As you've probably heard, former head coach Denny Green passed away overnight at his home in Arizona. I'd like to take a bit of a longer look at Green's accomplishments in Minnesota, take a bit of a walk down memory lane, hopefully put his career in perspective, and reflect on how good it really was.
It's important to look at Green's hiring in the context of the time. When he was hired, he was not only the first African American head coach in team history, but only the second in modern NFL history, behind Art Shell of the Raiders. Green gained a great reputation in college, first at Northwestern, and then Stanford. When you look at his record at Northwestern, a paltry 10-45, you might shrug and go 'man, that was terrible. Why was he considered such a hot coaching prospect?'
For those of you too young to remember, Northwestern was probably, and I'm not exaggerating here, the worst college football team in NCAA history. From 1976-1980, Northwestern won a total of three games. In five years. Everything that Northwestern football has become today--above average to pretty good program, fairly regular bowl appearances, players that are drafted in to the NFL--it all started with Denny Green bringing that program back from the abyss way back in the early 1980's.
When he took over as the head coach in Minnesota, he inherited a roster that hadn't made the playoffs in two years, and had gotten stale under Jerry Burns. He needed to rebuild the team and get younger, only he had a big problem: The Herschel Walker trade. From 1989-1991, the Vikings had no first round pick, and in 1990-91, they had no second round pick, either. In Green's first draft of 1992, he had no first, second, or third round pick, although the Vikings did have two second round picks that year. He also had no Herschel, who was released by the Vikings at the end of the 1991 season.
All he managed to do was draft Roy Barker, Ed McDaniel, and Brad Johnson in that class, players that would become core guys in future Denny teams. That 1992 team was a pretty good one, too, coming out of nowhere to go 11-5 and win the NFC Central division. They did it behind Walker's former understudy, Terry Allen, who ended up 6th in the NFL with 1,201 rushing yards, and the Vikings offense was 6th in the NFL in scoring.
That high scoring offense would become a trademark of the Vikings under Green. When you consider the lack of top draft picks he had to work with for that '92 team, it's borderline miraculous.
He rattled off three straight playoff appearances from 1992-94, went 8-8 in 1995 and missed the playoffs, then rattled off five more straight post season berths. And he did it, for the most part, with high scoring offenses and a quarterback du jour, an odd combination to be sure.
Let's take a look at some of the quarterbacks he got to the playoffs with:
1992: Sean Salisbury (although Rich Gannon started most of the season)...the same Sean Salisbury who got a Christmas tree haircut into the back of his head.
1993: A washed up Jim McMahon
1994: Warren Moon, who was at the end of his career
1996: An unknown Brad Johnson, who replaced an ineffective Moon
1997: Randall Cunnigham, who was literally installing granite counter tops halfway through the season. He also won his first playoff game with the Vikings against the Giants that year, too. And it was a pretty incredible comeback in the waning minutes of the game.
1998: Cunningham again, who had the most prolific season for a quarterback in team history.
1999: Jeff George. Jeff. George.
2000: Daunte Culpepper
Look at that list of washed up, has beens, and never really were guys. The fact that Denny even got to the playoffs with a single washed up QB impressive. Half a dozen of them is flat out incredible.
Although Denny took two Vikings teams to the NFC Championship, it was the 1998 team that stands out, and it was, hands down, his best year. And it is arguably the best team in Vikings history. It started on draft night, when troubled but uber-talented wide receiver Randy Moss started falling down the draft board. Green famously called Moss and told him if he was still on the board when the Vikings selected 21st, they were drafting him ( draft night starts at 52:48, with a hilarious Moss impersonation of Green; seriously watch it if for that and nothing else).
It turned out to be one of the best picks in team history, and it set the Vikings on a course that saw an offense perform like the NFL had never seen before.
The Vikings rolled through their schedule, going 15-1 and steamrolling the rest of the NFL. The offense, now with the three deep trio of Moss, Hall of Famer Cris Carter, and Jake Reed, along with a great RB in Robert Smith, set an NFL record in points scored, with 556. I don't think it's a stretch to say that without Dennis Green, there is no Randy Moss on the Minnesota Vikings. Without Randy Moss, there is no late career revival of Randall Cunningham and Jeff George, no 15-1 1998 season, and none of the highlights Moss provided as a Viking from 1998-2004...and then again briefly in 2010. Does Cris Carter become the best WR in NFL history not named Jerry Rice? I think you could argue he'd still have a good career, but would he have had the numbers he put up had the Vikes hired a different coach? I honestly don't know the answer to that.
No, the 1998 season didn't end like we thought, and Denny took a lot of legitimate heat for how he mismanaged the end of the NFC Championship game, but Green consistently produced powerful offenses. And one can argue that his offenses were as good as the defenses of the Purple People Eaters a generation earlier, with as many Hall of Fame caliber players on offense that the PPE had on defense.
Yet, Green doesn't seem to get as much credit for that feat. I think it's easily explainable, as the Purple People Eaters were basically the same guys for a decade, and they went to four Super Bowls. Denny never got that far, had to deal with a fair amount of roster turnover because of the advent of free agency, and he had that continual QB shuffle. But with all that, he produced six top ten scoring offenses from 1992-2001, including going first, fifth, and fifth from 1998-2000 (with three different quarterbacks), a streak every bit as impressive as the heyday of the Vikings defenses from the 1970's.
As we mentioned before, Green took the Vikings to the playoffs 8 times in 10 seasons as the Vikings head coach, or 80% of the time.
How good is that? Well Bud Grant, considered by everyone the best coach in team history, took the Vikings to the playoffs 12 times in his 18 seasons, a rate of 67%. So, at least in terms of post season appearances, Green took the Vikes to the playoffs at a greater rate than Grant did. Now, to be fair, there were more playoff slots (extra wild card, etc.) in the NFL for Green than when Grant was coaching, but that's still a remarkably consistent run of success.
To put that into further perspective, since Denny Green was fired at the end of the 2001 season, the Vikings have made the playoffs a total of five times. Five times in 14 years. Only one coach since Green has taken the Vikings to the post season more than once (Brad Childress, 2008-09), and Chilly is also the only coach to get consecutive playoff appearances, obviously.
So the legacy Denny Green left in Minnesota is an impressive one. From Hall of Fame players, to consistently good to great teams, Green re-established the Vikings as one of the top teams in the NFL, year in and year out. He is, for many fans, the best coach of the best Vikings teams they ever got to see firsthand, and his passing is truly the end of an historic era, both for the NFL and the Minnesota Vikings.
He will be missed. Godspeed coach, hope the bass are hitting in Heaven.