For the Minnesota Vikings the Dennis Green era began on Sunday, rocket-propelled out of perhaps the greatest preseason an NFL team has ever had, filled with the promise that years of unfulfilled potential would finally be realized, and all thanks to the burly, blustery guy who wears the headphones on the sidelines. It began under a leaden sky on a gridiron soaked with rain and history, Lambeau Field in Green Bay. It was opening day for the new Vikings, and the game was decided, not by an orgy of strategic brilliance but by...a draw play. A plain old draw. In overtime. On second-and-eight, which is when fans usually boo draw plays, those boring things that pick up two or three yards.
Not this time. It gained 45 for Terry Allen, the flashy little Minnesota halfback who ran from the Viking 44 to the Packer 11. Two plays later Fuad Reveiz kicked a 26-yard field goal, and that was it. Minnesota over Green Bay, 23-20.
Jubilation in the locker room? High fives? Uh-uh. Business. "Our guys hung together real well," Green said calmly. "They hung together for 60, make that 70, minutes."
A draw play. The Packer defenders, expecting a pass, were rushing upfield. The Minnesota guards, Adam Schreiber and Randall McDaniel, turned their guys outside, center Kirk Lowdermilk screened the middle linebacker, wideout Hassan Jones made a key block downfield. That's the way it's supposed to work.
"Surprised 'em," said Allen, who rushed for 140 yards against Green Bay. "Surprised me, too. We hadn't worked on it all week. I hadn't run it one time in practice. Did you run it, Darrin?"
"Uh-uh," running back Darrin Nelson said, smiling. A kind of sad smile actually. Green recruited Nelson out of high school and was his position coach at Stanford for two years. Nelson likes what he sees on the 1992 Vikings, and he knows he might be in on the start of something significant—but, at 33, he might not be around for its full fruition.
"This is the best kind of game we could have been in," he said. "A tough game that could have gone either way. We needed one like this. After the preseason that we had—outscoring the other teams 140 to 6—guys were starting to get a little cocky, especially the younger guys. They didn't realize what it was all about."
And what is it all about? The last time Minnesota won a road opener was nine years ago, and this time the Vikings had to slug it out in an overtime in which neither team did anything on its first three possessions. And it was against, well, Green Bay—courageous to be sure, very well coached by Mike Holmgren, who also was making his NFL coaching debut, but not exactly a defending champion.
Nelson is a veteran of the seesaw, and sometimes bizarre, ride taken by this Minnesota team. He caught the last two years of the Bud Grant era (1982 and '83)—let the veterans alone, they're men, let them work at their own pace—and saw a once-proud franchise slip into mediocrity. He was around for Les Steckel and his military precision drill team, and the 3-13 record it produced; around for Grant's one-year return; around for the Jerry Burns days, a return to relaxation, high hopes followed by creeping lethargy. The big slide came in 1990, the year that general manager Mike Lynn tried to instill togetherness by having everyone walk a tightrope across a canyon as a motivational gimmick. Ten losses that year.
The Vikings have had five coaches in their 32-year history, and Nelson has played for four of them. This year he was ready to work as an assistant at Stanford under Bill Walsh, his college coach for two years (1977 and '78), until Green asked him to come back to Minnesota. And he did, because maybe, just maybe, something special was going to happen.
But what is it that Green brings to the job? "Continuity, I hope," Nelson said. "I've seen so many different systems and approaches here. Denny's an open book. He doesn't try to hide anything. But with him it's definitely his way or the highway."
Green describes himself as "dogmatic with a smile." His offense is the Washington Redskins' system, brought in by coordinator Jack Burns, who was the Skins' receivers coach. One back, three wideouts and one tight end; sometimes three tight ends and one wideout. The fourth-quarter touchdown drive Minnesota put together on Sunday was pure Redskin stuff: a 20-yard pass to Jones out of the Explode Package (three wideouts breaking out of a pack); a 51-yard dash over right tackle by Allen on the old Redskin counter-trey, with the left tackle and guard pulling to lead; and then a four-yard TD pass to Jones on a crossing pattern out of the three-wide set for a 20-17 lead.
Green's defense is the old Minnesota style taught by former Viking defensive coordinator Floyd Peters—hit the gaps, penetrate, rush upfield and pick up the run on the go. "We're a charging team," Green says. "Our mentality is to hit the traps and take the line of scrimmage, not sit back and read. Behind that we play a zone defense."
On Sunday the defense got off to a rough start. Holmgren's offense, a mirror of the attack he coached as the San Francisco 49er coordinator for three years, put together a 17-play, 84-yard scoring march on its first possession. Then the Vikings settled down. In overtime they held the Packers to a trio of three-and-out series. Green Bay's net yardage for those three possessions: minus seven. Minnesota had taken the line of scrimmage.
It will be a long road. Green can take the club only so far; talent must do the rest. One thing he made clear early on: His door is always open to the players. You got a complaint, come see the coach first. But what happens then?
"Well, one time it did work," Nelson said Sunday. "Just recently we had this big brouhaha. We were getting charged $5 for the lunches in the cafeteria. We had a team meeting about it. Coach Green said, 'O.K., you get breakfast thrown in, too...I must be getting soft.' "
Soft? We'll see. Right now the Dennis Green era is 1-0.