To many Minnesota Viking players, general manager Mike Lynn has long had a reputation as a miserly version of the Wizard of Oz. He's the invisible authority figure who decides destinies with a wave of his hand. "When I joined the team, the veterans took me aside and said, 'That's Mike Lynn. He's the guy you have to worry about,' " says cornerback Carl Lee, a seven-year veteran. "Players on this team are conditioned to fear him."
Until recently, Lynn, 53, did little to dispel this image. He's the only general manager in the league who doesn't attend training camp. He never goes to practice, and until the last few weeks he avoided the locker room on game days. With an estimated annual salary of $1.5 million, Lynn is one of the highest-paid executives in the league. He wears expensive suits purchased at Fred Hay-man of Beverly Hills and owns a national historic landmark mansion in Holly Springs, Miss., where Ulysses S. Grant lived with his family while preparing for the Vicksburg Campaign.
But share the wealth? No way. Lynn regularly boasts about his low player payroll. Going into this season, the Vikings ranked 18th in the league in pay. His rookie wage scale, with its year-and-an-option contracts, cheap salaries and minuscule signing bonuses, is legendary. According to NFL Players Association figures, a rookie who signs with Minnesota is almost invariably the lowest paid of the players drafted in a given round.
One of Lynn's standard lines to agents during stalled negotiations is, "Tell your guy, 'Good luck driving a truck.' " As if that's not insulting enough, when Lynn finally gets the player's name on the dotted line, he brags about how he signed the poor stiff for much less than the market rate.
Lynn offers no apology for his way of doing business. "I'm not here to win a popularity contest," he says. "My most important function is the acquisition of players. Once they're signed, they're the responsibility of the head coach. They're working for him. That has always been my management style."
But during this year's training camp and the early part of the 1989 season, Lynn's impersonal style backfired, tearing apart a team that many observers had favored to win the NFC title. That crisis of bad feelings, which included charges of racism against Lynn, now seems to have passed, and Lynn has made an effort to be more sensitive to his players. A team that appeared on the verge of collapse a few weeks ago has recovered, perhaps remarkably, to win six of its last seven games and knock the Chicago Bears out of first place in the NFC Central division for the first time in 5½ seasons.
That doesn't mean the Vikings aren't struggling on the field. They'll show flashes of brilliance and then appear to lack leadership and direction. The Vikes' 24-10 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday was typical of their play this season. They won with defense—seven sacks and a fumble return for a touchdown—and a sputtering offense that ranks 19th in the league. They sustained only one long drive, though it was the clincher, a 76-yarder that consumed nearly eight minutes of the fourth quarter.
Running back Herschel Walker, who has had one spectacular performance—148 yards against Green Bay—since arriving from the Cowboys on Oct. 12, rushed for only 48 yards. At the moment, coach Jerry Burns considers Walker the team's third most effective back, behind Alfred Anderson and Rick Fenney, in trap-block plays. Before the Walker trade, the Vikings ran a split-back offense and used primarily trap and sweep blocking in short-yardage situations. Walker, however, prefers to line up in the I formation and has little experience running behind traps. Eventually, Burns says, Minnesota will run more than half its plays from the I.
Quarterback Wade Wilson, who had the NFL's highest completion percentage last season, has also had trouble getting in sync with the offense. He missed four starts with a broken knuckle on his left ring finger and hasn't thrown well since his return to the starting lineup two weeks ago. Against Tampa Bay, he wound up tied with Fenney for the team lead in rushing yardage. And in a 23-21 overtime victory over Los Angeles on Nov. 5, Minnesota scored all its points on seven field goals and a safety.
With six games to go, the Vikings are 7-3 but remain a question mark instead of a sure thing: a fabulously talented group of players who haven't dominated their opponents the way they were supposed to. "We're just not a team that's used to winning a lot," says wide receiver Leo Lewis. "We haven't quite come together. There have been periods in games when we haven't shown much emotion. We're missing a leader."