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Can Dennis Green Rescue The Vikings?

Aug. 17, 1992
Aug. 17, 1992

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Aug. 17, 1992

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NFL Questions

Can Dennis Green Rescue The Vikings?

That's No. 1 on this summer's list of questions to be answered in NFL training camps

When Dennis Green got his first college head coaching job, at Northwestern in 1981, he walked to the front of the team's meeting room and told the players what he expected of them. "If you don't put the team first," he said, "I'll treat you like a cancer. I'll cut you out." He has delivered the same message to the Minnesota Vikings.

This is an article from the Aug. 17, 1992 issue Original Layout

An NFL head coach for all of seven months, Green nevertheless has purged from the moribund Vikings four former Pro Bowl players who had created more discord than triumph in recent seasons. Waived were quarterback Wade Wilson, running back Herschel Walker and safety Joey Browner, while defensive tackle Keith Millard was sent packing to the Seattle Seahawks for a second-round pick and future considerations. The only big names left on the Minnesota roster are wideout Anthony Carter and underachieving pass rusher Chris Doleman, and there aren't any young players on the verge of stardom.

What the Vikings do have is Green—Dale Carnegie with a scalpel. After six years with the passive Jerry Burns as their coach, the Minnesota players must adjust to the fervor exuded by Green, an Iowa alumnus who counted himself among the rookies at an early July minicamp and sang his college fight song to the team after a practice. "I like Denny," says the departed Millard, a high-strung former NFC Defensive Player of the Year who missed almost all of the past two seasons with a knee injury. "I just hope he's not slitting his throat with all this college rah-rah stuff. Rah-rah doesn't win football games, talent does. And there are a lot of guys there who definitely aren't rah-rah."

What's worse, a lot of guys there definitely aren't very talented. Minnesota hasn't had a first-round pick in the NFL draft since 1988, and it also didn't have a second-round pick in '90 or '91. Defensive end Robert Harris, out of Southern University, was the Vikings' second-round pick this year, and he probably will see action as a nickel pass rusher as soon as the season starts. Minnesota, in effect, lost a football generation of potential standout players, mostly as a result of the horribly misguided trade for Walker in 1989 (box, page 86).

Instead of riding on Walker's ample shoulders to the Super Bowl, the Vikings went 21-23, with no postseason wins, in the 2½ years he was with the team. "Devastating" is the word Kansas City Chief CEO Carl Peterson uses to describe the deal. "Trading so many high picks," says Peterson, "is the greatest way of driving a franchise to its knees."

And so Green talks of needing instant production from players such as tight end Mike Jones and linebacker Carlos Jenkins, third-round picks in 1990 and '91, respectively, as well as defensive back Todd Scott, a sixth-round pick in 1990. Trouble is, Jones has two career catches, and Jenkins is a little small (220 pounds) to play outside linebacker in the run-oriented NFC Central. Nevertheless, Jenkins played so well during the opening weeks of camp and in Minnesota's first preseason game—a 24-3 win over the Buffalo Bills last Saturday night—that Green is considering moving strongside linebacker Mike Merriweather to the weak side to make room for Jenkins in the starting lineup. And in Scott, who effectively roamed from sideline to sideline against the Bills in his debut as a strong safety, the Vikings figure they have a more productive player than Browner was the past two seasons.

Even though his team plays in a weak division, Green may have a bigger job than he figured when he left Stanford, after having taken a 3-8 team in 1989 to 8-4 and the Aloha Bowl in 1991. "We're not going to be an organization of excuse-makers," Green says. "There are other ways to get players than from the draft. Look at Washington's defense, with all the Plan B guys [four starters]. We have to be real aggressive in getting players and in coaching them, and we have to be bold."

