The last 10 days or so has been a weird mix of excitement and sadness for the fans of the Minnesota Vikings. On the one hand, training camp has started, and the Vikings are a talented team, expected to compete for the Super Bowl. On the other hand, it’s overshadowed by the sudden passing of OL coach Tony Sparano, with his death and funeral service muting what is an otherwise exciting time of the season.
And sadly, for this franchise, this isn’t new territory. As a matter of fact, the team is in an somewhat similar situation as they were when this happened some 17 years ago.
In 2001, the Vikings were coming off an NFC Championship appearance that saw them get completely boatraced by an NFC East team, the infamous 41-doughnut game at the hands of the Giants. That game has become an almost comic myth to Vikings fans at this point, but when you look at the roster of that team, it seems that as flawed as it was in some areas, giving up 41 points while getting shut out seemed almost impossible.
Last year, we all watched in disbelief as Nick Foles and the Eagles offense carved up the top defense in the NFL like it was a turkey on Thanksgiving, and the offense struggled to move the ball the entire game. And when they did get some momentum going, they turned it over in the typical, soul crushing manner that we’ve become accustomed to. That performance, on the heels of the Minneapolis Miracle one week before, seemed almost as impossible as 41-doughnut.
In 2001, when the Vikings convened in Mankato, many folks still thought this was a playoff caliber team, and could compete for the Super Bowl. They still had two Hall of Fame wide receivers on offense in Randy Moss and Cris Carter, a dual threat QB in Daunte Culpepper that had a cannon for an arm and could run like the wind, they had spent a first round pick on a running back to replace the retired Robert Smith, and the offense was anchored by a really good offensive line.
The defense? They spent picks two, three, and four on defense in the draft, and signed CB Dale Carter to help shore up a pretty bad secondary. At the time, things were looking up for them, and people thought Denny had finally seen the light on investing in that side of the ball. Green might have been on the hot seat, but the draft had bought him some credit. There was a bit of a buzz about this team again, much like there is a buzz to the 2018 team.
Then, tragedy. During one of the training camp practices, All Pro RT Korey Stringer (RIP, Big Man) suffered heat stroke and had to leave the practice field. Shortly thereafter, he was taken to the hospital. No one thought it was life threatening:
When Stringer left for the hospital on Tuesday, (Chuck) Barta, the Minnesota trainer, knew his condition was serious, but he and the rest of the Vikings expected a recovery.
He was dead less than 12 hours later.
It was devastating for the team, and the franchise. A lot of us remember the press conference after Stringer died with head coach Dennis Green, Moss, and Carter. All three were openly weeping and Moss had to be assisted away from the podium he was crying so hard. It was brutal to watch, and Stringer’s death not only affected the entire team, it rippled throughout the NFL, eventually bringing a sea change in how practices are conducted in extreme heat.
Stringer’s death cast a pall over the entire season, Minnesota stumbled to a 5-11 finish, and before season’s end Dennis Green was removed as the Vikings head coach. He was replaced on an interim basis by Mike Tice, who was named the permanent head coach in the off-season.
When news of Sparano’s death hit the wires, I immediately thought how 56 was way too young to pass, and the tough road ahead for his family as they deal with this loss. I lost my Dad almost one year to the day, and I’m still dealing with it. After a couple days, I started thinking back to 2001, and the similarities and differences, and I thought back to my own experiences being in a close knit unit and having to deal with loss.
This is going to be a tough thing to deal with for the team and the franchise. The first press conferences head coach Mike Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman had after Sparano’s death were full of emotion, similar to the Moss/Carter/Green press conference in 2001, and you could tell they had lost not just a co-worker, but a friend and mentor.
While there are similarities between this tragedy and Stringer’s back in 2001, there are some notable differences, too, which might be able to help this team weather this tragedy and come out on the other side.
