Minnesota is unique if for no reason other than the way its ownership is structured: Ten local businesspeople each have a 10% share. The Vikings are under an NFL order to comply with a league rule that states each team must have one owner with at least a 30% stake. That means one of the owners, perhaps president and chief executive officer Roger Headrick, will buy out two of his partners. Headrick, a former Pillsbury executive, was elevated to the Vikings' top position in 1991. After Jerry Burns resigned following the '91 season, one of Headrick's first moves was to hire Green from Stanford. In so doing he bypassed a more popular choice, New York Jets defensive coordinator Pete Carroll, who had served in the same capacity with Minnesota from '85 to '89. Now, says a source close to the owners, "Roger is waffling on Denny because when the other nine owners go to cocktail parties, all they hear is, 'When are you going to get rid of Denny Green? He's not the kind of coach we want for our team.' "
Listen to Headrick talk about the Vikings' coaching situation, and he sounds like a man who is waffling. He said last Saturday that he's proceeding as though Green, who has two years left on his contract, will return next season. But he also said, "I'd like it to be clear-cut, with no doubt from anyone he should return. I'd like to win the next two and a playoff game. If we don't, that's a decision we'll make after the season."
A home win over the Bucs is one thing, but if Green must win two more games to keep his job, that means he has to beat the 12-3 Packers in Green Bay next Sunday and then win a road playoff game in Dallas (10-5), San Francisco (11-4) or Carolina (11-4).
As for the Holtz rumors, Headrick says, "I think that whole thing was prompted by Lou. I'm not paying any attention to it. But there certainly is no deal of any sort with him. I've never talked to him."
Headrick has another problem that plagues him more than Green's status: an unprofitable stadium lease, which threatens the continuation of the NFL in Minnesota. Because they pay $2.6 million a year in rent to a commission for the use of the Metrodome and get little in the way of stadium income, the Vikings can do no better than break even in stadium revenues. The lease runs until 2012, but next month Headrick will plead to the Minnesota legislature for relief. "I keep hearing [from politicians and businesspeople] to wait my turn," Headrick says. "Art Modell waited his turn, and look where he ended up."
Headrick will propose to the legislature ways for the Vikings to make as much as $16 million annually off the stadium without drastically reducing the commission's cut. And if the politicians don't buy his ideas? Headrick says he won't make threats, but if the issue isn't addressed, don't be surprised if the Vikings try to break their lease and move to Cleveland or Los Angeles.
Without a lucrative stadium deal Minnesota doesn't have the capital to offer the big signing bonuses needed to keep its own free agents or to woo others. Barker is a perfect example. A quick 6'5", 290-pound defensive end, he spent four years in Minnesota, and then last spring, as a 27-year-old free agent, he discovered the difference between the NFL's haves and have-nots. The Vikes' $1.2 million signing bonus paled in comparison with the Niners' $3 million offer. Because the signing bonus is the only guaranteed money in most NFL contracts, Barker's decision was easy.
In the past five seasons Minnesota has paid top dollar to keep four players: Moon, wideouts Cris Carter and Jake Reed, and defensive tackle John Randle. Johnson and eight-time Pro Bowl guard Randall McDaniel are eligible for free agency after the season, and both could follow Barker out the door. Johnson and the Vikings are significantly apart in negotiations, and he says he'll test the free-agent waters if he doesn't sign by the end of this week.
The more Johnson plays, the more his stock continues to rise. On Sunday he completed 25 of 35 passes for 231 yards and one touchdown. Waiver pickup Leroy Hoard, signed on Nov. 5 to replace Smith, ran for 101 yards and two touchdowns. Brady led the no-name defense with eight tackles and a jarring sack of quarterback Trent Dilfer.
Most of the credit for Minnesota's success of late goes to Johnson, who ranks third in the NFC in quarterback rating. A ninth-round pick in 1992, he had been an understudy to Casey Weldon at Florida State, where he started only six games. The Vikings took a chance on him only after he had a decent performance at the scouting combine. "I'd love to stay, because this is the perfect system for me," Johnson says. "I know it so well, and I'm just beginning to scratch the surface. But if the money isn't there, I'm going to free agency. I have to, even as good as Denny and the coaches have been to me."