The next guy out the door could be Doleman, who stumbled to a seven-sack season in '91 and probably has one year to convince the new coaching staff that he still has the desire to be a premier pass rusher. And Green must energize an offense that has been plagued in recent years by marginal play at quarterback. The inconsistent incumbent, Rich Gannon, lacks the deep arm that Green likes in his quarterbacks, and Gannon didn't help himself with an 18-day contract holdout, which ended just last Saturday. Green now will hold an open competition between Gannon and backup Sean Salisbury, who completed 19 of 33 passes for 251 yards and a touchdown against Buffalo. Salisbury didn't take a regular-season snap in his first two years as a pro, but he impressed the new Minnesota coaching staff with his grasp of the offense and his ability to hit deep targets Anthony and Cris Carter. Then there's the thin talent at running back, where Plan B pickup Roger Craig will be a bit player and Terry Allen (563 rushing yards in '91) will carry most of the load.

Maybe Green should have taken the players on the road with him when he made more than 100 speeches throughout Minnesota trying to fire up fans sick of their team's annual nosedive. "Fans," Green says, "are taking a wait-and-see attitude. They don't think we have the courage to do what we have to do."

As that wise old philosopher Millard might have said, courage won't win at Soldier Field in Chicago; talent will. Green ought to know that from his days at Northwestern, where he went 10-45 in five seasons. For now, give him credit for cleaning house and giving himself half a chance to start fresh.

2. Can the Eagle defense keep it together without Jerome Brown?

During a recent meeting for the defense at the Philadelphia Eagles' training camp, defensive coordinator Bud Carson put on a videotape from last year and pointed out a great move by defensive tackle Jerome Brown—and the room went silent. "Unbelievable silence," Carson says. "You could have cut the tension in there with a knife. Very eerie."

In 1991 the Eagles had the best rush defense, the best pass defense, the most sacks and the most fumbles forced in the league. And in the off-season, they had the most impact on the New York Giants' starting lineup: Unable to keep Brown and defensive ends Reggie White and Clyde Simmons out of their backfield, the Giants announced they would juggle their offensive line last spring for the express purpose of winning their two games a season against NFC East rival Philadelphia. But now that Eagle defense must try to dominate without Brown, who died in an automobile accident on June 25. It's a thought that makes Carson, even when he's on his eighth cup of coffee of the day, sedate. "It'll be a miracle if we play like last year," Carson says. "Our defense has a delicate makeup right now. With Jerome gone, you have to look at the facts."

The facts: Brown, the right tackle, was the most important player in the Eagles' run defense because he could take on the strongest guards or tackles in the league and, at the very least, fight them to a draw. He could also penetrate the great sweeping lines, like Washington's, with quickness that was astonishing for a 300-pounder. The Redskins averaged 3.9 yards per rush in the last two years against the rest of the league, but only 3.2 yards against the Eagles. Brown was the primary reason.

"Jerome was good for three to five be-hind-the-line plays a game," says Eagle defensive tackle Mike Golic. Brown, Golic and Mike Pitts were a three-man rotation at the two tackles last year, with Brown playing about 75% of the time. Now Pitts and Golic are expected to man the positions full-time, unless Philly, which gave up a total of 74 points in its first two preseason games, can make a deal with the Chicago Bears for fat defensive tackle William Perry. If that trade doesn't happen, the Eagles will take their chances with Pitts, 31, who is playing on a surgically repaired left knee and has recurring back spasms, and Golic, 29, who is as dogged a player as there is in the league but doesn't have Brown's strength or quickness. "Jerome's specialty was knifing in and disrupting," Golic says. "We've got to find somebody to do that now."

White says the first time he looked in Brown's locker after the accident, he wanted to cry. "The question is," White says, "Will we let it pull us down, or will it cause us to push to the top?"

That's the question of the year in the NFC East.

3. How badly do the Bills need a healthy Bruce Smith?

Playing almost all of last season without franchise defensive end Bruce Smith, the Buffalo Bills once again blew through the AFC East and returned to the Super Bowl, allowing only 21 points in two playoff games. So who needs him, right?

