The trash talking from the secondary comes early in a game, and
often. "Ain't happenin'! You're gettin' nothin' today!" is among
the nicer things a receiver might hear from a Minnesota
defensive back at the end of a play, according to Packers
wideout Antonio Freeman. And it degenerates, with the defensive
backs raising various issues related to their opponents' manhood.
"That secondary," says Freeman, "is more concerned with talking
than being good football players. They're a young group, and
they're pretty good, but their ability is hidden by the fact
that they're such showboats and talkers."
To be fair, left cornerback Corey Fuller and free safety Orlando
Thomas do most of the talking. Right corner Dewayne Washington
can woof a bit, but compared with their teammates, he and strong
safety Robert Griffith are novices in the trash-talking league.
The Vikings' secondary will need every weapon it can find this
season when it faces, once each, the aerial attacks of the
Patriots' Drew Bledsoe and the 49ers' Steve Young and, twice
each, those of the Packers' Brett Favre and the Lions' Scott
Mitchell. Further, because the Vikings lack depth in the
secondary (Thomas is rebounding from January knee surgery, and
there are no experienced backups), there will be added pressure
on this group to perform.
That's a tough assignment for a quartet of players who are all
26 or younger. "The secondary is really the big key for us,"
says defensive coordinator Foge Fazio, who doesn't mind the
macho talk the players engage in. "Especially Orlando, because
he's become such a leader and a ball hawk." Thomas, a
second-round draft pick out of Southwestern Louisiana in 1995,
had more interceptions (14) over the past two seasons than any
other player in the NFL, including a league-high nine as a
rookie. He says he's back to 100% and is faster than he was when
he entered the NFL because of the intensity of his
rehabilitation and off-season conditioning. "Don't worry about
me," Thomas says, as if anybody would. "I'm going to be a better
player than ever."
Thomas and Fuller, a second-round draft choice out of Florida
State in '95, formed a tight bond quickly. Both started early in
their rookie year, and in their fourth NFL game Thomas
retaliated after he saw a Steelers lineman punch Fuller away
from the play. Instinctively, Thomas ran over and slugged the
opponent in the groin. "Boom!" Fuller says, in recalling the
incident. "With one punch the guy went down, and I looked around
and saw Orlando standing there. You get the vibe, don't you?
From that day on Orlando was going to cover my back, and I was
going to cover his."
Fuller, however, has been known to cross the line. Last season
he was fined $30,000 for poking Green Bay center Frank Winters
in the eye. Clearly he believes part of his game is
intimidation. And talking, he says, is just part of Minnesota's
style of play. "It makes the game fun," he says. "Like against
the Packers, where the fans are so into it, that's like
Florida-Florida State every time we play. It's like Super
Sunday, and you just get so excited out there."
He's not proud of all the lip, though. "When I go home at
night," Fuller says, "I pray to God to forgive me for some of
the things I said that day."
The Vikings can live with the lip if the secondary performs as
it did last year. It was ninth in the league in pass defense,
tied for fourth in interceptions (22) and maybe last in respect.
Not even Thomas got a sniff in Pro Bowl voting, and the quartet
says the slight is what drives them entering the '97 season.
"Just watch us this year. Watch us in the big games," Fuller
says. "We'll be there."
In five seasons under coach Dennis Green, the Vikings have won
the NFC Central title twice and have been to the playoffs two
other times. But if Minnesota expects to get back to the
postseason this year--and win its first playoff game under
Green--Fuller & Co. will have to play as good a game as they
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS A cocky young secondary, led by Fuller (27), thrives on trash talk and intimidation, and will get a chance to prove it's among the NFL's best. [Corey Fuller]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
1996 Record: 9-7 (second in NFC Central)
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
touchdowns are included.)
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
The Vikings play five of their first eight on the road,
including a Sept. 21 date with the Packers. For a young team
that lost four of its last six away from home in '96 and needs
early success to build confidence, the first-half schedule could
be too much. Another potential problem: December starts with
games at home against Green Bay and at San Francisco.
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
NFL rank: 4 (tie) Opponents' 1996 winning percentage: .523
Games against playoff teams: 8
The Lineup With 1996 Statistics
Coach: Dennis Green
QB Brad Johnson 311 att. 195 comp. 62.7% 2,258 yds.
17 TDs 10 int. 89.4 rtg.
RB Robert Smith 162 att. 692 yds. 4.3 avg.
7 rec. 39 yds. 5.6 avg. 3 TDs
FB Charles Evans 13 att. 29 yds. 2.2 avg.
22 rec. 135 yds. 6.1 avg. 0 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen Defense
WR Cris Carter 96 rec. 1,163 yds. 10 TDs
WR Jake Reed 72 rec. 1,320 yds. 7 TDs
WR Matthew Hatchette (R)[**] 40 rec. 854 yds. 7 TDs
TE Hunter Goodwin 1 rec. 24 yds. 0 TDs
PK Greg Davis[**] 12/12 PATs 9/14 FGs 39 pts.
KR Robert Tate (R)[**] 11 ret. 18.4 avg. 0 TDs
PR David Palmer 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.
Rookie statistics for final college year