’98 Vikings’ woes leave viewers stunned

October 15, 2008
Former Minnesota Vikings kicker Gary Anderson reacts to his first miss of the 1998 football season in the 1999 NFL Championship Game. The miss prevented Minnesota from clinching a Super Bowl berth.

Former Minnesota Vikings kicker Gary Anderson reacts to his first miss of the 1998 football season in the 1999 NFC Championship Game. The miss prevented Minnesota from clinching a Super Bowl berth.

The final episode of “America’s Game: Missing Rings” spotlights the 1998 Minnesota Vikings, which finished the regular season 15-1 only to lose the NFC title to Atlanta in overtime.

This series perhaps is stronger than its predecessor “America’s Game,” in that it explores the valleys of failure along with the joy of victory. This episode (which debuts 9 p.m. Thursday on NFL Network) joins the series’ other four — the 1990 Buffalo Bills, the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals, 1969 Vikings and the 1981 San Diego Chargers — in that formula. In the other episodes, you always had the feeling those teams were very good, memorable but not the best. This one feels different.

Interviews with wide receiver Cris Carter, Coach Dennis Green (a former Iowa football player) and defensive tackle John Randle show a depth of pain previously unseen in this series. Maybe it’s because none of them have gotten over the loss to Atlanta. It appears they all have unresolved issues with the conclusion.

“Walking off that field and losing like that … I didn’t know if I wanted to play football anymore,” Carter said. “I felt like I’d never win after that.”

“I think if we would have beaten Atlanta and if we would have gone on and beaten the Denver Broncos that we would have called the greatest team in the National Football League the last 25 years,” Green said.

The Vikings set an NFL record (since exceeded by the 2007 New England Patriots) by scoring 556 points, an average of nearly 35 points a game. The Vikings’ only regular-season loss was by three points at Tampa Bay. The offense featured the future Hall of Famer Carter making his usual circus catches for touchdowns. It had a solid offensive line, a talented running back in Robert Smith and a reinvigorated Randall Cunningham. But rookie wide receiver Randy Moss set the Vikings apart.

Moss caught 69 passes for 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns that season. He was named first-team All-Pro and shocked everyone with his athletic ability.

“I told Dennis Green that (Moss) is the most unbelievable athlete I have ever seen,” Carter said.

I covered the Kansas City Chiefs for five years and saw Moss compete against the Chiefs annually in training camp. I asked former Chiefs cornerback Eric Warfield if he looked forward to a two-day scrimmage against the Vikings. “Yeah, right,” was about all he said and then rolled his eyes. The next few days I understood why. Moss combines speed and athletic ability better than any other player ever. He’s deceptively strong, taller than most defenders and faster than all of them. He routinely beat Chiefs defenders in everything from drills to live contact.

“They call me The Freak … ’cause I’m a freak of nature,” Moss said in the episode.

The episode’s final segment is the only football parallel I can find with the Chicago Cubs’ Bartman incident in 2003. The Vikings led 27-20 with only a few minutes left. A 38-yard field goal by Gary Anderson would have virtually iced the win. Anderson hadn’t missed all season … until that kick. Teams with fragile egos often feel the elements while the players try to collect their breath. That’s what happened in both cases.

“It was like somebody punched me in my stomach,” Randle said about the kick. “Oh, my goodness … oh, my God.”

The Falcons scored a touchdown to send the game into overtime. Falcons kicker Morten Andersen sent the ’98 Vikings into also-ran status with a 38-yard field goal.

Of the five “Missing Rings” episodes about teams who didn’t win the Super Bowl, this Vikings’ version was clearly the best team. Outside of last year’s 16-0 Patriots that lost the Super Bowl, the 1998 Vikings were the best team not to win the Super Bowl. The Vikings’ loss robbed the public of perhaps the best matchup in Super Bowl history of the Vikings facing against 14-2 Denver. The Broncos won their first 13 games that season en route to a second straight championship. Denver nearly missed the Super Bowl because of the Vikings. Denver Coach Mike Shanahan and the rest of the Broncos were in shock of the Vikings’ loss that they nearly were upset by the New York Jets. That incident is recalled in “America’s Game: 1998 Denver Broncos.”

Even if you support another franchise, such as the Bears or Packers, you can understand the regret and loss Carter, Randle and Green still feel to this day. This five-episode series is the best NFL Films has created in its illustrious history. There are plenty more stories to share out there, and I hope the company decides to continue down this path.


NFL Network’s “Missing Rings” a hit

September 23, 2008

The quotes are just as powerful out of context as they are slotted in their correct sequence.

