One Hat Too Many
Coach Dennis Green has stumbled as the Vikings' personnel chief
One morning during last week's NFL annual meetings in Palm Beach, Fla., Dennis Green sat down, smiling, to a breakfast of eggs and sausage. "We've had a great off-season," he said. While his demeanor was decidedly sunny-side up, his eggs were appropriately scrambled.
Even though he has coached the Vikings into the playoffs in seven of his eight seasons, Green has failed time and again since taking over as the team's top personnel man, in early 1999. Since their 49-37 meltdown against the Rams in an NFC divisional playoff on Jan. 16, the Vikings have lost two members of their very good offensive line—center Jeff Christy, who was a free agent, and 11-time Pro Bowl guard Randall McDaniel, whom the team released. Worse, both signed with NFC Central rival and defending division champion Tampa Bay. The Vikings alienated the quarterback who had a stellar season for them in '99, Jeff George, by trying to persuade Dan Marino to join them, then by offering George a one-year deal. As a result Minnesota may go into next season with Daunte Culpepper, a raw second-year player.
Because of salary-cap constraints, the Vikings have done little to bolster a mediocre pass rush or otherwise help a pass defense that ranked 24th in the league last year. Cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock, who signed a free-agent deal with the Panthers in February, says many of the Vikings began to doubt Green as a personnel man last April, when he overruled most of his staff and used the 11th pick on Culpepper instead of on pass-rushing defensive end Jevon Kearse, who was chosen 16th by the Titans and became the league's defensive rookie of the year. Green compounded his mistake later in the first round by taking Michigan State defensive end Dimitrius Underwood, who went AWOL after his first training camp practice, was waived and later apparently tried to commit suicide. "It's tough when you watch Kearse play so well," Minnesota wideout Cris Carter said last week. "We had a veteran team, and veterans think about now. They don't care about the future."
Now Green is hearing whispers that owner Red McCombs could fire him if the Vikings don't go far in the playoffs in 2000. But last week the coach wasn't talking like a man in trouble. "I never use the word [trouble]," he said. "Positive is a word I use a lot. Effort is a word I use a lot. I'm not trying to be macho, but you've got to keep fighting in this game."
Clearly this is a pivotal season for the Vikings. It could be the final year for the 34-year-old Carter, the team's leader. It could test Green's commitment to Culpepper. Coming away from the free-agent market virtually empty-handed makes the April 15-16 draft even more significant for Minnesota, which picks 25th, 55th and 56th in the first two rounds.
"Underwood had serious medical issues we couldn't have known about before the draft," said Green, though most teams heeded warnings from those who coached Underwood that he was a problem player. "But you can't operate on regrets. We hope we don't swing and miss anymore." A few more misses of that magnitude could mean the end for Green in the Twin Cities.
Sanders a Red, Maybe a Skin
"Hey, Suspect," Ken Griffey Jr. said to fellow outfielder Deion Sanders in the Reds' spring training locker room last week. "You playing today?"
Sanders was indeed playing, despite having to run on a right knee and ankle that were only about 80% healthy after arthroscopic surgery on that knee in January. A day after going from first to third on an infield hit in a minor league game, Sanders had three hits, including a line-drive triple, and stole two bases in an intrasquad game. He will open the season on the disabled list, rehab the leg in Cincinnati and then report to Triple A Louisville to get into game shape. "After watching him down here, I'm more convinced than ever that he can help us win a pennant," says Cincinnati general manager Jim Bowden. "I think he can be a one-man destructive force." Whether the 32-year-old Sanders can remain healthy is another issue.