Tony Sparano was a coach who died at home, while Stringer was a player who the rest of the team saw struggling on the day he died. Both are a big loss, but as a player you relate more to Stringer’s death on a more personal level than you do a coach. I say that as a guy that spent a lot of years as a helicopter pilot, doing some dangerous things. And in using that comparison I look at the coach as kind of our senior leadership in a flying squadron or company, like the company or battalion commander. They were pilots too, yeah, but they rarely flew anymore, and their day to day duties were more focused on leading the organization.
If they died of a heart attack, we would all be sad, we would raise a glass in their honor, and it would suck immensely, don’t get me wrong. But when one of your contemporaries is killed, a guy that flies as often as you do, is about your age, has to take the same checkride you do, flies dangerous combat missions like you do, and then crashes or gets shot down and is killed, it’s different.
A death the likes of Stringer lingers more, and that’s not to disrespect Tony Sparano and what he meant to the Vikings, his friends, and his family in any way, shape, or form. There’s no getting around the fact his death sucks. But you identify with a buddy of yours more in that situation than you can the battalion commander...or coach, if you will. It has a much more profound impact than someone who is 25-ish years older than you, because you can very easily say ‘man, so and so was a hell of a pilot. If that could happen to him...it could happen to me.’ Those thoughts don’t really go through your head if a guy your senior dies of something that isn’t job related. The pain is still there, but the inner reflectiveness on one’s own mortality isn’t present, and I think that’s a key difference.
Moving away from the personal, there are a couple more important distinctions between this situation and 2001. In 2001, Denny was entering the season kind of on the hot seat. Yes, he had finally invested on defense in the draft, but a lot of fans thought it was too little, too late. He had lost two NFC championship games in three seasons, and folks were starting to feel Green had taken the Vikings as far as he could. Many people felt taking a knee at the end of regulation in the ‘98 NFC Championship, coupled with 41-doughnut and the years of defensive neglect that became so apparent in that game was enough to warrant a change.
There was also discord between Green and ownership. Denny had installed some of his friends in key positions within the organization, and the perception was the main qualification to get that job was that they were a friend of Denny. That had become a major point of contention between Green and then-owner Red ‘Cheap Bastard’ McCombs, and it simmered just below the surface for awhile before it came to a head during the 2001 season:
The coach and owner have had at least one serious confrontation over Green’s staff, according to sources. Green almost resigned around midseason because McCombs insisted that he fire assistant coach and director of pro personnel Richard Solomon, a close friend of Green’s, the sources said.
Denny had a keen eye for offensive talent, but ignored the defense to the point it cratered in 2000 and 2001, and didn’t really fully recover for almost 10 years. RB Robert Smith had also unexpectedly retired after the 2000 season, creating a hole in the offense that 2001 first round draft pick Michael Bennett could not fill. When the high flying offense could no longer outscore opponents, Denny’s brusque one liners and cliches wore thin with the public and the local press. He seemed to insulate coaches that should have been let go, so as the 2001 season spiraled out of control and the losses piled up, the Vikings bought out Green’s contract with one game remaining, and the Vikings sitting at 5-10 on the year.
That’s a significant contrast to this edition of the Vikings. Zimmer, Spielman, and ownership are all on the same sheet of music, and there appears to be no discord on any level. Between 2000 and 2001 the Vikings got worse on paper, and were an offense heavy team missing Robert Smith.
At the end of the 2000 season, there were warning signs about how bad the defense had become. If I remember the situation correctly, all Minnesota had to do to get the number one seed and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs was win just one of their three remaining games. They gave up 40, 33, and 31 points in in those games, lost all three and with it homefield advantage, and by the time the NFC Championship game in New Jersey rolled around they were playing a former WR (Robert Tate) as a starting CB opposite Wasswa Serwanga.
That’s not the case with this defense. On paper, they actually got better with the Sheldon Richardson signing. The talent they have at all three levels is ridiculous, and the secondary might...might be the deepest in the NFL. They have a deep and talented defensive line, and All-Pro caliber starters at linebacker. This is also the most balanced team between offense and defense I can remember since the days of the Purple People Eaters. The offense won’t have to outscore anyone to win, but they’re capable of winning a shootout. The defense won’t need to hold everyone to 10 points to win, like most of the Childress regime, but they can toss a shutout. Even though 38-7 was a bad, bad loss, looking back that feels a lot more like an anomaly than 41-doughnut was.
