Vikings quarterback Warren Moon is stretched across the
trainer's table in the team's locker room, and his muscles are
being worked over like a slab of pizza dough. "Hey, old man,"
shouts receiver Cris Carter, "you better stretch out pretty
good; it's cold out there today!"
Moon will turn the big four-oh this November, and don't think
his teammates will let him forget it. "I'm not Warren anymore,"
Moon says. "I'm old man, Dad, Pops, every old name you can think
Last season Moon defied Father Time and had one of the best
years of his career. He became the first Minnesota QB to start
all 16 games since Tommy Kramer in 1979, and led the NFL in
completions. No quarterback Moon's age or older had ever thrown
for more touchdowns (33).
"It was a personally gratifying season," says Moon. "One,
because age has been an issue ever since I turned 34. And two,
because of everything I went through personally last year. It
was a tough year to stay focused on football."
Somehow Moon found a footing in football while the rest of his
life played out like an episode of Hard Copy. Moon was sued by a
former Vikings cheerleader for sexual harassment; an
out-of-court agreement was reached in May 1995. Then he was
arrested on an assault charge after a fight with his wife,
Felicia, in July 1995; he was acquitted of misdemeanor assault
in February. Team Turmoil hopes that its off-the-field
troubles--some of the other controversies involving Minnesota
players and coaches in the last year were drunk driving, gun
possession and overdue child-support payments--are now behind it.
Moon wants to prove that turning 40 is no big deal in the NFL,
though history suggests otherwise. Most quarterbacks do not
celebrate their 40th birthday in uniform. So what makes Moon,
who signed a three-year contract extension in June, the
exception? According to the quarterback, it's his rigorous
conditioning program; his low-fat, no-red-meat diet; and his
good fortune--Moon has played 18 years of professional football
without a major injury. He should have at least one more
productive season in him. (The Vikings had better hope so:
Neither of his backups, Chad May and Brad Johnson, has ever
started a pro game.)
In contrast to Moon's reliable model, tailback Robert Smith's
body is like a car that's always in the shop. During his
three-year NFL career, Smith has missed nearly one third of
Minnesota's games due to ailments, including an injured ankle, a
torn knee ligament, a bruised hip, an ear infection and the
chicken pox. "If Smith can stay healthy, this offense, which
broke the team's alltime scoring record [in 1995], is capable of
doing more," says offensive coordinator Brian Billick. Smith led
the team in rushing last year despite missing seven games with
ligament damage in his left ankle. During the off-season he
added 10 pounds of muscle to his six-foot frame, beefing up to
212 pounds. This bulk should improve his durability.
Moon's advancing age and Smith's vulnerability to injury don't
compare with the Vikings' problems on the other side of the
ball. Six defensive starters have two years' or less experience
in the NFL, which is why tackle John Randle, all of 28, is
feeling very old. Randle is the only player remaining from the
1993 defense, which was ranked as the league's top unit under
former defensive coordinator Tony Dungy, who is now Tampa Bay's
head coach. Also gone is linebacker Jack Del Rio, who was
released in February with a gimpy left knee (Miami had no
problem with his physical condition, however, and signed him in
June). The veteran leader should have been retained to help with
the rough transition ahead.
Surely the defense will suffer growing pains, but Moon has a
plan to ease the pressure. "We can help our defense by putting
points up early," he says. "If we get out of the chute early,
score points and control the football, we keep the defense off
the field as much as possible."
But a high-scoring offense might not save Minnesota from another
.500 season. In the final six weeks of '95, the offense averaged
more than 32 points a game, but the team went just 3-3. Though
the Vikings scored the fourth-most points in the league last
year, they also allowed the fourth-most on defense. It was a
wash all around for an 8-8 record. The math looks to be the same
this year. No matter how many touchdowns the old man throws, it
won't be enough.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS The oft-injured Smith hopes to deliver, not take, a pounding this season. [Robert Smith]
BY THE NUMBERS
1995 Yards per Game (NFL rank in parentheses)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 108.3 (16) 262.8 (5) 371.1 (4)
DEFENSE 83.1 (4) 257.6 (28) 340.7 (20)
Life after 30
Even though he did not play his first NFL game until he was
nearly 28 years old, Warren Moon now ranks fourth in the NFL in
alltime passing yardage. But he is far and away the leader on
the list of most career passing yards after the age of 30.
Alltime Passing Yards Passing Yards after Age 30
Dan Marino 48,841 Warren Moon 33,491
Fran Tarkenton 47,003 Fran Tarkenton 23,863
Dan Fouts 43,040 Dan Fouts 23,586
Warren Moon 42,177 Steve DeBerg 22,833
John Elway 41,706 Sonny Jurgensen 22,585
PLAYER TO WATCH
Considering the police-blotter year they had in 1995, the
Vikings could have used the services of first-round pick Duane
Clemons. The 6'5", 260-pound Clemons runs a marketing and image
consulting business, Unicept, Inc., with his wife, Rana. The
solid pass rusher will provide depth at both outside linebacker
and defensive end. "He's so smooth," says coach Dennis Green.
Clemons, who racked up 10 1/2 sacks at Cal last year, also set
an NCAA single-season record with nine blocked kicks. Facing the
local media on draft day, Clemons, who graduated with a degree
in ethnic studies, said he is a "solid person with good morals."
At last, some good publicity.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
Head coach: Dennis Green
QB Warren Moon 606 att. 377 comp. 62.2%
4,228 yds. 33 TDs 14 int. 91.5 rtg.
RB Robert Smith 139 att. 632 yds. 5 TDs
TE Andrew Jordan 27 rec. 185 yds. 2 TDs
WR Cris Carter 122 rec. 1,371 yds. 17 TDs
WR Jake Reed 72 rec. 1,167 yds. 9 TDs
WR David Palmer 12 rec. 100 yds. 0 TDs
WR Qadry Ismail 32 rec. 597 yds. 3 TDs
LT Todd Steussie 6'6" 313 lbs.
LG Randall McDaniel 6'3" 277 lbs.
C Jeff Christy 6'3" 284 lbs.
RG John Gerak 6'3" 269 lbs.
RT Korey Stringer 6'4" 339 lbs.
PK Fuad Reveiz 44/44 XPs 26/36 FGs
LE Fernando Smith 2 1/2 sacks 0 fum. rec.
LT John Randle 10 1/2 sacks 0 fum. rec.
RT James Manley [*](R) 5 sacks 0 fum. rec.
RE Derrick Alexander 2 sacks 1 fum. rec.
OLB Dixon Edwards 0 sacks 0 int.
MLB Jeff Brady 3 sacks 2 int.
OLB Ed McDaniel 4 1/2 sacks 1 int.
CB Corey Fuller 1 int. 1/2 sack
SS Harlon Barnett 0 int. 0 sacks
FS Orlando Thomas 9 int. 0 sacks
CB Dewayne Washington 1 int. 0 sacks
P Mike Saxon 72 punts 40.9 avg.
PR David Palmer 26 ret. 13.2 avg.
KR Qadry Ismail 42 ret. 24.7 avg.
[*] New acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)