At two in the afternoon on Aug. 14, coach Dennis Green stood
outside a dormitory on the Minnesota State-Mankato campus and
said a few words about the oak sapling beside him. The Vikings
hold their training camp at the university, and the tree had been
planted as a memorial to Korey Stringer, the 27-year-old right
tackle who had died of heatstroke after a practice two weeks
before. The school was planning to decorate the tree with a
plaque reading, in part, IN MEMORY OF BIG K, and Green, glancing
at the handful of players who flanked him, said the oak was a
fitting reminder "that Big K is here and always will be."
The sky was overcast as Green spoke, and during drills that
morning several Vikings had noted appreciatively that it was the
first cool day of what had been a notoriously hot training camp.
It was also Minnesota's second day of practice since it had
defeated the Saints 28-21 in its first exhibition game, an
achievement that the Vikings hoped would begin to restore
normality to their working lives. "We'll never get back to normal
without Korey," said quarterback Daunte Culpepper shortly before
the planting ceremony. "We just have to try to take baby steps
Even before Stringer's death enveloped training camp and the
season (the Vikings are wearing patches with Stringer's number 77
on their uniform sleeves), the team had a feeling of
loss--insignificant loss next to that of Stringer, but loss
nonetheless. Minnesota will open the season without six of last
season's starters, including Stringer, a Pro Bowler. Running back
Robert Smith, whom teammates considered the Vikings' MVP last
year after he accounted for 31.4% of the offense with 1,869 total
yards, retired in February, concerned about the long-term effects
of the game on his body. Defensive tackle John Randle, the team's
best playmaker on the line; Dwayne Rudd, their fastest
linebacker; Pro Bowl left tackle Todd Steussie, who had started
111 games; and defensive tackle Tony Williams, a strong run
stopper, all signed with other clubs. "When you win, other teams
want your players," says assistant head coach and offensive line
coach Mike Tice. "You've got to be able to develop enough talent
to make the transition."
Even with the voids left by Steussie and Stringer, the line
should carry on effectively, as it always does under Tice. (Last
year the Vikings pushed aside the losses of Pro Bowl center Jeff
Christy and Pro Bowl guard Randall McDaniel, both of whom left
after the 1999 season.) The line has the advantage of working
with the league's most dynamic big-play trio in Culpepper and
wide receivers Randy Moss and Cris Carter. With those three and
with the addition of blazing running back Michael Bennett, the
Vikings' first-round pick out of Wisconsin, who excelled in the
first two preseason games, Minnesota could well match its
24.8-points-per-game output of last year.
Losing Randle (a six-time Pro Bowler) and Rudd (whom Green dubbed
a cornerstone player a year ago) from an already vulnerable
defense could be the Vikings' undoing. Green plans to make up for
the losses by employing more stunts, using surprise and trickery
to make up for a lack of talent. Green's chalkboard acumen is
only one of many reasons why he has been able to guide Minnesota
to the playoffs in eight of his nine seasons as coach and why he
makes a nearly annual bid to be the NFL Coach of the Year. Green,
who has reached the postseason with seven starting quarterbacks,
has always made it his first mission to create a family
atmosphere on the team and to have the Vikings play with what he
calls "a high level of urgency and emotion."
After Stringer's death Green immediately insulated his players.
For nearly a week he allowed only one or two of them to talk to
the media each day, and when he canceled or shortened practices,
he encouraged the players to stay close to their dorm rooms.
"That was the right thing for us," says Culpepper. "It brought us
together, just us, and that's going to help us pull each other
through this season."
Green says, "There's no blueprint for how to handle this," and he
acknowledges that the Vikings will face reminders of Stringer's
death and field new questions about it at each season
landmark--when they play their first game on Sept. 9, when they
make their first Monday-night appearance eight days later and
each time they travel to a new city.
In late July the Vikings arrived at training camp smarting from
their shocking 41-0 loss to the Giants in January's NFC title
game. That defeat had led Moss to publicly question whether the
Vikings have Super Bowl potential, and until the morning of July
31, they were still looking inward to explain their collapse
against New York. "That game was definitely still strong in the
backs of our minds," says Culpepper. "I guess it still is,
somewhere. But I sure wish that was the only loss we had to think
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID DUROCHIK Moss has questioned his team's postseason mettle, but not its big-play potential.
