Trying to stay afloat

Despite a boat scandal and major injuries to key players, coach Mike Tice has kept the Vikings in the playoff chase


EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- So late night TV host Jay Leno comes on for his monologue and the Minnesota Vikings are in the midst of the Love Boat scandal in which several players were accused of sexcapades during a charter cruise on Lake Minnetonka in October.

And, of course, the Vikings are headed for a 2-5 start.

"That's the only offensive thing the Vikings have done all season," Leno quips. Guffaws all around.

That pretty much sums up the first half of Minnesota's year as both the butt of comedians' jokes and the target of fan disdain.

Through it all, coach Mike Tice wrestled with the control stick of a team, attempting to pull it out of a downward spiral. And somehow, going into tomorrow's game against the Ravens (5-9), Tice has managed to do just that, with the Vikings (8-6) still clinging to playoff hopes.

"This is the first year in my life I didn't read the newspapers, I didn't watch the shows and I missed a lot of that," Tice said earlier in the week about the barrage of insults being tossed at the underachieving Vikings.

"Did I know it was going on? Absolutely. I think with my New York Type-A personality and with me being a little sensitive, I'm glad I chose this year not to [pay attention] because it might have driven me a little crazy."

The charter boat incident, which led to misdemeanor charges earlier this month against four Vikings, including injured quarterback Daunte Culpepper, was the low point in a series of Minnesota difficulties dating to last season.

The list included:

Problems with temperamental star receiver Randy Moss, who was traded to the Oakland Raiders in the offseason.

The yearlong suspension of Onterrio Smith, the team's leading rusher in 2004, for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.

The admission by Tice that he had scalped his Super Bowl tickets.

Season-ending injuries to Pro Bowl center Matt Birk and playmaker Culpepper.

Also a precipitous drop in offensive production - after averaging 25 points last season, the Vikings are scoring about 18 points a game in 2005 - and a change in ownership.

But it was the Oct. 6 boat incident, where as many as 30 players were in attendance, although not all were implicated in sex acts, which put the team in the harshest light.

"There was a three-week span where it just about tore our team apart, during the bye week [when the cruise occurred], during the Chicago week [a 28-3 loss on Oct. 16]. I could sense that the team was in shock," Tice said.

"There were a lot of little huddles going on; there were a lot of guys with their chins on the ground, a lot of guys walking with drooped shoulders. And there was a lot of anger in the building because, you know, not everyone was on the boat but we were all lumped in one kettle."

It was at that point when Tice, a former University of Maryland quarterback who played 14 years in the NFL as a tight end, was able to draw on his own recent brush with league rules about reselling Super Bowl tickets at a profit. The NFL fined him $100,000.

"I broke a rule, I got punished, I got embarrassed, my family got embarrassed and I'm still standing today and I lived through it," Tice said.

And if he did, so could his team, he reasoned.

"I just wanted the players to know that I had their backs. That I understood they made some poor judgments, but I wanted them to know that when we were 2-5 and everything looked [lousy] that I still felt we could accomplish our goals if we stuck together," he added.

The Vikings players said Tice's even-keeled approach kept the team from giving up and enabled it to mount a six-game winning streak that ended last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"It's a good life lesson for everyone," offensive tackle Mike Rosenthal said. "That you're going to have some adversity in your life and it's how you react to it that shows the character of a man."

Safety Darren Sharper, who has eight interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns, said Tice's pragmatic view of the season gave the team focus.

"Even when we were 2-5, we were still only one or two games behind the divisional leader in the NFC North because Chicago [now 10-4] wasn't winning that much then," Sharper said. "We always had an opportunity to say, `If we start to win, we can catch these guys.' And Coach kept us aware of that."

Heading into tomorrow, the Vikings were still in position to catch the division-leading Bears if Chicago were to lose in Green Bay in a 5 p.m. game and Minnesota won its final two games, including a home game against the Bears on Jan. 1.

It was one of the first things that Tice addressed with his team Monday.

"I heard them buzzing about [playoff scenarios] so I covered a couple of the obvious ones with the players," Tice said. "It all ended up with - beat Baltimore. Because if we don't beat Baltimore all the scenarios are moot."

Meanwhile, Tice - the league's lowest-paid coach at $1 million a year - has gone from being a surefire coaching casualty to being lauded for resurrecting his team's season. Whether it remains enough to get a new contract from new owner Zygi Wilf may depend on the next two games.

Tice said that the only time it creeps into his mind is when his wife and daughter bring it up, but he prefers to dwell on how fortunate he is to have one of the league's 32 head coaching jobs. And this season of trial, he insisted, can still bring its own measure of fulfillment.

"Whether we win out and go 10-6 and go to the playoffs or whether we win out and go 10-6 and don't go to the playoffs, we accomplished a lot because we have come from the depths," Tice said. "But [the team] stuck together, that's been the biggest thing."

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