Last January, Vikings defensive tackle John Randle flipped on
the Super Bowl pregame show, but after a few minutes he felt so
awful that he had to turn off the TV. A couple of hours later he
managed to watch one play of the game, but then the same sick
feeling came back. He shut off the set for good, unable to look
as the Broncos dismantled the Falcons, who had rallied to tie
Minnesota late in last year's NFC Championship Game and won on
an overtime field goal.
Now it's August, and Randle is in training camp in Mankato,
Minn. The wounds still are fresh. "I watched one play, and all I
thought was, What if? What if we were there? We should have been
there," Randle says quietly. "I remember going to the Pro Bowl,
which is usually a pretty good time, and just feeling sick. God,
we should have won that game. We'll be old men looking back in
2040 at the Super Bowl highlights, watching Atlanta play Denver,
and we'll be thinking, We should have been there. Damn. I
mean...." With that, Randle becomes speechless. That may have
happened once before, though no one can recall when.
At the Vikings' first training camp meeting, coach Dennis Green
said he had no interest in reliving the past and wouldn't allow
his players to. But it's clear that the 30-27 loss to the
Falcons still weighs on some Vikings. This much is clear:
Minnesota is thrilled that its season starts in Atlanta on Sept.
12. Most players view that game as an exorcism. Even Green says,
"What we want is ahead of us. Let's start the season strong in
Atlanta and end it strong in Atlanta, because that's where the
Super Bowl is this year."
"I think there's excitement for another shot," says running back
Robert Smith, "but you've got to understand why ending the
season the way we did was tough. We lost to Tampa Bay in the
regular season and played seven days later. We lost to Atlanta
in the playoffs, and the wait's about eight months. I said this
before the championship game: If we let this slip through our
fingers, it will be a mistake we'll look back on with regret not
for a week or a month but for the rest of our lives. And it's
true. Now we have to look ahead. And we definitely have the
talent to return."
But does a heartbreaking defeat, a loss when everyone has you
written into the Super Bowl, carry over to the next season? The
Vikings insist it doesn't. Nevertheless, the way Minnesota lost
that game was dispiriting. Quarterback Randall Cunningham had
been peerless all season, but he misfired on five of his last
six passes against the Falcons. Gary Anderson, who had set an
NFL record by making all 35 of his field goal attempts during
the regular season and had made all four of his kicks in the
playoffs, missed a 38-yarder that would have given the Vikings a
10-point lead with 2:11 left. And Green, an aggressive
play-caller all year as Minnesota set an NFL record for points
scored (556), sat on the ball on third-and-three from the
Minnesota 27 with 30 seconds left in a tie game. So what kind of
thoughts will creep into the Vikings' minds if they need clutch
fourth-quarter play to get to the Super Bowl this season? Says
Cunningham, "I've prepared my mind to be stronger this year."
Time will tell.
Mental hangover or not, it's hard to imagine the Vikings, the
team with the most talent in the NFC, not making another Super
Bowl run. Minnesota will miss cornerback Corey Fuller, who left
for a fat free-agent deal in Cleveland, and not because he's a
great cover guy. He's not. Fuller lent a swagger to the
secondary that quiet replacement Ramos McDonald, a third-round
draft pick in 1998, doesn't have. In the grand scheme of things,
though, the loss of Fuller isn't a major one.
The biggest hurdle may well be one the Vikings have no control
over: Coming off a surprising 15-1 season in which it was picked
by most to finish no better than third in the NFC Central,
Minnesota is now the hunted, and opponents will tirelessly try
to find ways to counter what it does well. The Cowboys were in
this position six years ago, the Packers two years ago; the
Broncos and Vikings are experiencing it now. "When our new
defensive coordinator, Emmitt Thomas, watched how we defended
against the Vikings' deep pass last year, he was disgusted,"
says Packers strong safety LeRoy Butler. "We'll roll our
coverage to Randy Moss's side, or we'll blitz Randall, but make
no mistake about it: We will not sit back. We will attack them."
Now we'll see if the Vikings are up to the challenge physically
and, more important, mentally.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Attention-getter Moss, who caught an NFL-rookie-record 17 touchdown passes last season, won't sneak up on anyone this year.
