There's usually only one area on the cluttered desk of Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Foge Fazio that's clear. On the lower right-hand corner, beside stacks of scouting reports, play charts and legal pads full of defensive formations, is a small space reserved for four mounds of a rubbery substance that resembles Silly Putty. Fazio likes to say the stuff is for strengthening his hands, "so when I grab a guy he'll know I'm not messing around." But the truth is, the 59-year-old, silver-haired Fazio, who is half drill sergeant and half grandfather, uses the putty to relieve stress.
Late last week, as the Vikings prepared to play the Arizona Cardinals in an NFC divisional playoff game at the Metrodome, Fazio was asked about containing the Cardinals' cardiac quarterback, Jake Plummer. During his answer Fazio twirled and twisted the putty into knots, pounded it flat on the desk like pizza dough and squeezed it so hard in his fist that it oozed from the cracks between his fingers. Two days later Fazio's defense did almost the same thing to Plummer as Minnesota crushed Arizona 41-21 to advance to the NFC Championship Game on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. The first 18 minutes and 36 seconds against the Cardinals were glorious for the Vikings' defense, which has improved dramatically since last season—its ranking went from 29th in 1997 to 13th this year, and it had the second-highest turnover ratio in the NFL, plus-14—but has been overshadowed by the most prolific offense in NFL history.
During that opening stretch Minnesota jumped to a 17-0 lead as the Vikings pummeled Plummer, who was 0 for 4 passing with two interceptions. Until 11:24 of the second quarter the Cardinals had had the ball for only 1:42 and had zero net yards and no first downs. In other words the Arizona offense was putty in Fazio's hands. Yet Fazio, who has coached in college and the NFL for 33 years, including a stint as Dan Marino's head coach at Pitt from 1982 to '85, was having his name butchered on national television. (It's Foge, as in loge, and Fazio, as in Fox's announcers are lazy-0.) "It's clear here by fan interest and marketing and media attention that the focus is on offense," Minnesota nosetackle Jerry Ball said three days before the game. "We've learned to live without credit. We just keep telling ourselves the old adage: Offense wins games, but defense wins championships."
After the Vikes' defense held on for a 38-31 win over the St. Louis Rams on Sept. 13—it blew a 24-10 halftime lead but preserved the win by tackling quarterback Tony Banks just short of the goal line on the game's final play—Fazio received a bear hug on the sideline from owner Red McCombs, who hollered at him, "I knew we had 'em all the way!" Later, McCombs sent a photo of their postgame embrace to Fazio with the same words inscribed on it. That phrase is an apt description of the Vikings defense. "With the kind of offense this team has, the defense may never have to win a game," says middle linebacker Ed McDaniel. "Usually all we have to do is stop a team just once and the game is over. That's how it works here."
If Minnesota is to win the Super Bowl, however, Fazio's troops may need to step up at some point. Is the defense up to the challenge? The answer may come this week when the Falcons and Jamal Anderson, the NFC's leading rusher, try to control the ball to keep the Vikings' offense off the field. (In Minnesota's only defeat of the season, a 27-24 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Bucs ran for 246 yards and held the ball for 33:35.) Against offenses ranked among the NFL's top 10 this season, Minnesota has given up an average of 20 points.
On Sunday, Plummer bounced back from his rough start to finish 23 of 41 for 242 yards, with no touchdowns, two interceptions and two fumbles. Though Minnesota mounted an inspired goal line stand with less than two minutes remaining, it failed several times to put the game away with a big defensive stop. Once again the Vikes' offense—which had three touchdowns in the air, two on the ground, 26 first downs, 5.2 yards per carry and a 73% conversion rate on third downs—was their best defense.
Still, Fazio's unit showed the aggressive style he demands. "The attitude the defense carries on the field is to kick ass, have some fun and don't worry about anything except winning," says McDaniel, who has 15 tackles for loss and seven sacks in 1998. "That comes from Foge."
Fazio, the son of Italian immigrants, grew up in the steel mill town of Coraopolis, in the football-rich region of western Pennsylvania, and played center for Pitt. The nickname, Foge, stuck after Fazio had difficulty pronouncing fudge as a child. ( Fazio's given names are Serafino Dante, the former being the Italian word for little angel and the latter being the name of the Italian poet who surveyed the Underworld.) One friend from Pittsburgh describes Fazio as "impossible to dislike," but he has been known to slap the table in the Vikings' locker room so hard it leaves the players' ears ringing. Judging by his legendary sideline eruptions, triggered by plays such as Plummer's 39-yard pass to Adrian Murrell late in the third quarter on Sunday, fudge may be the only f word Fazio has ever had trouble saying.
With the game in hand and the offense running out the clock, Fazio walked around the sideline congratulating his players. First, there was the unit's star, perennial All-Pro tackle John Randle. Then Minnesota's only new starter in 1998, cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock, who led the Vikings with seven interceptions. Fazio smiled at strong safety Robert Griffith, who had intercepted Plummer twice in the first half. Fazio then shook hands with McDaniel, whom he moved inside late in the '97 season and who this season earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl. Finally, Fazio embraced Ball, a football nomad who has found a home in Minnesota after playing for five teams in the last seven years. "We've got 11 different voices on this defense," Ball said, "but Foge has us all singing the same song."