During the stretch drive to the playoffs, two questions remain. Have the Vikings overcome their resentment of Lynn? And do they have the capacity to continue to raise the level of their game?
The first signs of the Vikes' troubles came in late July. Minnesota was coming off an 11-5 season, after which nine Vikings, the largest number from any NFL team, had made the Pro Bowl. Lynn had informed eight of those players that he was willing to re-sign them or extend their contracts. (The exception was tackle Gary Zimmerman, who had received a new contract before the 1988 season.) Five other prominent veterans were unsigned. But when training camp opened, only Wilson had a new contract, a four-year, $4.35 million deal. Nine players were missing, including eight starters.
"I knew this [the contract disputes] would slow our development as a team," says Burns. "We had talented people. I didn't want them thinking, 'I' or 'me.' I wanted them thinking, 'we' and 'us.' "
Although four players—cornerback Reggie Rutland, middle linebacker Scott Studwell, running back Darrin Nelson and Lewis—came to terms on contracts during the first two weeks of the preseason, the negotiations left them, and the rest of the Vikings, drained and bitter. They saw that Stud-well, a 13-year veteran, had to go to the wall to squeeze out a $500,000 salary. "It was money, money, money, every day," says Lee. "Guys were saying, 'Money is all I care about.' "
Normally passive tight end Steve Jordan was transformed into a vocal militant by his negotiations, which dragged out until Sept. 6, when he signed a $2.1 million three-year contract. Safety Joey Browner, a black belt in Bugei Kai Bujutsu, threatened to quit football and take up acting in martial arts movies. Browner, who was coming off his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl season, wanted a $1 million annual salary instead of the $350,000 he was scheduled to make. Lynn refused; Browner said he wanted out. Defensive end Chris Doleman, who was to pull down $400,000 in 1989 but wanted to be compensated like fellow Pro Bowl end Bruce Smith of the Buffalo Bills ($1.2 million), angrily broke off his negotiations, saying he would test the free-agent waters in February '90. Star wide receiver Anthony Carter, who was to earn $450,000, demanded to be traded unless he was raised to $1 million. Doleman, Browner and Carter have yet to sign new contracts.
The bad feelings toward Lynn intensified when the Vikings traveled to Memphis to play the Kansas City Chiefs in their first preseason game. The day before the game, Lynn threw a lavish party for his friends and the press at his Holly Springs mansion. Two Minneapolis TV stations broadcast live from the shindig, and one interspersed its reports with footage from Gone with the Wind. Several black players were upset by the juxtaposition of the movie's Civil War and slavery scenes with Lynn's party. They jumped to the conclusion that Lynn had grown up in the South, and they wondered if he was racially biased.
Even though they routed the Houston Oilers 38-7 in the season opener, the Vikings' morale remained low. They then lost 38-7 to the Bears and 27-14 to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Linebacker Jesse Solomon, who held out all of training camp before signing a one-year deal, designed T-shirts and caps emblazoned with the slogan 45 FOR 1.
"It's a takeoff on the team's theme this season, 40 for 60, which means 40 guys playing all out for 60 minutes," says Solomon, who was sent to the Cowboys in the Walker deal. "My slogan, 45 for 1, means 45 playing for one—Mike Lynn."
To help ward off an avalanche of ill will, Burns called a players-only meeting on Sept. 25. It was a disaster. Several Vikings worried aloud that money issues were keeping the team from focusing on football. Lee pointed a finger at Wilson's contract and implied that Wilson's negotiations had gone quickly because Wilson is white. Then Lee, Solomon and Doleman discussed why they felt that management was racist.
Burns appointed Lee and Jordan to discuss the players' feelings with Lynn, and several meetings ensued. Lynn decided it was time to show a more human side. He reminded Lee and Jordan that he was from Scranton, Pa., not the South. And he told them that he came from a working-class background. When he was 12, his father died of a brain tumor, and a few weeks later his mother was severely injured in a car accident. She and her four children were forced to subsist on a $30-a-month welfare check. Lynn told the players that he moved to Memphis, as a theater manager, in 1962, and that he later was active in the integration of movie houses, staged two historic football games involving four black colleges and worked to register black voters.