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Peter King
November 16, 1998
Double TroubleWith both marquee quarterbacks injured, how far can the Vikings go?
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November 16, 1998

The Nfl

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Double Trouble
With both marquee quarterbacks injured, how far can the Vikings go?

At the end of the strangest football weekend of his life, Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson could offer only a wry smile. In 24 hours he had gone from second-fiddle passer to a player who apparently had won back his starting job to a patient of a Minneapolis hand specialist. By Sunday night Johnson had been relegated to sideline spectator again, the result of a broken right thumb he had suffered during an otherwise sterling relief appearance in a 31-24 win over the Saints earlier that day.

"That's the way life goes, I guess," Johnson said in his soft North Carolina drawl. "Hopefully I can come back to play Chicago [on Dec. 6], then take a run at the playoffs."

In one afternoon the Vikings went from having the healthiest quarterback situation in the league to one that's sickening. Ready to play for the first time since he broke his right leg in Week 2 against the Rams, Johnson was listed as backup to Randall Cunningham against New Orleans. Cunningham, who had taken over as the starter, was the NFL's highest-rated quarterback.

Yet as Vikings coach Dennis Green walked out of the Metrodome on Sunday night, he didn't know if either of his passers would be available for the stretch run. Cunningham was undergoing an MRI on his injured right knee, and Johnson was on his way to the hand specialist. "I've always said you need two good quarterbacks," Green said glumly. "I just hope I don't need three."

He does. Johnson had his hand put in a cast. On Monday morning Cunningham had arthroscopic surgery. The double hit could hardly have come at a worse time for Minnesota, which, in a 12-day stretch beginning this Sunday, plays host to Cincinnati and Green Bay and then visits Dallas.

The Vikings' two healthy quarterbacks are Jay Fiedler, a third-year pro out of Dartmouth who has thrown four NFL passes, and Todd Bouman, a rookie out of St. Cloud State who has been inactive for each of Minnesota's first nine games. Barring a miraculous recovery by Cunningham—"I know I'll be back in a week," Cunningham, a born-again Christian, said late Sunday. "God will make me well"—Fiedler will get his first NFL start against the Bengals. As of late Monday, Minnesota was hoping that Cunningham would be healthy enough to start in the showdown against the Packers on Nov. 22.

The bizarre injuries to Cunningham and Johnson occurred, coincidentally, on Minnesota's third offensive plays of the first and second halves. In the first quarter Saints defensive end Jared Tomich jumped offside, and the Vikings tried to take advantage of the free play. But Tomich pulled Cunningham down with an awkward tug on the quarterback's right leg. Cunningham also sprained his ankle on the play. In the third quarter Johnson banged his passing hand on the helmet of a New Orleans defender after releasing a throw. "I knew it was bad," Johnson said. "I looked down, and it was bent sideways. But there was no way I was coming out of the game."

From that point on Johnson completed 11 of 14 passes, though free safety Sammy Knight's interception return for a touchdown tied the game at 24-24. Johnson completed 12 of 13 third-down passes, the most notable of which came with about five minutes left in a tie game. Facing third-and-eight at the Saints 25, Johnson was caught from behind by defensive tackle Wayne Martin. But as he was falling, Johnson switched the ball from his right hand to his left and shot-putted a pass to running back Leroy Hoard, who raced to a 19-yard gain. Three plays later Hoard scored the winning touchdown.

Though now 8-1, the Vikings face their first crisis. Who could have imagined Minnesota being in such a predicament before Sunday's game? "This could end up being like the '72 Dolphins," Johnson said last week. "Randall could be Earl Morrall."

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