The Bills, that's who. The Bills' defense plummeted from eighth in the NFL in 1990, when Smith had a career-high 19 sacks, to 27th last year, when he had a bum left knee and 1½ sacks in only five regular-season games. Then, in the Super Bowl, the Washington Redskins' offensive line manhandled the Buffalo defense, including Smith.

Sure, injuries to other starters on Buffalo's defensive front—nosetackle Jeff Wright missed seven games, and end Leon Seals played hurt most of last season—cut into the Bills' invincibility, but you can write this down: Without Smith the Bills' pass rush intimidates no one, and without Smith the Bills don't have a chance to win the Super Bowl.

"Bruce is to the Bills what Ronnie Lott was to the 49ers," says one AFC personnel director. "Bruce makes everyone around him better, like Lott did, because teams constantly worry about where he is. You watch the films of Buffalo's games without Smith, and the quarterbacks are more comfortable in the pocket."

Smith had arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips from his troublesome left knee in March—the second such procedure in eight months—and he's still not whole. The plan was for Smith to be examined this week by Dr. Richard Steadman, who performed the surgery in March, and then for Steadman to advise the Bills as to when Smith could finally begin practicing. Smith swears he'll be ready to play in the Sept. 6 opener against the Los Angeles Rams, and he flexes his knee to show you why. "A year ago my knee sounded like Rice Krispies popping," Smith says. "I don't hear the snap, crackle and pop anymore. What's different from last year is we're not rushing anything, and there's no shifting sensation in the knee. It's perfectly sound."

A whole region of frustrated fans is counting on it.

4. Are the Lions serious Super Bowl contenders?

The Detroit Lions were the biggest surprise of the 1991 season—they went 12-4 and advanced to the NFC Championship Game, where they were whacked 41-10 by the Redskins. But their newfound spirit and confidence have been crushed by events of the past eight months, so much so that if they reached the Super Bowl this year, it would be nearly as shocking as it was to see them playing for the conference championship in '91.

The offensive line is in disarray after the late-season injury that paralyzed guard Mike Utley and the death of guard Eric Andolsek in June. And coach Wayne Fontes is still struggling to get over the death of his older brother Len, Detroit's defensive backfield coach, who suffered a massive heart attack in May.

Less traumatic, but disruptive just the same, were several other developments: Convinced they couldn't beat teams like Washington and the San Francisco 49ers without a more physical offense, the Lions hired a new offensive architect, former Atlanta Falcon and San Diego Charger coach Dan Henning, who plans to frequently replace two wide receivers with tight ends in the Lions' four-receiver set. Erik Kramer, who replaced injury-prone quarterback Rodney Peete when the team was 5-2 and guided the Lions into the postseason, likely will wind up back on the bench until Peete gets hurt again. The best kicker in Detroit history, Eddie Murray, was waived in April in favor of second-round draft pick Jason Hanson, who converted an NCAA-record 20 kicks of more than 50 yards at Washington State. And the Lions' best pass rusher, 32-year-old Michael Cofer, is coming back from knee surgery that sidelined him for most of last season.

"We have to pass a lot of tests," says linebacker Chris Spielman. "Nothing's a given for us this year."

The offense, especially. Ken Dallafior has been released six times (two of those by USFL teams) in his 10 years as a pro, and Shane Bouwens, from that noted football power Nebraska Wesleyan, has never started an NFL game, but they're penciled in to replace Utley and Andolsek. And Henning wants to use Plan B free agent Jimmie Johnson and third-round pick Thomas McLemore liberally at tight end, sometimes lining them up as slot receivers in the run-and-shoot. Henning also wants running back Barry Sanders, who has rushed for 4,322 yards in three seasons, to be more of a receiving threat. Sanders caught 41 passes in 1991; the Lions hope he can catch 60 this year. "Our offense is the same product," Fontes says. "We're not changing the philosophy. We're getting bigger, so we can beat the teams we need to beat."

As for Peete, who missed the first eight days of camp in a contract dispute, he showed no lingering effects from his Achilles injury in playing most of the first half of a 17-7 loss to the Houston Oilers last Saturday night. He completed six of nine passes for 56 yards, including a 21-yarder to McLemore.

