lose at home against da Bears. In any event, you can roll out the purple carpet for a wild-card playoff game at good ol' Thunderdome. And if this year's model of the Vikings goes belly-up on its home field, there really will be no room for crybabies.
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