Back in Stride
The Vikings showed some of their old firepower in a win over the Bears
The Vikings are Team NFL in this weirdest of seasons. After they rolled to a 15-1 record last year, winning by 16.3 points per game, they went into this week's bye fortunate to be 6-4, having outscored the opposition by about a field goal a game. Quarterback Randall Cunningham, an All-Pro in 1998, was resplendent in a purple jacket at Soldier Field on Sunday, relegated to the bench for the fourth straight game. His off-the-street understudy, Jeff George, threw for 374 yards and three touchdowns—all to wideout Cris Carter—against the Bears as Minnesota won its fourth consecutive game, 27-24 in overtime.
Vikings kicker Gary Anderson made all 35 field goals he attempted in the 1998 regular season; on Sunday he missed his eighth of this year, a 20-yarder on the last play of regulation. The Minnesota defense used to scare folks with a pass rush led by tackle John Randle; Chicago had its best passing day in 37 years as Jim Miller, cut by four teams and making just his second NFL start, threw for 422 yards and three touchdowns. Randle could only shake his head after the game. "This is the NFL," he said finally. "Nothing lasts for long."
"He's right" said Randle's defensive line mate, Jerry Ball, from the next locker. "Look in our defensive team room, and you'll see that 11 of the 25 guys are new this year. Chemistry takes time to build, but unfortunately you don't have time to build it."
Here's a classic 1999 Vikings sequence. With 42 seconds left in a tie game against Chicago, Minnesota has the ball on its nine-yard line. George to wideout Randy Moss for 44 yards. George incomplete to Moss. George to Moss for 42 yards. Leroy Hoard up the gut for 3. Anderson misses from 20 yards. "You've got to make that blindfolded," Anderson said. On to overtime, during which George is intercepted by Bears cornerback Walt Harris. Chicago's Chris Boniol misses a 41-yard field goal attempt, and Anderson finally ends the game with a line drive from 38 yards.
No one in the Vikings' organization is blameless for the falloff from 1998. Owner Red McCombs gave coach Dennis Green ultimate personnel authority early this year, and then Green laid a huge egg on draft day. With a defense crying out for front-seven help, he went against his staff and passed over a rare pass-rush talent in Florida's Jevon Kearse (who has 6½ sacks in nine games for the Titans) in favor of Central Florida quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who's a long-term project Later in the first round Green authorized the selection of Michigan State defensive end Dimitrius Underwood, who was released after going AWOL early in training camp. A defense that wasn't asked to do much last year because of Minnesota's prolific offense has struggled, and now it ranks last in the league against the pass and 29th overall.
Imperfect as they are, however, the Vikings might be the best of a bad NFC lot. Only the 6-3 Lions are ahead of them in the Central Division. Behind them are the 5-4 Bucs, who have a suspect offense, and the 4-5 Packers, who are sinking fast. Outside the division only the West-leading Rams (7-2) might be better.
After four starts George is getting in sync with Carter and Moss, who are second and third in the NFC with 858 and 848 receiving yards, respectively. In the last four games Carter has caught 33 passes for 485 yards and seven touchdowns. On Sunday, Moss had 12 receptions for 204 yards. Neither Carter nor Moss will admit it, but the two had lost confidence in Cunningham's ability to get them the ball in tight spots. They love the lasers that George throws. Minnesota is getting the chip back on its shoulder. As he tied his tie in front of the bathroom mirror after Sunday's game, Moss exclaimed, "We tore Chicago's ass up!" Hardly, but that kind of swagger has been sorely lacking.
"We've won four in a row, so we're back in it," Carter said. "The key in the NFL is, who's going to build on what they've got? Who can keep improving and play championship ball in January?"
In a wacky season Minnesota is beginning to look like an outfit you won't want to be playing in January.