These days Green is more popular than flannel in Minneapolis—a purple mob follows him to his car after games—and calmed by his newfound security, he has been in something of a coaching zone lately. By clearly defining everyone's role on the Vikings, he has tempered a locker room full of strong personalities. "Blending a team is the difference between having a bunch of good players and having a great team," Green says. His recent pregame speeches have moved more than a few players to the verge of tears. McCombs may hold the deed, but Green owns this team.
What Green has discovered is that the most loyal, hardworking players are the ones who have gotten a peek at life outside the NFL and come back to play again—reenergized or scared straight. "We play because we get paid to," Smith says, "but Denny is a guy you want to win for. He has stuck his neck out for so many of us that we want to pay him back."
Hampered by injuries, Smith, a former first-round pick out of Ohio State, started only 16 games in his first four years with the Vikings. While the rest of the NFL saw a spindly legged, injury-prone back, Green saw flashbulb speed and an upright style reminiscent of Baltimore Colts Hall of Famer Lenny Moore. Smith's contract was up after last season, but Green made sure he was re-signed by Minnesota. Last year Smith set franchise single-season records for yards rushing (1,266), 100-yard games (six) and average yards per carry (5.5). This year he has 565 yards on the ground in six games and has gotten hurt just once—when an overzealous teammate hugged him after a touchdown and knocked out two of his front teeth.
By now everyone knows about rookie wideout Randy Moss, who, because of his checkered past, dropped to the 21st pick in the draft, where Minnesota happily snatched him up. He now leads the NFL with six touchdown catches, 19 embarrassed general managers and the quickest reputation rehab in history. At a recent concert in Minneapolis, Garth Brooks introduced the crowd to his mother, Colleen Carroll, who was wearing a number 84 Moss jersey. On Sunday a sign in the upper deck of the Metrodome read: RANDY MOSS WILL YOU MARRY ME?
Salvage stories like Moss's are common among the Vikings. Strong safety Robert Griffith, who leads the league with five interceptions, was playing with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the CFL before joining Minnesota in 1994. Johnson is a veteran of the World League and was originally a ninth-round pick in '92. The draft doesn't even go that long anymore.
"Denny believes in second and third chances, and that typifies his own life," says Carter, who had five catches for 109 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. "Denny is an overcomer. He's beaten the obstacles, so he has sympathy for people who have been there. I can remember seeing guys in our locker room and thinking, That guy will never play in this league. A year later he was on the field contributing just when we needed him."
Carter, a future Hall of Famer, was claimed off the waiver wire in 1990 for $100. Against the Redskins he caught a pass in his 105th consecutive game, tying the Minnesota record held by Anthony Carter, and he's one score away from Bill Brown's Vikings mark for career touchdowns (76).
Nowhere, however, has Green's approach to personnel benefited the Vikings more than at quarterback. Johnson was throwing without pain before the game on Sunday and had planned to come back this weekend against the Detroit Lions. But with backup Randall Cunningham leading NFL passers with a 121.3 rating, Johnson has the luxury of allowing his leg to heal for another few weeks. Both Green and Cunningham insist that when Johnson does return, the starting job will be waiting for him.
Three years ago, after he was cut by the Philadelphia Eagles, Cunningham, 35, was out of the league, working 12-hour days on his hands and knees laying marble in Las Vegas. After deciding he wanted to play again, Cunningham signed with Minnesota in April 1997. He completed half of his passes in five games, including three starts at the end of the season after Johnson suffered a neck injury. Although several teams expressed interest in Cunningham during the off-season, he chose to remain in a backup role with the Vikings out of loyalty to Green. In Cunningham's last five games he has thrown 12 touchdowns and no interceptions.
"I am in a state of grace and peace in my life, and it has really helped me on the field," says Cunningham. "I'm so grateful to Denny that I want to play my heart out for him, and for that reason there will be no conflict about my role on the team. Period."