The on-field adjustments should be a welcome distraction from the stress this team has undergone in the past eight months. When the full squad came together for the first time at training camp, Fontes gave a 30-minute speech urging his players to put the tragedies behind them. At the end he raised his voice, saying, "We can't let this hurt our team. No excuses, guys, goddam it!"

Afterward he sat with a reporter and talked for two hours about the three incidents, in particular about the pain of losing his big brother. Awakened at 4 a.m. on May 8 by an urgent phone call for help from Len's wife, Mimi, Wayne rushed to his brother's nearby house. There he found Len lifeless. Wayne straddled his brother's body and massaged his chest, then tried CPR. Nothing worked. An ambulance got there a few minutes later, but nothing could be done.

Sitting in the lobby of the Lions' offices at the Silverdome after everyone else had gone home for the night, Fontes began crying as he recounted the events of that terrible morning. No matter how many days have passed or how many ways his priest has told him he couldn't have done more for his brother, the NFL's Coach of the Year last season is a shaken man these days. "I drive home at night and miss my street. Just drive right by it," he says. "I'm scared to close my eyes at night. I just can't get it out of my mind. If I could just shake that night, I'd be O.K. But I can't."

5. Is Dave Krieg the answer for the quarterback-starved Chiefs?

It was a curious move by Kansas City, the Plan B signing of Dave Krieg, 33, to replace quarterback Steve DeBerg, 38, who went the Plan B route to Tampa Bay. Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer goes apoplectic on the sideline when his team turns the ball over, and now he has the NFL's turnover champion. Krieg has averaged 2.1 giveaways per game in his 12-year career and has led the league with a total of 132 fumbles and interceptions over the past five years.

Relying on a Mack-truck ground attack and a capable defense, Kansas City has had the look of a Super Bowl contender entering each of the past two seasons but hasn't yet made it as far as the AFC Championship Game. Krieg's job is to give the Chiefs a better downfield passing game than they had with DeBerg, but without turning the ball over. That won't be easy, because Krieg's going from the controlled climate of the Kingdome in Seattle to the weather-whipped plains of Missouri. Six of the Chiefs' last eight games will be outdoors, east of the Rockies. "It'll be interesting to see how he handles weather," Seattle director of player personnel Mike Allman says. "Counting the Los Angeles and San Diego road games, he was guaranteed 10 of 16 good-weather games a year while he was here."

"I don't like to dwell on the negatives," says Krieg. "I just want to play smart football. The Chiefs are very close to winning it all, and they want a very solid player at the quarterback position." Krieg was solid in his Kansas City debut, completing 12 straight passes in one first-half stretch of a 21-13 loss to the Green Bay Packers last Saturday night. He wound up completing 18 of 26 pass attempts for 157 yards and one touchdown—and had no interceptions or fumbles.

"We're not asking Dave Krieg to come in and win the Super Bowl for us," says the Chiefs' Peterson. "The biggest negative we debated on him was the fumbles, but we studied lots of film and concluded that many of them happened when he was trying to make a play by himself, maybe trying to do too much. Here, the onus won't be on him to make something happen every play. Our emphasis is handing the ball off."

"Every team wants the quarterback to minimize errors," Krieg says. "Chuck Knox [the former Seattle coach] wanted mistake-free football, too."

He didn't get it.

6. Will Tom Flores finally cast his own coaching shadow?

For nine years, Tom Flores lived with the knowledge that managing general partner Al Davis, and not Flores, was perceived to be coach of the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders. Joe Gibbs coached the Redskins. Chuck Noll coached the Pittsburgh Steelers. But Flores was seen as the on-field extension of Davis, the Raiders' sky box puppeteer. "Everybody who knows anything about football knows I made the tough calls on third-and-one," Flores says. "I said go for it on fourth-and-inches. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want some credit for winning two Super Bowls with the Raiders. But I can't change the image. The image is made."

