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On All Cylinders
Jack McCallum
January 17, 2000
Riding the arm of Jeff George and the legs of Robert Smith, the rejuvenated Vikings eliminated the listless Cowboys
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January 17, 2000

On All Cylinders

Riding the arm of Jeff George and the legs of Robert Smith, the rejuvenated Vikings eliminated the listless Cowboys

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The stock market news coming from the television in Dennis Green's office last Friday morning was bleak, but the Minnesota Vikings coach wasn't worried. "I got rid of most of mine awhile back," he said of unloading Lucent Technologies before it plummeted. That adjustment in his portfolio was only the second-best decision Green has made in recent months. At half-time of an Oct. 17 game against the Detroit Lions he put his offense in the hands of Jeff George, a 31-year-old quarterback with a blue-chip arm but a penny-stock head, and since then the Vikings have been one of the hottest buys on the NFL's big board. The �lan with which they dispatched the Dallas Cowboys 27-10 on Sunday at the Metrodome in an NFC wild-card playoff game suggests, in fact, that this Georgian attack is in many ways better equipped to take the Vikings to the Super Bowl than last season's PlayStation offense, so named for the aerial circus engineered by Randall Cunningham, the most forgotten man in Minnesota since Norm Coleman. (He's the guy who lost the gubernatorial race to a bald-headed body-slammer.)

The mystery of why Cunningham could not run the offense this season is almost as intriguing as why George—owner of a 37-70 career record as a starter going into 1999—now has it at full-tilt boogie. One answer came into clear focus on Sunday: Cunningham did not have a healthy Robert Smith (198 total yards against Dallas) as a backfield accomplice. In an effort to confuse the heretofore eminently confusable George, the Cowboys switched coverages more often than Dennis Rodman makes fashion statements. But all George had to do was hand off or dump off to Smith and watch the chains move.

With Minnesota on the Dallas 26 and trailing 10-3 early in the second quarter, for example, the quarterback was looking downfield for either of his touchdown twins, wide receivers Cris Carter and Randy Moss, when he noticed Smith lurking uncovered near the sideline. "We've run that play in practice," Smith, said later, "and Jeff has never even looked at me." This time he did. Smith caught a short pass, froze Cowboys safety George Teague with one juke and went in for a touchdown. When Dallas finally acknowledged that Smith was on the field, George was freed to go up top, as he did on a 58-yard touchdown pass to Moss just before halftime that gave Minnesota a 17-10 lead and seemed to discourage the Cowboys.

The continued outstanding play of Smith, who missed three games after a hernia operation on Oct. 19 (he was slowed for weeks before that while the condition went undiagnosed), poses an interesting question for Sunday's divisional playoff against the St. Louis Rams at the Trans World Dome: Who will be the best multi-threat back in that game? Don't automatically assume that the answer is the Rams' Marshall Faulk, the NFC's Pro Bowl starter.

At this time last year it was Cunningham who was headed for the Pro Bowl. But early this season he looked dazed and confused, forcing the ball to the double-and triple-teamed Moss, struggling to locate Carter, unwilling to scramble. Green says he had no pregame notion to insert George on that fateful afternoon against the Lions. The Vikings were losing 19-0 at halftime when Green said to himself, That's it. He made the announcement simply and succinctly to the team: "We're going to change quarterbacks. We're going with Jeff. Let's get this thing turned around."

Cunningham immediately approached George and said, "I've got your back." Never has a potential quarterback controversy been defused so smoothly; Green's decisiveness ( Minnesota lost to Detroit 25-23, but the coach never wavered) and Cunningham's magnanimity were major reasons. The play of George, needless to say, has been the biggest.

When George, who had worn out his welcomes during four seasons in Indianapolis, three in Atlanta and two in Oakland, signed on as a free agent last April 6, the Vikings did not immediately gather him to their collective bosom. "Our position was, Let's pull up a lawn chair, sit down and study this guy a little bit," says long snapper Mike Moms. But possibly because he has at last matured, George has been a model citizen in Minnesota, even to the point of making fun of his reputation as a whining, blame-everybody-but-himself blowhard. After he says something to the offense, he sometimes adds jokingly, "Oh, but don't trust me. I'm a basket case. I'm a head case." It didn't hurt, either, when he footed the bill for catered ribs for the team before a Dec. 12 game against the Chiefs in Kansas City.

One thing the Vikings took to immediately was the passing skill George displayed in practice—tight spirals off the back foot; across-the-field passes that though inadvisably thrown, nevertheless made it to the target with ease; a quick release that sometimes produced an off-the-ear-hole clang when a receiver didn't turn quickly enough. Defensive lineman John Randle started calling George "Tin Cup," after the lead character in the Kevin Costner golf movie, because he "throws it long and straight, like Tin Cup hits it." Cunningham tends to wind up, and though his arm is strong, his passes have more float than zip. Moss and Carter remain close to him, but they soon learned that the new guy could get them the ball quicker and in more spots on the field. When the receivers began not only to accept George but also to brag him up, his status on the team was secure.

All this talk about offense, of course, won't make a difference if Minnesota's bend-but-not-break defense can't contain Faulk, St. Louis wide receivers Isaac Bruce and Az-Zahar Hakim and quarterback Kurt Warner, who in his up-from-nowhere rise is something of an anti-George. But as noxious as some of George's previous behavior has been, it was nice to see him enjoying a playoff game, only his second in 10 seasons. "I really can't describe how good this feels," he said after his 12-for-25, 212-yard, three-touchdown day. "To see everyone around here smiling and feeding off each other, well, it's taken me a long time to appreciate how much that means."

It's taken the NFL that long to get bullish on George, too.