In one corner of the Minnesota Vikings' practice facility, there is the rope climb. Across the field there are the parallel bars and the monkey bars and the chin-up bars. In the woods, weeds are beginning to grow over the fitness and running trails.
These are remnants of an earlier, un-happier time, notably 1984, when coach Les Steckel turned the Vikings' training camp into a mean-minded boot camp, and the team finished a depressed and disillusioned 3-13.
Last year Bud Grant returned and put his deer feeder back up in the boot camp. The mood began changing and things got a little better—for one thing the Vikings' record improved to 7-9. Grant has left again, but the deer feeder is still there, and the restoration is continuing under new leadership, although Minnesota's new leader is really an old leader.
Head coach Jerry Burns, 59, was the team's offensive coordinator for 18 years before getting the overdue call to command last winter. "Jerry is the best thing that ever happened to this team," says Keith Millard, the Vikings' right defensive tackle. "The attitude is great."
If anything, Sunday's 23-20 loss to the Cleveland Browns at the Metrodome was only a temporary and somewhat fluky setback in the rise of the new Minnesota regime. The defeat left the resurgent Vikes at a respectable 5-3, and they completely outplayed the Browns, outgaining them by an overwhelming 396 to 199 yards in total offense.
So how did they manage to lose?
Among other things, punter Greg Coleman, who had a pulled groin muscle, realized during the warmups that he wouldn't be able to play. That left the punting chores to backup quarterback Wade Wilson and placekicker Chuck Nelson, and Minnesota's per-punt average was 24.7 yards, including one kick that was blocked and returned for a touchdown.
In the final analysis, the game turned on that blocked punt. Minnesota was leading 17-3 in the third quarter when Wilson dropped back to kick. He hadn't punted since his freshman year at East Texas State. His attempt was stuffed by Frank Minnifield and then returned 30 yards for a touchdown by Felix Wright.
Later Nelson, the placekicker-turned-punter, was slightly more successful. He got off punts of 23 and 31 yards and also gave the Vikings a 20-10 lead on a field goal. But Cleveland closed to within 20-13, and two possessions later, Nelson's puny, straight-up-and-down 18-yard punt gave the Browns the ball at the Minnesota 37. From there, running back Curtis Dickey led Cleveland's only TD drive, and the game was tied at 20 with 3:23 to go. On the ensuing kickoff, Minnesota's Rufus Bess fumbled. Cleveland recovered, and Matt Bahr kicked his third field goal of the game, this one a 22-yarder.
Vikings quarterback Tommy Kramer responded with a drive that moved Nelson into field goal range with 12 seconds left. But his 45-yarder never came close—Minnifield says he might have grazed it—and the Vikings' short string of upsets, with victories over the 49ers and the Bears, had been snapped.
After the game, Burns entered the locker room and said, well, nothing much at all. "He didn't have to," said Millard. "He knew how we felt. We'll be back. This won't affect us."
Even with the loss, the Vikings are a team that has turned itself around since the gruesome 1984 season, and a wild-card playoff berth is not such a wild notion. While NFC East and West teams beat up on each other, the Vikings finish the season with Tampa Bay, Green Bay, Houston and New Orleans.
The offense has balance. Kramer, who led the league in interceptions (26) last season, came into Sunday's game as the NFC's top-rated passer. The defense, designed by highly respected Floyd Peters and tabbed "Purple Rain" in honor of Minnesota's native son Prince, was ranked fifth overall. Before the Cleveland game, it had allowed fewer points than all other NFL teams except the Giants and the Bears.
Four USFL refugees have been signed over the past two years—Millard, linebacker David Howard, wide receiver Anthony Carter and offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman. They have plugged gaping holes. "It's been like getting four first-rounders without losing a pick," says Vikings general manager Mike Lynn.
But of all the personnel changes, the most important has been the ascension of the man the players affectionately call "Burnsie." "We've taken on his personality," says Kramer. "We've become emotional." Adds linebacker Scott Studwell, "The game is fun again."
That's because Burns is fun—and different. He doesn't look or act like a head coach. He doesn't have those cold eyes, that overpowering presence. When Burns tried to walk onto the Metrodome field before his first game as head coach last September, a security guard did not recognize him and slopped him. Burns, as is his wont, shrugged and went looking for his field pass. It's not true that he has had his ego surgically removed, but his utter lack of pretense is pretty rare around the NFL.
What can you say about a guy who is always on the lookout for stray coins? Often, his players have sowed the practice field with dimes and quarters for Burns to discover. Several years ago, ex-defensive end Jim Marshall planted a $100 bill for Burns to find during practice. Burns found it. That bill—well, really a Xerox of the bill; the guy's not stupid—sits in a glass-enclosed plaque in Burns's office.
"We used to get on him because he would forget people's names," says Ahmad Rashad, who played for Burns before going to the NBC broadcast booth. "Even guys like Fran Tarkenton. He'd call him 'Joe' Tarkenton or something, and we'd bust him, and he'd say, 'Oh, well, I was thinking of this kid I coached in high school named Joe Tarkenton.' We'd be saying, 'Right, Burnsie.'
"He's absolutely one of the nicest people you could hope to work with, but he's tough. Very tough. And a very smart man. The term is used too freely, but Burnsie is really an offensive genius."
Certainly, his coaching rèsumè is a long and impressive one. He has worked with legends like Forest Evashevski at Iowa, George Allen at Whittier, Vince Lombardi at Green Bay and, of course, Grant for all those years. But when Grant first resigned after the 1983 season. Burns was quite cruelly passed over for the younger, brasher and more vociferous Steckel.
Why the insult? Burns won't talk about it. Rashad thinks Steckel "outpoliticked" him. Lynn allows that Burns might have been "stereotyped" as an assistant coach. There is a Burns in every office—an efficient, likable good soldier whom everybody acknowledges as utterly invaluable, yet nobody remembers come promotion time.
Whatever the reason for his rejection by the Minnesota management, Burns was hurt. He went so far as to tender his resignation during the 1984 season after Steckel reduced his sideline play-calling responsibilities.
He also considered joining the Cleveland Browns' staff. "At that point, I'd given up on the idea of ever becoming a head coach," he says. But when Grant returned in 1985, Burns was made assistant head coach, and his position as a strong second-in-command was restored. When Grant resigned a second time after last season, the Viking management finally made the decision it should have in the first place.
Last January Lynn officially offered the No. 1 job to Burns in Jamaica, where the coach and his wife, Marlyn, were vacationing. "After years of waiting I thought Jerry would be more excited about the whole thing, but he was very low-key," says Lynn. "He's always been very emotional, but the moment he found out, it's like he became even-tempered. He showed no outward signs of joy."
Burns has made sure to keep his emotions, and more important his ego, in check. He hired Peters and former Green Bay offensive coordinator Bob Schnelker and gave them plenty of responsibility.
"It's like the guy who's captain of the Queen Mary" says Burns. "The captain doesn't run to the boiler room to make sure the boiler is stoked. He's not in the commissary to see if there's enough ice cream. He tries to get the whole thing going and get into port."
The Vikings are getting close.
After 18 years, Burns finally ascended to the coach's throne.
Kramer has cut down on his interceptions, and the Vikings have cut their losses.