Near dusk with church bells chiming on the last day of July,
players and coaches walked down the tree-lined streets of
Mankato, Minn., toward a cozy stadium packed with 8,000 fans. It
was the largest crowd ever to witness the Vikings' annual
intrasquad training-camp scrimmage, and among those in
attendance was new owner Red McCombs, who watched the team for
which he paid $206 million not from the press box or the stands,
but sitting atop a water cooler on the sideline. Just before the
local Burger King manager sang a Manilowesque national anthem,
the team was led onto the field by strong safety Robert Griffith.
That was appropriate, for if the Vikings have any expectations
of making a serious playoff run in '98, they must first improve
their pass defense. If you thought the organization's most
embarrassing acts since the start of last season were occurring
off the field--what with coach Dennis Green penning an
autobiography that included his plans to sue two owners to get a
piece of the team and author Tom Clancy's own fictional bid to
buy the franchise--well, you didn't pay much attention to what
the secondary was up to.
In 1997 the Vikings defense ranked 29th in the league in passing
yards allowed; 28th in touchdown passes allowed, opponents'
completion percentage and yards per pass attempt; tied for 25th
in interceptions; and 25th in stopping the opposition on third
down. "We know we were the weak unit on this team last year,"
says second-year backup free safety Torrian Gray. "The only way
for us to shed that label is to play out of it. We'll all just
have to have thick skin until we prove otherwise."
Things got worse shortly after the season ended with a loss to
the 49ers in the NFC divisional playoffs. Minnesota was
interested in acquiring one of a trio of cornerbacks--free
agents Doug Evans or Darryl Pounds, or the Saints' Eric Allen.
But Evans left the Packers for the Panthers, Pounds re-signed
with the Redskins, and Allen was shipped to the Raiders.
Finally, Minnesota traded a third-round draft pick in 1999 to
the Patriots to acquire restricted free agent Jimmy Hitchcock.
A 1995 third-round selection who started 20 games and had four
interceptions in three seasons with New England, Hitchcock
replaces Dewayne Washington, a free agent who left for the
Steelers. Hitchcock may be short on experience, but he isn't
lacking in confidence. In that regard, he should fit in nicely
with the overly aggressive Corey Fuller, a world-class trash
talker but only an average coverage corner.
"I will be an upgrade to this unit," says Hitchcock, the only new
face among the Vikings' starting 22 from a year ago. "I'm a
developmental learner. That means with every year of experience I
get better and better. The problems with ownership here didn't
bother me. Who the owner is has no bearing on how I cover [the
Lions'] Herman Moore, right? I chose to come here because this
team has the talent to win it all."
Hitchcock does have a point there. Quarterback Brad Johnson put
up impressive numbers (3,036 yards passing, 20 touchdowns, a
60.8% completion rate) in '97 before being sidelined for the
final three games with a herniated disk in his neck. Now close
to 100%, Johnson has the luxury of an added receiving threat in
wideout Randy Moss, the rookie first-round draft pick out of
Marshall who will join what is arguably the best receiving
tandem in the game--Cris Carter and Jake Reed. The rest of the
time the ball should go to Robert Smith, who in '97 set
franchise single-season rushing records for yards (1,266),
100-yard games (six) and average yards per carry (5.5).
Smith is a former world-class sprinter, but Gray is no slouch in
the speed department either. He complements Griffith, who is
among the hardest hitters in the game and the quiet leader of
the secondary. Free safety Orlando Thomas appears fully healed
from a knee injury that slowed him throughout 1997, and for
depth the Vikings signed cornerback Larry Brown, the MVP of
Super Bowl XXX.
To improve the pass defense, coordinator Foge Fazio has worked
with players on their pursuit angles. For simplicity's sake, he
also pared coverage packages. "It really just comes down to
pride," says Griffith. "Nobody wants to be 29th in the league in
anything. That's just not gonna happen again. I won't let it.
This year we'll be in the top five or six in the league [in pass
defense]. I promise."
A few hours later, on the first play of the intrasquad
scrimmage, Griffith belted a tight end in the flat and recovered
the loose ball. It was only one play, but it was a start.
COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL ZITO/SPORTSCHROME ON THE SPOT Fuller, Thomas and the Vikes slid to 29th in the league against the pass in '97, down 20 places from the year before. [Corey Fuller and Orlando Thomas in game]
B/W PHOTO: BRUCE KLUCKHOHN Dixon [David Dixon]
Sept. 6 TAMPA BAY
13 at St. Louis
27 at Chicago
Oct. 5 at Green Bay (Mon.)
