|Wednesday, November 13
Updated: November 16, 12:28 PM ET
Vikings demise began with Anderson miss
By Len Pasquarelli
Even as the ball fluttered tantalizingly errant, probably less than a foot outside the left upright, the man charged with celebrating every Minnesota Vikings score with an ear-splitting cannon report inside the Metrodome had already fired his mini-carbine two times.
There was, of course, a problem: Following 122 consecutive placement successes, Anderson had missed the kick that was considered automatic, a field goal that would have lifted the Vikings into an insurmountable 30-20 lead over the upstart Atlanta Falcons in the 1998 NFC championship game.
And so, ooops, on the afternoon of Jan. 17, 1999, Mr. Never Miss became Mr. Never Mind. And the Vikings, 15-1 during a great regular season and the highest scoring team in league history, became a team headed toward oblivion instead of Super Bowl XXXIII.
"With that kick," said former Vikings quarterback Randall Cunningham, "it just seemed like the whole franchise went wide left."
It is patently unfair to hold Anderson, the league's all-time scoring leader, solely culpable for the slow and painful scuttling of the Vikings ship. There were still chances in that '98 NFC title game to claim victory, but Green and then-offensive coordinator Brian Billick became a bit tight in the, uh, throat in their play-calling. Cunningham had the look of a deer in the headlights. The defense couldn't stop Chris Chandler and Jamal Anderson. The Vikings sideline resembled a M*A*S*H triage area as players limped off.
Rarely in the history of any team that has unraveled can the demise of the franchise be so symbolically traced to such a singular event as that wayward field goal. Over the ensuing two years, Minnesota compiled a 21-11 record, and qualified for the postseason both times, as a wild card entry in 1999 and as the NFC Central champion in 2000.
But ask anyone about the failures of the Vikings over the past season and a half, when Minnesota has won just seven of 25 outings, and the discussion characteristically winds back to the missed field goal in the '98 conference championship game.
Fair or not, it has become the mind's eye visual aid for the beginning of the end of excellence, it seems. Yet no one who sat in stunned and stony silence on that day nearly four years ago, ironically, can recall hearing even the faintest S-O-S emanating from the Metrodome. These days, of course, the "Mayday!" echoes loud and clear as the Vikings continue a free fall through the 2002 schedule.
And as the once-proud team, which advanced to the playoffs in all but one of Green's nine full seasons with the Vikings, becomes the biggest purple joke since Barney the dinosaur debuted.
"I don't think anyone could have seen it coming, (because) it was just totally unpredictable," said former Minnesota linebacker Ed McDaniel, who played for the team through the 2001 season. "We were pretty much the picture of stability around the league. A coach who had been around a long time. A lot of veteran players. Pretty much the same staff (of assistants) year to year. I think when the slide started, we all got blindsided, to tell the truth. Maybe there were some warnings signs, who knows, but we didn't see them."
Fact is, much of the Vikings organization was wearing blinders at the time, and only with the unerring gaze of hindsight do some of the excesses and the foibles of that period come into focus.
It is considerably easier, when scrutinizing the Vikings under the microscope instead of admiring the team through purple-tinted glasses, to discern many of the club's shortcomings: a salary cap that was skewed lopsidedly toward offense; the lack of checks and balances; dubious draft choices, like the pick of troubled defensive end Dimitrius Underwood, in '99; the tragic death of offensive tackle Korey Stringer last summer; a franchise now under legal attack and charged with neglect; the unchecked sideline rants by high-profile players such as wide receiver Cris Carter and Randy Moss; the unexpected retirement of star tailback Robert Smith in his prime; the many off-field indiscretions of players and coaches alike.
For the '98 season, for instance, the Vikings had three defensive reserves with base salaries higher than those of seven offensive starters. "The whole approach on defense was to cut and paste and figure that Foge (Fazio, the former coordinator) could make it work with smoke and mirrors," allowed one Minnesota administrator. In the drafts, Minnesota often bypassed some prospects who were ready to offer immediate help, and leaned on taking a lot of players with more potential than productivity. And television cameras often captured Carter and Moss berating quarterback Daunte Culpepper.
And then there was the lack of stability at quarterback, a position that should have been one of strength, but which degenerated into a revolving door: It was as if Brad Johnson begat Cunningham, who begat Jeff George, who then begat Culpepper. Fond of talking about "The System," with rhetoric which was accurate but also self-serving at times, Green failed to grasp just how important it was to maintain continuity.
Less than a year after posting one of the most brilliant seasons by a passer in the past couple decades, Cunningham was benched, replaced by George. The following year, despite having resurrected his itinerant career in '99, George was offered just a one-year contract, and departed. Culpepper took over and now he is listing and there are rumblings he could be gone in 2003.
"Sometimes I just think egos, not just (Green) but a lot of guys, got bigger than the team," said George. "When you're winning, and everything is kind of going smoothly, no one rocks the boat, you know? So people didn't talk much about the stuff going on. But when the losses come, then everyone's memory becomes a little sharper about that stuff, I guess. And guys say to themselves, 'Yeah, remember when such-and-such happened, and we kind of let it slide? Maybe we should have paid more attention then.' I don't feel like anyone felt that would happen in Minnesota but it has."
In the NCAA, the term is "lack of institutional control," and programs are typically placed on probation for the catch-all infraction. In the NFL, there are no such sanctions, unless the owner steps in and imposes them, and the absentee Red McCombs, who has now pitched a "For Sale" sign in the front yard of the Vikings complex, was too concerned with winning and getting a new stadium that he missed the erosion taking place.
The fact the sand was being kicked out from under the feet of the Vikings wasn't all that obvious to anyone, unfortunately, until last season. That's when the victories became less frequent, Minnesota finishing 5-11 and with its fewest wins since 1984, and the loss of control more palpable. With just one game remaining on the schedule, McCombs and Green parted ways, the two having diverged on philosophy months before that.
"It was like a marriage that unravels," said one Vikings front office source. "And it ended in a nasty divorce."
The symbol of the franchise's seemingly enduring success, and one of the most respected head coaches in the league over his Minnesota tenure, Green was transformed by some observers as the personage most responsible for the downfall. Given his omnipotence over football-related matters, it was an easy leap to make, nudging Green from the penthouse to the outhouse.
Yet under his stewardship, the Vikings were a perennial playoff contender, and in his absence one has to question when Minnesota will return to some semblance of respectability.
Such an improvement could take a while, might come under new owners, perhaps even in a new city, although most NFL officials insist the Vikings will never be relocated. New coach Mike Tice, named as a defendant in the Stringer lawsuit, is reputed to be a players' guy. The results, however, have not been good, with the Vikings recording just two victories to this point.
Believed to be the NFL's lowest-paid head coach, a guy who never tried to camouflage his ambition, Tice has considerably less clout than Green and, thus, could be the scapegoat for this miserable campaign. The old-world Vikings may have discovered The New World, and set a standard for sailing the high seas many centuries ago, but their namesakes are navigating choppy waters in 2002. The ship certainly is taking on water quickly.
"It's hard to believe," said one veteran offensive player, "this is the same team that was one kick away from the Super Bowl four years ago. I think it's going to be a long time until we're in that position again."
These days Gary Anderson, after a short retirement which ended when the Vikings brass summoned him to rectify a spotty placement game, can push a field goal attempt wide left and the consequences aren't nearly so dire.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.