The postseason began for Minnesota coach Mike Tice at 7:15 a.m. on Jan. 3, the day after the Vikings' disappointing 8--8 regular season had ended with a loss to the Redskins. That's when a repentant Randy Moss walked into Tice's office and apologized for leaving the field with time remaining in the Washington game. "I was just so frustrated, Dog," Moss said.
"So was I!" Tice boomed. "But I don't go walking off the field. You've got to learn to channel your anger. You're killing me."
Later that day, stressed by his team's 3-7 finish, the distractions caused by Moss's immaturity and the criticism by the fans and the media that the Vikings had backed into the playoffs, Tice suffered chest pains and summoned team trainers. After checking his vital signs, which were normal, they told him to simmer down. "I must be the only coach in the NFL who makes the playoffs and feels as if he's having a heart attack," Tice said the next day.
The stress, though, was real. According to a Vikings source, if Minnesota had lost to Green Bay--for the third time this season--in their NFC wild-card game, Tice would likely have been fired. "Oh, I knew," Tice, feeling no pain, said on Sunday night, after his team had dominated the Packers and won 31-17. Daunte Culpepper threw four touchdown passes, two to a hobbled Moss (sprained ankle), and the Vikings' secondary picked off four Brett Favre passes. Minnesota advanced to a divisional playoff against NFC top seed Philadelphia this Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.
Moss, however, put added pressure on his coach by creating another controversy. After his second touchdown catch with 10 minutes left sealed the win, Moss ran to the goalpost, simulated pulling his pants down and stuck his rear end at the Green Bay fans, as though mooning them. He then rubbed his butt on the goalpost. "Let's leave it that it's a mystery," Moss said, refusing to provide the interpretation of his charade. Tice said he didn't see Moss's act from the sideline and would leave any disciplinary action to the league, which is sure to fine him.
Lord knows, Tice, 45, deserved a few minutes to enjoy the victory. A favorite target for the fans and the media since replacing Dennis Green three years ago, Tice has a 23-25 record that doesn't measure up to the enormous amount of offensive talent the Vikings put on the field. Critics say it's because Tice, a 6'7", 295pound former NFL tight end, makes poor decisions and coddles his players, particularly Moss. This season he did change the reporting time for Thursday practices, making it an hour earlier (7:15 a.m.) because, he says, "I have a young team that likes to party." The adjusted time was intended to get the players off the street earlier.
Much has been made about Tice's being the lowest-paid NFL coach ($600,000 his first year and $750,000 the last two years), but that contract only enhances his blue-collar image. "At the peak of his earnings, my dad made about $26,000 a year, with five kids," Tice says. "So I'm going to complain about making $1 million in 2005 to coach a game I love? You might think I'm crazy--my wife does--but I am blessed to have the chance to lead a team to the Super Bowl."
On the eve of the wild-card game the last thing Tice said to his underdog team was, "I'm working Monday! Who's working with me?" It turned out to be all 53 guys, and they saved their coach's job. --Peter King
DR. Z'S FORECAST: VIKINGS vs. EAGLES
I'M NOT SURE Randy Moss's ankle will be right. Even if it is, I still like the Eagles. I think the Philadelphia secondary will control things against Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who has had a magnificent season. The Eagles' offense might take a while to get the kinks out because some of the starters will have gone almost a month without game action, but Philly wins it.