Chances are Brad Johnson is the only NFL quarterback who spent
his off-season asking bands if they knew Walk Like an Egyptian
and looking for the best deal on name tags. But as president of
the class of 1987 at Owen High in Black Mountain, N.C., Johnson
dutifully spent some valuable preworkout vacation time
organizing his class's 10-year reunion. Even without the
reunion, Johnson probably would have been thinking back on his
teen years, because the last time he was this secure in his
status as a starting quarterback was when he was calling the
signals for the Owen High Warhorses.
After four years as a reserve at Florida State and 4 1/2 more as
a backup with the Vikings, Johnson finally cracked a starting
lineup for good last November, when Minnesota coach Dennis Green
sent aging incumbent Warren Moon and his bad ankles to the
sidelines and handed the struggling 5-5 Vikings to Johnson. The
28-year-old responded by leading the club to a 4-2 record in the
remaining games and a wild-card berth. That performance earned
Johnson the undisputed starting job this season; Minnesota
signed him to a four-year, $15.5 million contract extension in
December and waived Moon two months later.
The decision to invest that much cash in an unproven commodity
raised many an eyebrow throughout the league, but Johnson
insists that the added scrutiny will not affect him. "I haven't
changed," he says. "What's changed is people's view of me. When
you're on the sideline as a backup, it's hard to say you can
play. People never really give you respect until you go out
there and do it. I still feel like I have to go out and get it."
Johnson must resurrect what was, before last year, one of the
league's most potent offenses. The Vikings were fourth in the
NFL in total offense in '95 but slipped to a middling 12th last
year. It certainly didn't help that tailback Robert Smith, who
was on his way to a Pro Bowl berth with 693 yards in his first
seven games, blew out his left medial collateral ligament in the
first quarter of Game 8. Minnesota expects him to be ready by
September, but as an insurance policy the team re-signed veteran
Leroy Hoard, who rushed for 420 yards in six games after being
picked up by the Vikings in midseason.
Green also plans to use speedy receiver David Palmer, the team's
most exciting open-field player, out of the backfield to get the
ball into his hands more often. But Palmer isn't Minnesota's
only big-play threat: Last year receivers Jake Reed and Cris
Carter became the first teammates in NFL history to each have
three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
The Vikings defense, like the offense, took steps backward.
Outside linebacker Ed McDaniel, the team's leading tackler in
'95, missed all of last season with a knee injury, and his
absence showed in Minnesota's inability to stop the run. In '95
the Vikings held opponents to just 3.8 yards per carry, fourth
best in the NFC. Last year they allowed 4.4 yards per carry--the
worst mark in the NFL.
In an effort to bolster the erstwhile Purple People Eaters,
Green spent six of the team's eight 1997 draft choices on
defensive players, including first-round pick Dwayne Rudd, a
linebacker from Alabama. "The draft helped us tremendously,"
Green says. "I think all six are going to be able to help us."
One spot that may need an immediate contribution is the
secondary. Free safety Orlando Thomas had knee surgery in
January and might not be ready by opening day; last year's
starting strong safety, Robert Griffith, would slide over to
fill in for him. Green pictures Torrian Gray, the Vikes'
second-round selection, stepping in at free safety--at least
until Thomas, a big hitter with 14 interceptions in his first
two seasons, returns.
If Minnesota stays healthy, it certainly stands a good chance of
returning to the playoffs. "We are in a position to win," says
Green. "I think we're closer to being in the Super Bowl than
probably 90 percent of the teams in the NFL."
But Green also knows that close doesn't cut it, and in his five
years with the Vikings he has never been better than close. He
has taken the club to the playoffs four times, and four times he
has lost the first game. The consensus in Minnesota is that
anything less than a playoff win this season will mean that
Green and his .588 career winning percentage will be shown the
"Anytime you make the playoffs, you've had some relative
success," says Green. "But when you lose in the first round,
it's not good at all." He would know.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO The Vikes want the dangerous Palmer to get as many touches as possible. [David Palmer in game]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Record: 9-7 (second in NFC Central)
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 96.6 (24) 228.6 (8) 325.3 (12)
DEFENSE 122.9 (24) 195.1 (9) 317.9 (16)
Perhaps Dennis Green should pick up a few pregame-pep-talk tips
from Ray Rhodes. In 1996, Minnesota was the only NFL team that
did not score a touchdown on at least one of its 16 opening
possessions. Rhodes's Eagles, meanwhile, scored eight
first-possession touchdowns, a league high (returns for TDs are
Points Scored on Opening Possessions
Most TDs* FGs Pts. Fewest TDs* FGs Pts.
Eagles 8 1 59 Vikings 0 3 9
Broncos 6 2 48 Lions 1 1 10
Panthers 6 2 48 Buccaneers 1 3 16
Oilers 5 2 41 Cardinals 1 3 16
Jaguars 5 2 41 Dolphins 1 3 16
Bears 4 2 34 Seahawks 1 3 16
*All extra-point attempts were successful
PLAYER TO WATCH
In his first three years David Palmer had 24 receptions and 10
carries. The 5'8" speedster earned his keep as a punt returner,
leading the NFL in 1995 with a 13.2-yard average. This year,
with the loss of Amp Lee to free agency, Palmer will be the
third-down back. "He has to have the ball in his hands more,"
says offensive coordinator Brian Billick. "We foresee 15 to 20
snaps per game." Palmer--who played wideout, running back and
some option quarterback at Alabama--is thrilled. "They say I
could get 60 to 70 catches," he says. "I'm going to love that."
PROJECTED LINEUP With 1996 Statistics
Head Coach: Dennis Green
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Brad Johnson 48[*] 311 att. 195 comp. 62.7%
2,258 yds. 17 TDs 10 int.
RB Robert Smith 58[*] 162 att. 692 yds. 4.3 avg.
7 rec. 39 yds. 5.6 avg. 3 TDs
FB Charles Evans 311[*] 13 att. 29 yds. 2.2 avg.
22 rec. 135 yds. 6.1 avg. 0 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Cris Carter 35[*] 96 rec. 1,163 yds. 10 TDs
WR Jake Reed 96[*] 72 rec. 1,320 yds. 7 TDs
WR Matthew Hatchette(R)[A]404[*] 40 rec. 854 yds. 7 TDs
TE Hunter Goodwin 253[*] 1 rec. 24 yds. 0 TDs
PK Scott Sisson 347[*] 30/30 XPs 22/29 FGs 96 pts.
KR Robert Tate (R)[A] 363[*] 11 ret. 18.4 avg. 0 TDs
PR David Palmer 147[*] 30 ret. 6.4 avg. 0 TDs
LT Todd Steussie 6'6" 313 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Randall McDaniel 6'3" 277 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Jeff Christy 6'3" 284 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG David Dixon 6'5" 359 lbs. 13 games 6 starts
RT Korey Stringer 6'4" 339 lbs. 16 games 15 starts
LE Fernando Smith 65 tackles 9 1/2 sacks
LT Jason Fisk 31 tackles 1 sack
RT John Randle 46 tackles 11 1/2 sacks
RE Derrick Alexander 48 tackles 4 sacks
OLB Dixon Edwards 96 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
MLB Jeff Brady 101 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
OLB Ed McDaniel** 117 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
CB Corey Fuller 64 tackles 3 int.
SS Robert Griffith 95 tackles 4 int.
FS Orlando Thomas 83 tackles 5 int.
CB Dewayne Washington 75 tackles 2 int.
P Mitch Berger 88 punts 41.1 avg.
[A] New Acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)
[*] *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 165)
** 1995 Statistics