Offseason uncertainty turns to success for Vikings, Giants
Updated: Friday January 12, 2001 10:18 PM
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
It was the March 2000 NFL annual meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., and the gab-fest that is the NFC head coaches breakfast with the media was well under way.
The coffee and orange juice were flowing, as was the early morning conversation.
At one end of the room, Vikings head coach Dennis Green sat at a table and tried to make his way through a plate of scrambled eggs. But reporters kept chewing on the topic of who would be Green's starting quarterback this season, now that Dan Marino had opted for retirement rather than a one-year deal with Minnesota.
Green, who was still negotiating with 1999 incumbent quarterback Jeff George at the time, met all incoming questions with an other-worldly sense of calm and a what-me-worry look painted on his face. He would have his team ready, no matter what the outcome of his quarterback search, he said. As he always has. Even if he had to turn things over to inexperienced second-year man, Daunte Culpepper.
Judging from the looks generated by that last pronouncement, he was not in a room full of believers.
At another table, Giants head coach Jim Fassel sat leisurely with three or four reporters at a time, where the intensity of the questioning was far less. Coming off two consecutive losing seasons, little was expected of the Giants in 2000. And the only time things got anywhere near tense was when a reporter or two tried to delicately float the idea that Fassel might be entering his make-or-break season in New York.
In a good mood that day, Fassel kept cycling the conversation back to all the reasons for hope that he saw in his Giants team. He was convinced that quarterback Kerry Collins, his first-year starter in 1999, had turned the corner and resurrected his once promising career. And he was equally certain that the makeup of his team was better than it had been in either of the past two divisive seasons.
Yes, he agreed that star-laden Washington was loaded in the NFC East this season. But Fassel gently cautioned all who would listen that his Giants would be heard from.
Today, nearly 10 months later, Green and Fassel have the right to recall that morning with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. As they prepare their teams for Sunday's NFC Championship Game at Giants Stadium, where a Super Bowl berth will be both won and lost, they might be the only two people in America who can say they knew it all along.
Taking a big gamble to get hereThey are different men, with football teams that get it done playing diametrically opposing styles. But they got here in very similar fashions. One of them put his job on the line with a much-ballyhooed playoff guarantee in mid-November. The other put his credibility on the line even before the season started, thanks to his much-debated decision to go with the untested Culpepper at quarterback.
"We're one game away, 60 minutes away from the Super Bowl," said Fassel, who could have been speaking for both himself and Green. "Who would have thought that?"
The Giants, at 13-4, have been labeled perhaps the least impressive top seed to make a conference title game in recent memory. They win ugly, play staunch defense and try to emulate the grind-it-out, blue-collar success of the Giants' two previous Super Bowl champions.
"You can say we're not pretty," Fassel said. "But we're pretty steady."
The Vikings, at 12-5, are much more of a known quantity. They are average on defense, but breathtaking on offense, capable of beating a team in spectacular fashion with eye-catching individual talents. They show up in the playoffs every year, hoping that someday their strengths will outweigh their weaknesses.
"We have exceptional firepower on offense," Green said. "I think we've got a good group of young guys that have been here for a long time, and some guys that have only been here for a year or two. They've blended together extremely well. We think this is our best chance to have an exceptional year."
While the Vikings steamrolled almost everyone in their path for the first three months of the season, going 11-2, they faltered in December (0-3) and only last week seemed to re-find their footing in the divisional round against New Orleans.
The Giants did things differently. They started surprisingly strong at 3-0, lost their footing with a 4-4 stretch along the way, then closed with a rush that has encompassed six consecutive victories since Fassel made his playoff guarantee.
But what jumps out at you about both teams' journey this season is that they backed up their out-on-a-limb head coach. To the hilt.
Despite some not-too-private doubts about Culpepper's readiness among several of the team's key veterans, the Vikings bought into the program from the start and never lowered their Super Bowl ambitions because of Green's choice of quarterbacks.
"Daunte's been all that you could have asked for and more," running back Robert Smith said. "I didn't know if he was ready, but he proved himself quickly and he's done it over and over again. Just like Denny said he would."
As for the Giants, Fassel's motives in declaring his 7-4 team playoff-bound were openly questioned, but it's hard to argue that his players haven't responded to his bravado. Before he issued his famous promise -- "I'm raising the stakes right now. ... This team is going to the playoffs. OK?" -- the only thing Fassel had in common with Joe Namath was that they both worked in New York, and had three-letter first names beginning with "J."
"I'll tell you what we were thinking: 'Is this guy crazy?'" said Giants defensive tackle Keith Hamilton. "When you start looking at what he did, he took a lot of pressure off of the young guys that we had here. He just allowed us to go out and play football. I think that was the biggest thing he did. The media was all on us. He allowed us to go out and play football, which is what we do best. It's paid off."
Reaching for the dream come true
With the pressure on, Fassel delivered this season and his four-year Giants head coaching record now stands at 38-22-1. He has won two division titles. By comparison, the deified Mr. Bill, went 36-27-1 through four years. But former Giants head coach Bill Parcells won a Super Bowl in his fourth season, and another four years later. Overall he earned three division crowns in his eight seasons with the team.
Green has been unmatched at producing playoff teams in his nine-year Minnesota tenure. He has taken the Vikings to the postseason eight times in that span, with 1995's 8-8 representing his only non-winning record. Four times he has won the NFC Central. But Green's teams are just 4-7 in the playoffs, and have advanced to just their second NFC title game.
And it's even here, in the playoffs, that Green and Fassel's stories intertwine. The last time these two met in the postseason was 1997, Fassel's rookie year in New York. The Giants had won the NFC East, while the Vikings had squeaked into the playoffs as a 9-7 wild-card.
In that game, played in Giants Stadium, New York held a nine-point lead with just more than 90 seconds remaining, and still lost. The Vikings got a Jake Reed touchdown reception, an onside kick, and an Eddie Murray field goal in those frantic few moments, winning 23-22 to give Green his first postseason victory in five tries.
Fassel's Giants didn't really escape the memory of that historic collapse until last week, when they handed their coach his first career playoff victory, at home in the divisonal round against Philadelphia.
While Fassel has spent much of this week saying the 1997 Vikings-Giants game has no relevance now, Green has had his own postseason collapse to downplay this week. The memories of Minnesota's 1998 NFC title game upset loss to Atlanta are still very fresh. The two men, who are friends and former assistants together at Stanford in the 1980s, echoed the same refrain when reminded of their past playoff failures.
"Our teams are so much different now," Fassel said. "Half my staff is different. Half my team is different. No. I think that one is history."
Said Green: "I made sure guys understood that there weren't very many guys in that room that were here in 1998, coaches and players. It just didn't make sense in my opinion to be talking about something that didn't apply to probably 70 percent of the football team."
That, of course, are how football coaches are prone to sound when they get this close to reaching a goal as big as the Super Bowl. They block out the past and focus on nothing but the immediate future. For Green and Fassel, who have pushed the right buttons at the right time all year long, it's time to determine whose season of success gets taken to the next surprising level.
"It would be what we do all this work for," Fassel said. "All the hours. Guys coach and play in this league and never get close. And when you get this close, you realize all teams have earned the right to be here. It's kind of like a dream come true, to get to the Super Bowl."