Five years after he walked off the Raider sideline for the last time, Flores has returned to coaching, taking over field command of the Seahawks in addition to his duties as Seattle's general manager. At one of his first practices this summer, it was as if he had never left the coaching profession—chewing gum, his hand to his face, a calm settling over him.

"He's the same quiet guy," says Seahawk safety Vann McElroy, who played under Flores with the Raiders from 1982 to '87. "You don't know where he is, and all of a sudden he's there, beside you. The one change I see is that he's a man much more in control, a man calling every shot. He even smiles occasionally now."

Flores knows that how the Seahawks turn out in the next few seasons—they were 7-9 last year after seasons of 9-7, 7-9 and 9-7—will have a great impact on how he will be remembered. He'll still do things the Raider way on the field: throwing deep with one of his young strong-armed quarterbacks, Kelly Stouffer or Dan McGwire; ramming the ball right at the defense with backs John L. Williams and Rueben Mayes, who has come out of retirement and is running well in camp. But Flores will need patience. On paper, the Seahawks aren't good enough to win a Super Bowl anytime soon. Personnel at quarterback, linebacker and offensive line positions still need to be developed.

But Flores says he hasn't come back in order to prove what a great coach he is. It's just that he missed the game preparation on Saturday nights and the Sunday morning buildup to the kickoff. "I missed being in battle," Flores says. His first mission is to instill some Raider traits in a team that has been mentally tough, as the Raiders are, but has lacked a great passer and an intimidating defense. Flores likes the fact that both Stouffer and McGwire have arms that opposing defenses will have to respect. And if tackles Cortez Kennedy and Keith Millard stay healthy, the Seahawks will have a defensive core with ferocity unmatched in the NFL.

And what about Davis, the shadow, now an AFC West rival? "He's a very dear friend," Flores says. "When I called him and told him what I was going to do, he thought I was nuts."

View this article in the original magazine

PHOTOTOM LYNNNow that he has cleaned house, Green is keeping an eye out for talent.PHOTOTOM LYNNHarris was the Vikings' highest pick since '89.PHOTOTOM LYNNThe Chiefs want Krieg's passing skills but not his troubling tendency to turn the ball over.

Good Things Don't Come to Those Who Sit and Wait

On Oct. 12, 1989, the Vikings traded their first- and second-round picks in both the 1990 and '91 drafts, plus their first-round choice in the '92 draft, to the Cowboys in the Herschel Walker deal. While Minnesota, which finished 8-8 in 1991, was sitting out those five rounds, the six NFC teams that qualified for the playoffs last season were drafting players who should contribute for years to come. (Projected 1992 starters in capital letters.)

TEAM (1991 RECORD)

1990 DRAFT
Rounds 1 and 2

1991 DRAFT
Rounds 1 and 2

1992 DRAFT
Round 1

Washington (14-2)

LB ANDRE COLLINS

DT Bobby Wilson

WR Desmond Howard

Dallas (11-5)

QB Steve Walsh†
RB EMMITT SMITH
WR Alexander Wright

DT RUSSELL MARYLAND
WR ALVIN HARPER
LB Dixon Edwards

CB KEVIN SMITH
LB ROBERT JONES

Detroit (12-4)

QB Andre Ware
DE DAN OWENS

WR HERMAN MOORE
DL Kelvin Pritchett

DL Robert Porcher

Chicago (11-5)

S MARK CARRIER
DT Fred Washington*
LB RON COX

T STAN THOMAS
DT CHRIS ZORICH

DE Alonzo Spellman

New Orleans (11-5)

DE Renaldo Turnbull
CB VINCE BUCK

WR WESLEY CARROLL

RB Vaughan Dunbar

Atlanta (10-6)

RB Steve Broussard
LB DARION CONNER

CB BRUCE PICKENS
WR MIKE PRITCHARD
QB Brett Favre†

T BOB WHITFIELD
RB Tony Smith

*Killed in auto accident during the 1990 season.
†Later traded for draft picks