MEDIA Sun isn't shining on Vikings' offseason : LUSENET : Purple : One Thread

Friday, February 23

Sun isn't shining on Vikings' offseason

---------------------------------------------------------------------- -- By Tom Oates Special to

In mid-December, the Minnesota Vikings had an 11-2 record, the inside track on home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs and a future so bright they were thinking of introducing sun glasses to the Twin Cities. Two months later, they've canceled all shipments of Oakleys and Ray-Bans to the frigid northland. In that short span of time, the Vikings' future became as dreary as a Minnesota winter. That's because no NFL franchise has taken more hits over the last two months than Minnesota. Indeed, the unexpected early retirement of tailback Robert Smith two weeks ago was only the latest blast to rock the Vikings' foundation. It hasn't been easy being a football fan in Minnesota since December. First the Vikings were unmasked as a legitimate title contender and now the state's governor, Jesse Ventura, is shilling for the competition on XFL broadcasts. Randy Moss had 1,437 yards receiving and caught 15 touchdown passes in 2000.How bad has it been? * The Vikings lost their final three games in the regular season, defeats that cost them home-field advantage in the playoffs and exposed their defense as a fraud. The Rams, Packers and Colts scored 104 points against Minnesota in those three games and provided the rest of the league with a blueprint on how to slice up a defense woefully short on pass rushers and cover corners.

* The Vikings were pounded, 41-0, by the Giants in the NFC championship game. Down by 14 points before their offense touched the ball, the Vikings looked utterly defenseless against the same Giants offense that looked utterly helpless two weeks later against the Ravens in the Super Bowl.

* Superstar wide receiver Randy Moss said after the NFC title game that he doubted the Vikings could ever get to the Super Bowl. Moss, whom the Vikings had been trying to sign to a long-term contract, added that he fully intended to get to a Super Bowl but that it probably would be with another team.

* Coach Dennis Green conducted a major overhaul of his defensive staff for the second consecutive season. Beleaguered defensive coordinator Emmitt Thomas stayed, but everyone else either changed jobs or was fired.

* Tackle John Randle, the heart of the Vikings defense for a decade, asked to be traded. However, Randle, 33, is likely to become a salary cap casualty anyway after the most disappointing season of his career. Randle, who would count $8 million a year against the cap in 2001, has indicated he will restructure his contract and take a pay cut if he is traded, but he just wants out of Minnesota.

* Moss stated in an article in ESPN The Magazine that he doesn't always give 100 percent on the field. Validating a growing stream of criticism from the media, Moss said he doesn't play hard on every play if he's not going to get the ball. Worse, he didn't seem to see a problem with that.

* Offensive tackle Todd Steussie criticized Moss sharply for his admitted reluctance to play hard on every snap. Steussie said Moss' attitude was a disservice to players who can't afford to take a play or two off. Steussie also said some players on the team gave up very early in the loss to the Giants.

