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Can Dennis Green Rescue The Vikings?
Peter King
August 17, 1992
That's No. 1 on this summer's list of questions to be answered in NFL training camps
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August 17, 1992

Can Dennis Green Rescue The Vikings?

That's No. 1 on this summer's list of questions to be answered in NFL training camps

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TEAM (1991 RECORD)

1990 DRAFT
Rounds 1 and 2

1991 DRAFT
Rounds 1 and 2

1992 DRAFT
Round 1

Washington (14-2)

LB ANDRE COLLINS

DT Bobby Wilson

WR Desmond Howard

Dallas (11-5)

QB Steve Walsh
RB EMMITT SMITH
WR Alexander Wright

DT RUSSELL MARYLAND
WR ALVIN HARPER
LB Dixon Edwards

CB KEVIN SMITH
LB ROBERT JONES

Detroit (12-4)

QB Andre Ware
DE DAN OWENS

WR HERMAN MOORE
DL Kelvin Pritchett

DL Robert Porcher

Chicago (11-5)

S MARK CARRIER
DT Fred Washington*
LB RON COX

T STAN THOMAS
DT CHRIS ZORICH

DE Alonzo Spellman

New Orleans (11-5)

DE Renaldo Turnbull
CB VINCE BUCK

WR WESLEY CARROLL

RB Vaughan Dunbar

Atlanta (10-6)

RB Steve Broussard
LB DARION CONNER

CB BRUCE PICKENS
WR MIKE PRITCHARD
QB Brett Favre†

T BOB WHITFIELD
RB Tony Smith

*Killed in auto accident during the 1990 season .
Later traded for draft pick s

When Dennis Green got his first college head coaching job, at Northwestern in 1981, he walked to the front of the team's meeting room and told the players what he expected of them. "If you don't put the team first," he said, "I'll treat you like a cancer. I'll cut you out." He has delivered the same message to the Minnesota Vikings.

An NFL head coach for all of seven months, Green nevertheless has purged from the moribund Vikings four former Pro Bowl players who had created more discord than triumph in recent seasons. Waived were quarterback Wade Wilson, running back Herschel Walker and safety Joey Browner, while defensive tackle Keith Millard was sent packing to the Seattle Seahawks for a second-round pick and future considerations. The only big names left on the Minnesota roster are wideout Anthony Carter and underachieving pass rusher Chris Doleman, and there aren't any young players on the verge of stardom.

What the Vikings do have is Green—Dale Carnegie with a scalpel. After six years with the passive Jerry Burns as their coach, the Minnesota players must adjust to the fervor exuded by Green, an Iowa alumnus who counted himself among the rookies at an early July minicamp and sang his college fight song to the team after a practice. "I like Denny," says the departed Millard, a high-strung former NFC Defensive Player of the Year who missed almost all of the past two seasons with a knee injury. "I just hope he's not slitting his throat with all this college rah-rah stuff. Rah-rah doesn't win football games, talent does. And there are a lot of guys there who definitely aren't rah-rah."

What's worse, a lot of guys there definitely aren't very talented. Minnesota hasn't had a first-round pick in the NFL draft since 1988, and it also didn't have a second-round pick in '90 or '91. Defensive end Robert Harris, out of Southern University, was the Vikings' second-round pick this year, and he probably will see action as a nickel pass rusher as soon as the season starts. Minnesota, in effect, lost a football generation of potential standout players, mostly as a result of the horribly misguided trade for Walker in 1989 (box, page 86).

Instead of riding on Walker's ample shoulders to the Super Bowl, the Vikings went 21-23, with no postseason wins, in the 2½ years he was with the team. "Devastating" is the word Kansas City Chief CEO Carl Peterson uses to describe the deal. "Trading so many high picks," says Peterson, "is the greatest way of driving a franchise to its knees."

And so Green talks of needing instant production from players such as tight end Mike Jones and linebacker Carlos Jenkins, third-round picks in 1990 and '91, respectively, as well as defensive back Todd Scott, a sixth-round pick in 1990. Trouble is, Jones has two career catches, and Jenkins is a little small (220 pounds) to play outside linebacker in the run-oriented NFC Central. Nevertheless, Jenkins played so well during the opening weeks of camp and in Minnesota's first preseason game—a 24-3 win over the Buffalo Bills last Saturday night—that Green is considering moving strongside linebacker Mike Merriweather to the weak side to make room for Jenkins in the starting lineup. And in Scott, who effectively roamed from sideline to sideline against the Bills in his debut as a strong safety, the Vikings figure they have a more productive player than Browner was the past two seasons.

Even though his team plays in a weak division, Green may have a bigger job than he figured when he left Stanford, after having taken a 3-8 team in 1989 to 8-4 and the Aloha Bowl in 1991. "We're not going to be an organization of excuse-makers," Green says. "There are other ways to get players than from the draft. Look at Washington's defense, with all the Plan B guys [four starters]. We have to be real aggressive in getting players and in coaching them, and we have to be bold."

The next guy out the door could be Doleman, who stumbled to a seven-sack season in '91 and probably has one year to convince the new coaching staff that he still has the desire to be a premier pass rusher. And Green must energize an offense that has been plagued in recent years by marginal play at quarterback. The inconsistent incumbent, Rich Gannon, lacks the deep arm that Green likes in his quarterbacks, and Gannon didn't help himself with an 18-day contract holdout, which ended just last Saturday. Green now will hold an open competition between Gannon and backup Sean Salisbury, who completed 19 of 33 passes for 251 yards and a touchdown against Buffalo. Salisbury didn't take a regular-season snap in his first two years as a pro, but he impressed the new Minnesota coaching staff with his grasp of the offense and his ability to hit deep targets Anthony and Cris Carter. Then there's the thin talent at running back, where Plan B pickup Roger Craig will be a bit player and Terry Allen (563 rushing yards in '91) will carry most of the load.

Maybe Green should have taken the players on the road with him when he made more than 100 speeches throughout Minnesota trying to fire up fans sick of their team's annual nosedive. "Fans," Green says, "are taking a wait-and-see attitude. They don't think we have the courage to do what we have to do."

As that wise old philosopher Millard might have said, courage won't win at Soldier Field in Chicago; talent will. Green ought to know that from his days at Northwestern, where he went 10-45 in five seasons. For now, give him credit for cleaning house and giving himself half a chance to start fresh.

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