In one corner of the Minnesota Vikings' practice facility, there is the rope climb. Across the field there are the parallel bars and the monkey bars and the chin-up bars. In the woods, weeds are beginning to grow over the fitness and running trails.
These are remnants of an earlier, un-happier time, notably 1984, when coach Les Steckel turned the Vikings' training camp into a mean-minded boot camp, and the team finished a depressed and disillusioned 3-13.
Last year Bud Grant returned and put his deer feeder back up in the boot camp. The mood began changing and things got a little better—for one thing the Vikings' record improved to 7-9. Grant has left again, but the deer feeder is still there, and the restoration is continuing under new leadership, although Minnesota's new leader is really an old leader.
Head coach Jerry Burns, 59, was the team's offensive coordinator for 18 years before getting the overdue call to command last winter. "Jerry is the best thing that ever happened to this team," says Keith Millard, the Vikings' right defensive tackle. "The attitude is great."
If anything, Sunday's 23-20 loss to the Cleveland Browns at the Metrodome was only a temporary and somewhat fluky setback in the rise of the new Minnesota regime. The defeat left the resurgent Vikes at a respectable 5-3, and they completely outplayed the Browns, outgaining them by an overwhelming 396 to 199 yards in total offense.
So how did they manage to lose?
Among other things, punter Greg Coleman, who had a pulled groin muscle, realized during the warmups that he wouldn't be able to play. That left the punting chores to backup quarterback Wade Wilson and placekicker Chuck Nelson, and Minnesota's per-punt average was 24.7 yards, including one kick that was blocked and returned for a touchdown.
In the final analysis, the game turned on that blocked punt. Minnesota was leading 17-3 in the third quarter when Wilson dropped back to kick. He hadn't punted since his freshman year at East Texas State. His attempt was stuffed by Frank Minnifield and then returned 30 yards for a touchdown by Felix Wright.
Later Nelson, the placekicker-turned-punter, was slightly more successful. He got off punts of 23 and 31 yards and also gave the Vikings a 20-10 lead on a field goal. But Cleveland closed to within 20-13, and two possessions later, Nelson's puny, straight-up-and-down 18-yard punt gave the Browns the ball at the Minnesota 37. From there, running back Curtis Dickey led Cleveland's only TD drive, and the game was tied at 20 with 3:23 to go. On the ensuing kickoff, Minnesota's Rufus Bess fumbled. Cleveland recovered, and Matt Bahr kicked his third field goal of the game, this one a 22-yarder.
Vikings quarterback Tommy Kramer responded with a drive that moved Nelson into field goal range with 12 seconds left. But his 45-yarder never came close—Minnifield says he might have grazed it—and the Vikings' short string of upsets, with victories over the 49ers and the Bears, had been snapped.