COLOR PHOTO: LAYNE KENNEDY
Sept. 12 at Atlanta
26 at Green Bay
Oct. 3 TAMPA BAY
17 at Detroit
24 SAN FRANCISCO
31 at Denver
Nov. 8 DALLAS (Mon.)
14 at Chicago
21 Open date
28 SAN DIEGO
Dec. 6 at Tampa Bay
12 at Kansas City
20 GREEN BAY (Mon.)
26 at N.Y. Giants
Jan. 2 DETROIT
1998 Record 15-1 (1st in NFC Central)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 11/1/2; defense 11/19/13
1999 Schedule strength NFL rank: 7 (tie)
Opponents' 1998 winning percentage: .523
Games against playoff teams: 6
GETTING BETTER WITH AGE
Randall Cunningham led a revival of 35-and-older quarterbacks
last year, completing 60.9% of his passes for 3,704 yards and 34
touchdowns. His passer rating was a league-leading 106.0. Here
are the 1998 regular-season passing statistics for NFL
quarterbacks grouped by their end-of-season age.
No. of Rate
QBs W-L Pct. TDs Int. Rating of sacks
25 and under 20 45-78 .366 123 140 70.1 12.6 dropbacks
26 through 34 42 118-125 .486 309 265 76.5 13.1 dropbacks
35 and older 15 77-37 .675 219 102 89.9 17.9 dropbacks
PLAYER TO WATCH
Some players prefer anonymity. They lie low, do their jobs and
get out of the locker room before reporters arrive. One example
is Vikings 288-pound defensive tackle Tony Williams, who takes
over for free-agent defector Jerry Ball. Asked if he's ready to
be a full-time starter, Williams says, "Yeah." Asked if his game
is like that of Minnesota's All-Pro defensive tackle, John
Randle, he says, "Not really." Thankfully for the Vikings,
Williams, a 1997 fifth-round draft pick from the University of
Memphis, plays a better game than he talks. In Minnesota's
wild-card playoff win over the Giants two years ago, he had four
tackles behind the line of scrimmage. In his second season
Williams started nine games. During the postseason he got the
attention of Falcons Pro Bowl running back Jamal Anderson.
"Looks to me like Minnesota's got another John Randle," Anderson
said before the teams met in the NFC Championship Game.
PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1998 STATISTICS
Coach: Dennis Green
Eighth season with Vikings (71-41 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Randall Cunningham 5
425 att. 259 comp. 60.9% 3,704 yds. 34 TDs 10 int. 106.0 rtg.
RB Robert Smith 36
249 att. 1,187 yds. 4.8 avg. 28 rec. 291 yds. 10.4 avg. 8 TDs
RB Leroy Hoard 144
115 att. 479 yds. 4.2 avg. 22 rec. 198 yds. 9.0 avg. 10 TDs
H-B Jim Kleinsasser (R) 201
9 att. 86 yds. 9.6 avg. 45 rec. 710 yds. 15.8 avg. 6 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Randy Moss 3 69 rec. 1,313 yds. 17 TDs
WR Cris Carter 17 78 rec. 1,011 yds. 12 TDs
WR Jake Reed 95 34 rec. 474 yds. 4 TDs
TE Andrew Glover 147 35 rec. 522 yds. 5 TDs
K Gary Anderson 32 59/59 XPs 35/35 FGs 164 pts.
PR David Palmer 224 28 ret. 10.3 avg. 0 TDs
KR David Palmer 224 50 ret. 23.5 avg. 1 TD
LT Todd Steussie 6'6" 318 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
LG Randall McDaniel 6'3" 290 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Jeff Christy 6'3" 285 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG David Dixon 6'5" 352 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Korey Stringer 6'4" 335 lbs. 14 games 14 starts
LE Stalin Colinet 11 tackles 1 sack
LT Tony Williams 36 tackles 1 sack
RT John Randle 41 tackles 10 1/2 sacks
RE John Burrough 21 tackles 1/2 sack
OLB Kailee Wong 19 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
MLB Ed McDaniel 128 tackles 7 sacks
OLB Dwayne Rudd 93 tackles 2 sacks
CB Ramos McDonald 12 tackles 0 int.
SS Robert Griffith 90 tackles 5 int.
FS Orlando Thomas 69 tackles 2 int.
CB Jimmy Hitchcock 67 tackles 7 int.
P Mitch Berger 55 punts 44.7 avg.
 New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 122)