“You gotta be able to live with losing,” former Minnesota Vikings Coach Bud Grant said. “That’s the hardest thing — to get over it. You can’t let it eat you up.”

Grant said that during in the latest installment of “America’s Game: Missing Rings,” which profiles the 1969 Minnesota Vikings. That team won 12 straight games during the season — an accomplishment no team had done in the previous 35 years. It led the NFL in points scored, points allowed and was the least penalized.

The Vikings’ episode appears at 9 p.m. (CST) Thursday on NFL Network.

Only the Vikings’ records and statistics fail to matter on the NFL’s scrap heap of history. The Vikings lost Super Bowl IV to the Kansas City Chiefs 23-7 and are forgotten along with the rest of history’s losers. It’s a familiar tone with the Vikings, who lost three more Super Bowls over the next seven seasons. The Vikings’ best team in 1998, which finished 15-1 in the regular season, will appear on a future episode as well.

“America’s Game: Missing Rings” features five of the NFL’s best teams to never win the Super Bowl. Along with the 1969 and 1998 Vikings, the five-episode series features the 1990 Buffalo Bills and the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals. The first installment, which debuted Sept. 18, showed the 1981 San Diego Chargers.

The “America’s Game” series ranks at the top of all sports documentaries, featuring every Super Bowl champion. If it’s possible, from the first two episodes, the “Missing Rings” might be better. These losing teams were even more colorful than most of the Super Bowl winners and their deficiencies were more pronounced. By the end of the episode you know the team is going to lose, but you kind of hope it doesn’t. You ask the same “what-if” questions as the team’s fans.

The 1969 Vikings episode begins with the Vikings’ transition from expansion franchise to NFL superpower. It focuses on the perpetual arguments between first coach Norm Van Brocklin and first (and future) quarterback Fran Tarkenton. Then both left, and Grant took over in 1967. He then brought in Joe Kapp, a Mexican-American, from Canada to play quarterback.

Kapp was all bravado at QB. He and his teammates joked about his throwing style, which Kapp said didn’t include using the laces. “He threw some passes that looked like ducks but they made it into the hands of the receivers,” Vikings defensive end Jim Marshall said.

The episode deals with race issues from the era, which seemed to avoid Minnesota. It included a fight between Kapp and linebacker Lonnie Warwick — “That’s what Tequilla can do to you,” Grant said. The episode documents Kapp’s seven-touchdown performance against NFL defending champion Baltimore and the ferocity of the Vikings’ defense, known as the “Purple People Eaters.”

The fierce Minnesota weather and Grant’s disciplinary style of coaching also was highlighted. But what everyone remembers is the season’s end, a loss to Kansas City. Narrator Tom Selleck appropriately describes the day for the Minnesota faithful:

“A Viking hot air balloon lost its way, and careened off course. In the first half, the same could be said of the team.”

Grant and Kapp opened critiqued the loss with pointed remarks on the passing game.

“We didn’t really have a sophisticated passing attack,” Grant said. “We were ahead in most of our games and we really didn’t have to come back.

“Our passing game wasn’t good at that point.”

Kapp said: “I don’t think we were quite as smart as we needed to be as play callers in that game. I didn’t go to the pass on first down … I could critique it to death.”

The loss hurt the Vikings’ Marshall as much as anyone. He started in all four Super Bowl losses, and despite efforts from former coaches and teammates touting him as one of the NFL’s best-ever, those losses tarnished his — and the Vikings’ — legacy.

“Those were four opportunities that we had to prove that we were the best in the world, and we didn’t do it,” he said. “We got beat and in some games we got beat soundly. You never get over things like that. It haunts me every day.”

This series has possibilities for future episodes. Copy editor Sam Paxton, who follows NFL Films as closely as I do, and I looked into other installments of “Missing Rings” that could be just as rich as the first two episodes. They include:

1979 Houston Oilers, which lost two consecutive AFC title games to the Pittsburgh Steelers

1999 Tennessee Titans, the former Oilers that lost on the game’s final play to St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXIV

1991 Detroit Lions, a losing franchise that sneaked past everyone to the NFC title game

1980 Cleveland Browns, the best-known “Kardiac Kids” that lost on the infamous “Red Right 88” pass

1986/87 Cleveland Browns, a team that lost AFC title games in heartbreaking fashion to John Elway’s Denver Broncos

2003 Carolina Panthers, a team that went from 1-15 to the Super Bowl in two seasons and nearly knocked off an NFL dynasty.

This series leaves you wanting more at the end of every episode. It’s the very best of NFL Films.