ONE HAT TOO MANY
Coach Dennis Green has stumbled as the Vikings' personnel chief
One morning during last week's NFL annual meetings in Palm
Beach, Fla., Dennis Green sat down, smiling, to a breakfast of
eggs and sausage. "We've had a great off-season," he said. While
his demeanor was decidedly sunny-side up, his eggs were
Even though he has coached the Vikings into the playoffs in
seven of his eight seasons, Green has failed time and again
since taking over as the team's top personnel man, in early
1999. Since their 49-37 meltdown against the Rams in an NFC
divisional playoff on Jan. 16, the Vikings have lost two members
of their very good offensive line--center Jeff Christy, who was
a free agent, and 11-time Pro Bowl guard Randall McDaniel, whom
the team released. Worse, both signed with NFC Central rival and
defending division champion Tampa Bay. The Vikings alienated the
quarterback who had a stellar season for them in '99, Jeff
George, by trying to persuade Dan Marino to join them, then by
offering George a one-year deal. As a result Minnesota may go
into next season with Daunte Culpepper, a raw second-year player.
Because of salary-cap constraints, the Vikings have done little
to bolster a mediocre pass rush or otherwise help a pass defense
that ranked 24th in the league last year. Cornerback Jimmy
Hitchcock, who signed a free-agent deal with the Panthers in
February, says many of the Vikings began to doubt Green as a
personnel man last April, when he overruled most of his staff
and used the 11th pick on Culpepper instead of on pass-rushing
defensive end Jevon Kearse, who was chosen 16th by the Titans
and became the league's defensive rookie of the year. Green
compounded his mistake later in the first round by taking
Michigan State defensive end Dimitrius Underwood, who went AWOL
after his first training camp practice, was waived and later
apparently tried to commit suicide. "It's tough when you watch
Kearse play so well," Minnesota wideout Cris Carter said last
week. "We had a veteran team, and veterans think about now. They
don't care about the future."
Now Green is hearing whispers that owner Red McCombs could fire
him if the Vikings don't go far in the playoffs in 2000. But
last week the coach wasn't talking like a man in trouble. "I
never use the word [trouble]," he said. "Positive is a word I
use a lot. Effort is a word I use a lot. I'm not trying to be
macho, but you've got to keep fighting in this game."
Clearly this is a pivotal season for the Vikings. It could be
the final year for the 34-year-old Carter, the team's leader. It
could test Green's commitment to Culpepper. Coming away from the
free-agent market virtually empty-handed makes the April 15-16
draft even more significant for Minnesota, which picks 25th,
55th and 56th in the first two rounds.
"Underwood had serious medical issues we couldn't have known
about before the draft," said Green, though most teams heeded
warnings from those who coached Underwood that he was a problem
player. "But you can't operate on regrets. We hope we don't
swing and miss anymore." A few more misses of that magnitude
could mean the end for Green in the Twin Cities.
SANDERS A RED, MAYBE A SKIN
"Hey, Suspect," Ken Griffey Jr. said to fellow outfielder Deion
Sanders in the Reds' spring training locker room last week. "You
Sanders was indeed playing, despite having to run on a right
knee and ankle that were only about 80% healthy after
arthroscopic surgery on that knee in January. A day after going
from first to third on an infield hit in a minor league game,
Sanders had three hits, including a line-drive triple, and stole
two bases in an intrasquad game. He will open the season on the
disabled list, rehab the leg in Cincinnati and then report to
Triple A Louisville to get into game shape. "After watching him
down here, I'm more convinced than ever that he can help us win
a pennant," says Cincinnati general manager Jim Bowden. "I think
he can be a one-man destructive force." Whether the 32-year-old
Sanders can remain healthy is another issue.
Teammates pepper him with football questions, most notably: Will
Sanders, whom the Cowboys will release for salary-cap reasons on
June 1, play football this year, and if so, for which team?
"After the season, if I have a chance to go to a Super Bowl
contender, I'll go," he says. "I could sign before the
[football] season, or I could see who's giving up 300 passing
yards a game in November."
Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins' player personnel director, had
lunch with Sanders on March 25 in Sarasota. The message:
Washington had signed Bruce Smith and has the second and third
choices in the draft. The Skins are revving up to win now.
"Adding big Bruce and having those two picks is huge," Sanders
says. "With me, Darrell Green and Champ Bailey lining up against
all the three-receiver sets teams play, we'd be unstoppable."
LEAGUE CAN'T BE A BABYSITTER
In the wake of the murder charges against Panthers wideout Rae
Carruth and Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, one of the hottest
topics at the meetings focused on player conduct off the field.
"As a league, we can't be old-school NFL," says Baltimore
defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. "We've got to be like
college teams paying players. We've got to build unity and a
great support system." Owners plan to resume the discussion when
they reconvene in May, and you can expect the league to increase
efforts to assist players, especially in making better decisions
about the company they keep.
One thing's for sure: Regular bowling and bingo nights plus a
full-time chaplain--all Ravens innovations in 1999--didn't keep
Ray Lewis from at least being in the vicinity of a brawl in
which two men were knifed to death in the early-morning hours of
Jan. 31. "What happened to him has happened to so many of our
young stars today," Ravens owner Art Modell says. "Leeches and
hangers-on led him astray."
A GAIN FOR DAYNE
After turning in a 4.54 time in the 40 at a recent workout,
251-pound Heisman-winning running back Ron Dayne of Wisconsin
will probably go in the top half of the first round of the
draft. But many scouts are still concerned that Dayne is slow to
hit the hole and will take too much of a pounding.... The Saints
don't have a first-round pick, but they don't intend to trade
up. "That's because the players from about 15 to 40 in this
draft are nearly the same player," says new coach Jim Haslett,
who has the 33rd selection.... Jets director of football
operations Bill Parcells on scouts' comparing Penn State
linebacker LaVar Arrington to Lawrence Taylor: "He looks like a
great prospect, but the bus station is full of guys once
compared to Lawrence Taylor."
Friends of recently retired Dick Vermeil say he wanted to coach
the Rams again next season but bowed to the wishes of his wife,
Carol, and walked away....
No one paid it much heed, but the league voted at the annual
meetings to split most Internet revenue equally among the 31
teams for at least the next two years. Among the exceptions to
the plan: Teams keep revenue generated by premium portions of
their sites. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, for instance, is
considering placing cameras around his team's complex and having
superfans pay to tune in....
Bills coach Wade Phillips continues to grumble that officials
blew the lateral-pass call that cost his team a wild-card
playoff win against the Titans on Jan. 8, but Buffalo owner
Ralph Wilson will have none of it. "Our season didn't end
because the officials blew the call," Wilson says. "Our season
ended because we didn't cover the kick. Period."...
Cowboys wideout Michael Irvin, who has been advised by team
doctors to retire because of stenosis of the spine, is still
looking for a doctor who will clear him to play in 2000....
The Titans plan to use defensive end Jevon Kearse about 40 plays
a game in 2000, about five more snaps per game than he played as
a rookie. "We'll move him around more, to take advantage of
matchups against blockers who aren't as quick," says Tennessee
coach Jeff Fisher....
Assuming he doesn't beat out Rob Johnson and regain his starting
job, Doug Flutie will be used as a change-of-pace quarterback in