Vikings new team, in victory or defeat

JOHN EISENBERG

December 07, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

PHILADELPHIA -- The big crowd was quiet now in the chilly dusk, and the players on the Minnesota Vikings bench were gathered at the edge of the sideline, imploring their offense to be big.

"At that moment," said Vikings running back Terry Allen, "you couldn't have told one of us that we weren't going to win the ballgame."

The offense had boiled an 11-point Philadelphia Eagles lead down to four with a long touchdown drive on its last possession, and now, with five minutes left yesterday at Veterans Stadium, it had the ball back, first down, 70 yards to the end zone.

"We heard the [Eagles] fans all quiet," Allen said. "We knew everyone was real uptight. We figured we were headed right down the field."

On the first play, the Eagles' Seth Joyner intercepted a swing pass and returned it for a touchdown.

Oops.

"But you have to understand," Allen said after the Eagles' 28-17 win. "A year ago, we never would have come back and been in position to win like that. When we got down last year, we just let it go."

The Vikings went 8-8 last season and remained the popular choice as the NFL's most consistently disappointing team. Loaded with Pro Bowl talent, empty of measurable heart, they were in dire need of an emotional rescue. Then the front office made a coaching change, hiring Dennis Green away from Stanford to replace the retiring Jerry Burns.

"I was real excited when I heard we'd hired a black head coach," said Allen, two years removed from Clemson. "Not to sound militant, but it's something new and good for my people. But, beyond that, I didn't know much about him. I didn't know what we were getting. Well, I found out."

Ten months later, the Vikings have a 9-4 record. They're a win away from their first outright division title since 1976. And no one is talking about Green being a black coach.

"He's just a coach, and a very good coach at that," said Allen, who is closing in on a 1,000-yard season. "He's brought in a new system and given us a new attitude. You come to practice now, and you feel like you know what's going on."

Sometimes, when a team turns around with a new coach or manager, it's hard to say if the coach or his players deserve more of the credit. But everyone knows in this case. The Vikings would still be doddering with Burns.

Burns' problems were that he couldn't keep the locker room from splitting into cliques, and refused to rework the offense for Herschel Walker after the GM traded half the state to get him. The Vikings offense was a study in disorganization.

Green installed the Redskins' basic offense and almost instantly quashed the divisiveness. He flat-out cut Walker and safety Joey Browner, the latter a team leader whose performance had slipped. The message was simple: No one was safe, so you better get serious about what matters.

"It's not that he [Green] is a disciplinarian at all," Allen said, "but there are a lot of guys on this team who like to joke around, and he makes it clear that he doesn't like that at all. It's a serious, organized atmosphere. And you always know where you stand. He can be nice or mad. There's no mystery. Players like that. With Burnsie, we didn't always know."

Green's system has worked from the first day. The Vikings went 5-0 in preseason and began the regular season 4-1. Before yesterday's loss, they had a three-game lead in the NFC Central.

Of course, their true merit is still not so obvious. Their division became the worst in football when the Bears and Lions fell apart after making the playoffs a year ago. They're just 1-3 against teams with winning records. And they do not have the big-league quarterback a Super Bowl contender needs. Green's choice is Rich Gannon or Sean Salisbury. Ouch.

Someone asked Green about all this after yesterday's game. He was standing on an elevated podium in an interview room, hands in pockets, eyes staring at the far wall, belly bulging inside his winter jacket. Sorry, no sociology today. Just football.

"We've got a good team," he said. "Remember, the Eagles haven't lost here all year. It's a real tough place to play. We'll be fine next week."

Next week is the 49ers. At home in the Metrodome. A valid barometer if ever there was one. The Vikings could get clobbered. And probably won't.

"I think it's important for a black head coach to succeed when he gets a chance," Terry Allen said. "But what's really important to us right now is that we're finally on a winning team again."

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