* Smith, who led the NFC in rushing with 1,521 yards, dropped the most recent bombshell when he abruptly retired at 28 to pursue other interests. Smith might have been lost in free agency anyway, and his sizable salary slot might be better used for defensive help, but a power running game with Smith was the catalyst for the league's most explosive offense over the last three seasons. No wonder people are predicting doom for the team with the best regular-season record in the NFL (36-12) over the last three years. The Vikings are looking at the loss of key personnel from both the explosive offense and much-maligned defense, a salary cap overrun that currently stands at $19 million and, apparently, an increasingly divided locker room. But before you write the Vikings' eulogy, keep this in mind. Those blows would have staggered a normal franchise, but under Green's direction, the Vikings have never operated normally. People have been predicting the Vikings' demise for two years, yet Green always seems to pull a rabbit -- or a Randy Moss or a Daunte Culpepper -- out of his hat and the team just rolls on. In nine seasons under Green, the Vikings have been to the playoffs eight times with seven different quarterbacks. What other coach would even attempt that? "I have complete confidence in Denny Green," Vikings owner Red McCombs said after the season ended. "We'll work through whatever our issues are, whether that means no changes or multiple changes." The secret to Green's success is that he's not afraid of change, but there promises to be more change than usual this off-season. Green can turn the tailback job over to Moe Williams, who rushed for 67 yards as Smith's backup last season, or Doug Chapman, drafted on the third round in 2000 as Smith's eventual replacement. Or he can pursue a veteran such as Ricky Watters or Dorsey Levens who might become a cap casualty elsewhere. Green's other major worry is how to improve a defense that will almost certainly lose Randle to the salary cap and probably lose linebacker Dwayne Rudd and tackle Tony Williams to free agency. The Vikings need two starting cornerbacks and a top-flight pass-rusher, but right now they're in no position to sign anyone in free agency. Whether Rudd and Williams stick around depends on how Green trims $19 million from his salary cap by March 2. Linebacker Ed McDaniel has already restructured his contract, but much more work needs to be done to reach the $67.5 million cap. Major personnel cuts are a possibility, with Randle, Steussie, safety Orlando Thomas, defensive end John Burrough and returner David Palmer all considered possible cap casualties. In addition, two key restricted free agents -- Pro Bowl center Matt Birk and middle linebacker Kailee Wong -- will draw interest from other teams unless Minnesota tenders them offers requiring first-round compensation. Despite that litany of problems, the Vikings simply can't be counted out next season. Green has shown time and again that he can make the Vikings a contender despite an ever-changing roster. Worried Vikings fans would do well to keep that in mind, although a pair of rose-colored sun glasses sure would help. Cowboy woes D-Day for the Cowboys was supposed to be March 8. That was the day owner Jerry Jones was expected to announce whether he would pay oft-injured quarterback Troy Aikman a $7 million bonus, release him or reach a renegotiated deal. After numerous concussions Troy Aikman's future in Dallas is in question.Clouding the matter is the fact that Aikman, 34, has suffered four concussions in his last 20 starts and missed all or parts of eight games last season. No less an authority than Jones has said the future of the franchise depends on the decision. In December, Jones said he wanted a quick resolution so could move ahead with planning for the 2001 season. Simply put, if Aikman stays, Jones will continue to try to win now. If Aikman retires or goes elsewhere, Jones will tear down the team and build for the future. As it stands now, however, Jones won't reveal his philosophy anytime soon. The deadline was pushed back a week by the changing NFL schedule and then Aikman's agent, Leigh Steinberg, announced that any decision on Aikman's future with the team would be put on hold for another two or three months. Indeed, the only thing clear about this situation is that Aikman's head is no longer fuzzy. After consulting with doctors and factoring in his family's needs -- he and his wife are expecting their first child -- Aikman wants to continue playing. "I've made it clear that I want to keep playing," he said. "We're still kind of working through some issues and I'd like to play. Unfortunately, it's not as easy as a question and answer. We'll work something out that will be in the best interest of everybody involved." The delay isn't good news for the Cowboys because the off-season will begin in earnest with the start of free agency March 2. "I know I said I wanted to get it done early, but we can make this timetable work," Jones said. "We are prepared to move ahead with our football planning, while also giving this plenty of time to sort out. By going through April and May, we can still get done what we need done regardless of what is decided on Troy." Trade for Vick involves risks The first of many juicy -- and generally groundless -- draft rumors has surfaced. The Falcons are rumored to be willing to send their No. 3 pick in this year's draft, their first-round selection in 2002 and halfback Jamal Anderson to the Chargers so they can move up two spots and take Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick. It's most likely untrue, for this reason. If the Falcons were offering that package, the Chargers would have accepted it by now. After all, they were on the flip side of a similar trade two years ago and they know there is no guarantee on quarterbacks taken high in the first round of the draft. In 1999, the Chargers put together a blockbuster package and traded it to the Cardinals so they could draft Ryan Leaf with the second overall pick. Leaf has been one of the biggest busts in NFL draft history, which means the Chargers would be understandably leery about spending a high draft pick on another quarterback. That explains their willingness to trade the pick. Most likely, though, they'll wait for more offers from quarterback-starved teams before they make a deal. Then it'll be someone else's worry. Although Vick has exceptional talent and appears to fit the new NFL mold of a mobile quarterback, there are enough questions about him -- lack of height, too much

-- Mark (Karch, February 27, 2001

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