11 OPEN DATE
25 at Detroit
Nov. 1 at Tampa Bay
8 NEW ORLEANS
22 GREEN BAY
26 at Dallas (Thurs.)
Dec. 6 CHICAGO
13 at Baltimore
26 at Tennessee (Sat.)
1997 Record 9-7 (4th in NFC Central) NFL rank
(rush/pass/total): offense 6/14/8; defense 23/29/29
1998 Schedule strength NFL rank: 10 Opponents' 1997 winning
percentage: .508 Games against playoff teams: 7
A Tale of Two Cities
Last year Randall Cunningham was reunited with Cris Carter, a
teammate of his on the Eagles in the late 1980s. By hooking up
for five regular-season touchdown passes in 1997, the duo became
only the fifth in history to collaborate on three or more TD
passes for more than one NFL franchise.
Receiver Team TDs Team TDs
Cris Carter Eagles, 1987-89 17 Vikings, 1997 5
Michael Jackson Browns*, 1993-95 12 Ravens*, 1996-97 17
Mark Carrier Buccaneers, 1987-92 21 Browns, 1993-94 4
Dave Casper Raiders, 1974-79 31 Oilers, 1980-81 7
Carroll Dale Rams, 1961-63 4 Packers, 1965-68,'71 7
*The NFL regards the Browns and the Ravens as different
The left side of the offensive line boasts Pro Bowl players
Randall McDaniel and Todd Steussie, but in one regard the pair
has nothing on the right-side tandem of guard David Dixon and
tackle Korey Stringer. Those two weigh a combined 705 pounds,
the NFL's heaviest side-by-side, guard-tackle combo.... The
addition of rookie wideout Randy Moss means that Cris Carter
will line up more in the slot, where he can run more of the
short, precision routes he specializes in.... After the Vikings
dished out a total of $93.1 million in less than three months to
re-sign Steussie, John Randle, Jake Reed and Robert Smith, one
league official said, "The Vikings are acting like they're
playing with Monopoly money."... Randle solidified his
five-year, $32.5 million deal with the Vikings while being
courted by the Dolphins in Miami. He even borrowed a Dolphins
phone to close the deal. Asked if he received a bill for the
call, Randle replied, "No, but they understood it was just
Projected Lineup With 1997 statistics
Coach: Dennis Green
Seventh season with Vikings (56-40 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Brad Johnson 66[PVR*] 452 att. 275 comp. 60.8%
3,036 yds. 20 TDs 12 int. 84.5 rtg.
RB Robert Smith 20[PVR*] 232 att. 1,266 yds. 5.5
avg. 37 rec. 197 yds. 5.3 avg. 7 TDs
FB Charles Evans 288[PVR*] 43 att. 157 yds. 3.7 avg.
21 rec. 152 yds. 7.2 avg. 2 TDs
RB Leroy Hoard 229[PVR*] 80 att. 235 yds. 2.9 avg.
11 rec. 84 yds. 7.6 avg. 4 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Cris Carter 13[PVR*] 89 rec. 1,069 yds. 13 TDs
WR Jake Reed 34[PVR*] 68 rec. 1,138 yds. 6 TDs
WR Randy Moss[N](R) 133[PVR*] 90 rec. 1,647 yds. 25 TDs
TE Andrew Glover 173[PVR*] 32 rec. 378 yds. 3 TDs
K Gary Anderson[N] 79[PVR*] 38/38 XPs 29/36 FGs 125 pts.
PR David Palmer 151[PVR*] 34 ret. 13.1 avg. 0 TDs
KR David Palmer 151[PVR*] 32 ret. 22.2 avg. 0 TDs
LT Todd Steussie 6'6" 321 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Randall McDaniel 6'3" 279 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Jeff Christy 6'3" 281 lbs. 12 games 12 starts
RG David Dixon 6'5" 352 lbs. 13 games 13 starts
RT Korey Stringer 6'4" 353 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
LE Stalin Colinet 18 tackles 0 sacks
LT Jerry Ball 30 tackles 0 sacks
RT John Randle 58 tackles 15 1/2 sacks
RE Derrick Alexander 41 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
OLB Dixon Edwards 50 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
MLB Ed McDaniel 90 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
OLB Dwayne Rudd 46 tackles 5 sacks
CB Corey Fuller 91 tackles 2 int.
SS Robert Griffith 115 tackles 2 int.
FS Orlando Thomas 70 tackles 2 int.
CB Jimmy Hitchcock[N] 83 tackles 2 int.
P Mitch Berger 73 punts 42.9 avg.
[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 88)