COLOR PHOTO: STEVE WEWERKA KLEINSASSER
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Vikings
What a sad situation. I think the Vikings will have a very hard
time recovering from Korey Stringer's death in the preseason,
but if anyone can pull that team together, it's Dennis Green.
Every year you think Minnesota will stink, and every year Green
has his team playing well.... Even before Stringer's death,
though, I thought the Vikings had some real problems. Losing
running back Robert Smith, tackle Todd Steussie and linebacker
Dwayne Rudd will be awfully tough on them.... They'll especially
miss Smith as a receiver, where he would just kill the other
team.... Michael Bennett was a good pick. He'll be the fastest
player in the league--he could've been an Olympic sprinter--and
when he finds a crease, he's gone. He runs hard for someone his
size [5'9", 210 pounds], but he's got to become a better
receiver.... Jim Kleinsasser will help Bennett tremendously.
He's among the best fullbacks in the league, a very good lead
blocker.... With Randy Moss and those other wide receivers,
Minnesota is still very explosive.... The defense will hurt the
team, though. The Vikings had big needs to address in the
off-season at rush end and cornerback, and they ignored them....
Losing John Randle will be tough, but Lance Johnstone is a nice
pickup. [Rookie defensive tackle] Willie Howard won't do
much.... Minnesota will be 8-8 or 9-7 this year.
Sept. 9 CAROLINA
17 at Baltimore (Mon.)
23 at Chicago
30 TAMPA BAY
Oct. 7 at New Orleans
21 GREEN BAY
28 at Tampa Bay
Nov. 4 Open date
11 at Philadelphia
19 N.Y. GIANTS (Mon.)
Dec. 2 at Pittsburgh
16 at Detroit
30 at Green Bay
2001 SCHEDULE STRENGTH
NFL rank: 1
Opponents' 2000 winning percentage: .574
Games against playoff teams: 7
PROJECTED LINEUP with 2000 statistics
COACH: Dennis Green; 10th season with Minnesota (92-52 in NFL)
2000 RECORD: 11-5 (first in NFC Central)
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): offense 6/7/5; defense 15/28/28
OFFENSIVE BACKS PVR*
QB Daunte Culpepper 4 474 att. 297 comp. 62.7% 3,937 yds.
33 TDs 16 int. 98.0 rtg.
RB Michael Bennett 50 310 att. 1,681 yds. 5.4 avg. 4 rec.
(R)[N] 23 yds. 5.8 avg. 11 TDs
RB Doug Chapman 230 164 att. 686 yds. 4.2 avg. 24 rec.
321 yds. 13.4 avg. 13 TDs
FB Jim Kleinsasser 282 12 att. 43 yds. 3.6 avg. 10 rec.
98 yds. 9.8 avg. 0 TDs
RECEIVERS, SPECIALISTS, OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
WR Randy Moss 6 77 rec. 1,437 yds. 15 TDs
WR Cris Carter 15 96 rec. 1,274 yds. 9 TDs
WR Jake Reed 159 16 rec. 206 yds. 0 TDs
TE Byron Chamberlain[N]256 22 rec. 283 yds. 1 TD
K Gary Anderson 140 45/45 XPs 22/23 FGs 111 pts.
PR Troy Walters 366 15 ret. 14.5 avg. 0 TDs
KR Troy Walters 366 30 ret. 23.1 avg. 0 TDs
LT Brad Badger 6'4" 319 lbs. 16 games 0 starts
LG Corbin Lacina 6'4" 302 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
C Matt Birk 6'4" 308 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG David Dixon 6'5" 359 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Chris Liwienski 6'5" 321 lbs. 14 games 1 start
LE Talance Sawyer 36 tackles 6 sacks
LT Chris Hovan 46 tackles 2 sacks
RT Shawn Worthen(R)[N]53 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
RE Lance Johnstone[N] 31 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
OLB Lemanski Hall 15 tackles 0 sacks
MLB Kailee Wong 112 tackles 2 sacks
OLB Ed McDaniel 118 tackles 2 sacks
CB Kenny Wright 43 tackles 0 int.
SS Robert Griffith 103 tackles 1 int.
FS Orlando Thomas 37 tackles 1 int.
CB Robert Tate 70 tackles 2 int.
P Mitch Berger 62 punts 44.7 avg.
[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 119)
1999 College Statistics
"Bennett will be the fastest player in the league. When he finds
a crease, he's gone."