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On All Cylinders Riding the arm of Jeff George and the legs of Robert Smith, the rejuvenated Vikings eliminated the listless Cowboys

The stock market news coming from the television in Dennis
Green's office last Friday morning was bleak, but the Minnesota
Vikings coach wasn't worried. "I got rid of most of mine awhile
back," he said of unloading Lucent Technologies before it
plummeted. That adjustment in his portfolio was only the
second-best decision Green has made in recent months. At
halftime of an Oct. 17 game against the Detroit Lions he put his
offense in the hands of Jeff George, a 31-year-old quarterback
with a blue-chip arm but a penny-stock head, and since then the
Vikings have been one of the hottest buys on the NFL's big
board. The elan with which they dispatched the Dallas Cowboys
27-10 on Sunday at the Metrodome in an NFC wild-card playoff
game suggests, in fact, that this Georgian attack is in many
ways better equipped to take the Vikings to the Super Bowl than
last season's PlayStation offense, so named for the aerial
circus engineered by Randall Cunningham, the most forgotten man
in Minnesota since Norm Coleman. (He's the guy who lost the
gubernatorial race to a bald-headed body-slammer.)

The mystery of why Cunningham could not run the offense this
season is almost as intriguing as why George--owner of a 37-70
career record as a starter going into 1999--now has it at
full-tilt boogie. One answer came into clear focus on Sunday:
Cunningham did not have a healthy Robert Smith (198 total yards
against Dallas) as a backfield accomplice. In an effort to
confuse the heretofore eminently confusable George, the Cowboys
switched coverages more often than Dennis Rodman makes fashion
statements. But all George had to do was hand off or dump off to
Smith and watch the chains move.

With Minnesota on the Dallas 26 and trailing 10-3 early in the
second quarter, for example, the quarterback was looking
downfield for either of his touchdown twins, wide receivers Cris
Carter and Randy Moss, when he noticed Smith lurking uncovered
near the sideline. "We've run that play in practice," Smith said
later, "and Jeff has never even looked at me." This time he did.
Smith caught a short pass, froze Cowboys safety George Teague
with one juke and went in for a touchdown. When Dallas finally
acknowledged that Smith was on the field, George was freed to go
up top, as he did on a 58-yard touchdown pass to Moss just
before halftime that gave Minnesota a 17-10 lead and seemed to
discourage the Cowboys.

The continued outstanding play of Smith, who missed three games
after a hernia operation on Oct. 19 (he was slowed for weeks
before that while the condition went undiagnosed), poses an
interesting question for Sunday's divisional playoff against the
St. Louis Rams at the Trans World Dome: Who will be the best
multi-threat back in that game? Don't automatically assume that
the answer is the Rams' Marshall Faulk, the NFC's Pro Bowl

At this time last year it was Cunningham who was headed for the
Pro Bowl. But early this season he looked dazed and confused,
forcing the ball to the double- and triple-teamed Moss,
struggling to locate Carter, unwilling to scramble. Green says
he had no pregame notion to insert George on that fateful
afternoon against the Lions. The Vikings were losing 19-0 at
halftime when Green said to himself, That's it. He made the
announcement simply and succinctly to the team: "We're going to
change quarterbacks. We're going with Jeff. Let's get this thing
turned around."

Cunningham immediately approached George and said, "I've got
your back." Never has a potential quarterback controversy been
defused so smoothly; Green's decisiveness (Minnesota lost to
Detroit 25-23, but the coach never wavered) and Cunningham's
magnanimity were major reasons. The play of George, needless to
say, has been the biggest.

When George, who had worn out his welcomes during four seasons
in Indianapolis, three in Atlanta and two in Oakland, signed on
as a free agent last April 6, the Vikings did not immediately
gather him to their collective bosom. "Our position was, Let's
pull up a lawn chair, sit down and study this guy a little bit,"
says long snapper Mike Morris. But possibly because he has at
last matured, George has been a model citizen in Minnesota, even
to the point of making fun of his reputation as a whining,
blame-everybody-but-himself blowhard. After he says something to
the offense, he sometimes adds jokingly, "Oh, but don't trust
me. I'm a basket case. I'm a head case." It didn't hurt, either,
when he footed the bill for catered ribs for the team before a
Dec. 12 game against the Chiefs in Kansas City.

One thing the Vikings took to immediately was the passing skill
George displayed in practice--tight spirals off the back foot;
across-the-field passes that though inadvisably thrown,
nevertheless made it to the target with ease; a quick release
that sometimes produced an off-the-ear-hole clang when a
receiver didn't turn quickly enough. Defensive lineman John
Randle started calling George "Tin Cup," after the lead
character in the Kevin Costner golf movie, because he "throws it
long and straight, like Tin Cup hits it." Cunningham tends to
wind up, and though his arm is strong, his passes have more
float than zip. Moss and Carter remain close to him, but they
soon learned that the new guy could get them the ball quicker
and in more spots on the field. When the receivers began not
only to accept George but also to brag him up, his status on the
team was secure.

All this talk about offense, of course, won't make a difference
if Minnesota's bend-but-not-break defense can't contain Faulk,
St. Louis wide receivers Isaac Bruce and Az-Zahar Hakim and
quarterback Kurt Warner, who in his up-from-nowhere rise is
something of an anti-George. But as noxious as some of George's
previous behavior has been, it was nice to see him enjoying a
playoff game, only his second in 10 seasons. "I really can't
describe how good this feels," he said after his 12-for-25,
212-yard, three-touchdown day. "To see everyone around here
smiling and feeding off each other, well, it's taken me a long
time to appreciate how much that means."

It's taken the NFL that long to get bullish on George, too.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO RAPID ROBERT On rushes and dump-off passes, a healthy Smith helped the Vikings move relentlessly downfield.