And is there a better coach in the NFL built to handle a situation like this? Under Dennis Green, the Vikings had encountered adversity up until Stringer’s death, but nothing like Zimmer’s career. Zim lost his wife in the middle of the season while he was in Cincinnati, and had Bobby Petrino skip out on the Falcons when he was in Atlanta. Just since he became head coach in Minnesota he’s had to deal with the following:
Lost the focal point of his offense, RB Adrian Peterson, one game into the season. Peterson would be suspended for 15 games.
Lost his starting QB (Matt Cassel three games into the season. Had to play rookie Teddy Bridgewater long before he wanted to.
Had to play the first of two seasons in TCF Bank stadium while the Metrodome was torn down and US Bank Stadium was being built.
Vikings go 7-9.
Adrian Peterson demands a trade in the off-season, but the Vikings flat out tell him no. Mike Zimmer famously said ‘he’ll play for us or he won’t play’...and that ended the controversy.
Outside of the Peterson storyline, it’s a quiet season once training camp starts. The Vikings win the division by clinching at Lambeau, beating Green Bay 20-13 on the final game of the regular season. THEN...
Blair Walsh misses a 27 yard chip shot field goal to essentially win the playoff game against Seattle, adding to the ‘Vikings are cursed’ storyline that runs through this franchise like the Mississippi River runs through the central United States.
Teddy Bridgewater has his knee demolished in a non-contact drill eight days before the regular season. It was an utterly devastating moment for the team.
A few days later, GM Rick Spielman makes a bold and stunning trade with Philadelphia, sending a first and fourth round pick to the Eagles for Sam Bradford. QB Shaun Hill starts the opener, Bradford starts the next 15 games.
Adrian Peterson is hurt in the second game and doesn’t return until the end of the season, after the Vikings are all but eliminated from playoff contention.
The Vikings suffer historic injuries on the offensive line. Matt Kalil, Andre Smith, Mike Harris, and Jake Long are lost to season ending injuries, and Long was signed well into the season to compensate for the losses of Kalil and Smith. Two guys they had expected back, Phil Loadholt and John Sullivan, either retired before training camp or couldn’t make it back from injuries in 2015 and were cut.
There is a mini revolt among the defensive backs in the second to last game at Green Bay, and they freelance their coverage and don’t do what Zimmer and the defensive staff wanted them to do. The Vikes are shredded by Jordy Nelson in the first half en route to a 38-25 loss.
As if that wasn’t enough, Zimmer endured a health crisis with his eye. He suffered a detached retina in Chicago, and nearly lost his eyesight. He’s had eight surgeries to fix the problem, and at one point it was so serious he was unable to coach. Mike Priefer took over as interim coach for one game so Zimmer could completely rest his eye after one of his surgeries.
The Vikings start the fourth quarterback in four seasons under Mike Zimmer, and Sam Bradford has a dazzling debut, throwing for over 350 yards as the Vikes smoke the New Orleans Saints. It was the last meaningful football Bradford would play for the Vikings minus his aborted comeback attempt against the Bears a few weeks later. After that Monday Night game in Chicago, Bradford would not see the field again with the Vikings.
Rookie RB Dalvin Cook is lost for the season in week four. His first three games were eye popping, and he was in the conversation for NFC Rookie Of The Year, along with Offensive Player of the Year. He had rushed for over 350 yards and two TD’s in three and a half games, and brought an added dimension to an offense that was just finding their legs under Case Keenum.
What will 2018 bring? I don’t know. Losing someone close to you flat out sucks, and people all grieve differently. Some people can absorb it, pick up the pieces, and move on in relatively short order. For others, that’s harder to do.
I do know that when something like this happens in a tight knit group of people, strong leadership is needed to keep everyone together and get through it. And I don’t think there’s anyone more well prepared to navigate these waters and lead this team through something like this than Mike Zimmer and the other leaders on this team.