The Vikings cut the ribbon on US Bank Stadium on Friday, officially opening their decadent, new palace. In a cruel twist of fate, the man who engineered the franchise’s greatest success in the previous venue, and whose teams ultimately defined the Metrodome, passed away.
Dennis Green was a man of contradictions. He often swung for the fences in the draft, valuing talent over convention, but took a knee in what turned out to be his best chance to reach a Super Bowl. He blazed trails as the first consistently successful African-American head coach and burned bridges by threatening to sue team ownership in his 1997 autobiography. He could be forward thinking, with grand visions, but quickly succumb to pettiness and paranoia. He was human.
In the fall of 1992, I was beginning my senior year in high school when the Denny Green era began. The Twins were winding down what ended up being their last winning season for a decade. The Vikings organization meanwhile, was still smarting from the Herschel Walker trade and the underachieving Jerry Burns years. They were a stale, dormant franchise still stuck in the memories of the 1970s.
Green was the man for the moment. His confidence and energy resurrected the Vikings. The team started 5-1 and eventually won the NFC Central with an 11-5 record. They would reach the playoffs in seven of the next eight seasons. A Vikings fan since my family’s move to the Twin Citites in 1985, it was during the Green years that my interest reached its peak. I’ll never feel as strongly about any sports team as I did about the 90s Vikes. And there are hundreds, if not thousands, more like me.
Green was a fan’s coach. He liked big name players with star power. Even if they were a little bit past their primes. Denny cycled through veteran quarterbacks Jim McMahon, Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham and Jeff George, before finally settling on a young Daunte Culpepper in 2000. He would take the flashy wide receiver over the offensive tackle. He had no patience for players who didn’t possess special physical abilities at the skilled positions. He never, ever would have drafted Christian Ponder in the first round.
Dennis Green did it his way and his excesses tended to catch up with him in key moments. He froze in the 4th quarter and overtime of the 1998 NFC Championship Game, dismissively selected Dimitrius Underwood in the first round of the 1999 draft and brought a woefully under-prepared team into the 2000 NFC Championship Game that ended in a 41-0 humiliation to a less talented Giants squad.
Ultimately though, Green will be best remembered for drafting Randy Moss in 1998. It was a move that firmly established the Vikings at the top of the Minnesota sports food chain. A position they have never relinquished. In 1997, due to their inability to sellout, the team had four of its eight home games blacked out on local television. A year later, thanks largely to Moss, they were the hottest ticket in town and became a national phenomenon. They have sold out every game since. We all know that 15-1 season didn’t end well, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t special. And very significant.
Over the years, I’ve slowly lost interest in the Vikings for a complicated mix of reasons. Growing up, disillusionment with the NFL business model, Roger Goodell’s mafia-style leadership, Brad Childress’ insecurity and incompetence, 12-men in the huddle, Christian Ponder, the demise of the Metrodome, Adrian Peterson’s parenting skills and the mind numbing offense of the Zimmer era all played a part.
Or maybe it’s just because I’ve compared all ensuing Vikings teams to those Dennis Green years and they’ve never measured up.