Yesterday’s passing of former head coach Dennis Green had me looking back on his 13-year coaching career in the National Football League. And, who could forget about his finest season in the league: the magical 1998 NFL season with the Vikings.
Green, then 49, was in his seventh season at the helm of the Vikings’, and his squad was coming off back-to-back-to-back disappointing seasons. Minnesota went 8-8 in 1995, and went 9-7 with an early playoff exit in both ’96 and ’97.
With veteran play-making quarterback Randall Cunningham entering his second season in Minnesota in ’98, the freakishly athletic 35-year old veteran signal-caller had won over the starting job (started just three games behind Brad Johnson in ’97) and was about to turn in the most impressive campaign of his prolonged NFL career.
Green had turned in double-digit winning seasons in two of his first three years in Minnesota, but it wasn’t until his 15-1 performance with the Vikings in 1998 that he had finally been taken seriously around the league. They became just the third team in NFL history, alongside the ’84 Niners and ’85 Bears, to win 15 games during the regular season.
With eight Pro Bowl players on the offensive side of the ball (Cunningham, Robert Smith, Cris Carter, Randy Moss, Todd Steussie, Randall McDaniel, Jeff Christy), the Vikings’ piled up 6,264 total yards and an NFL-record 556 points. The scoring record no longer stands (’07 Patriots now hold it), but that doesn’t take away from the impressiveness of 34.8 points per game.
Cunningham, in total control of the high-powered passing offense, threw a career-high 34 touchdowns with a league-leading 106.0 QB rating in 14 starts. Hall of Fame WR Cris Carter, reuniting with his former Eagles QB, reeled in 78 catches for 1,011 yards and 12 touchdowns, while rookie Randy Moss––a future Hall of Fame WR––was named an All-Pro with his 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns on just 69 receptions.
Led by a depth-filled offensive line, with three Pro Bowl-caliber offensive linemen, running back Robert Smith managed another 1,187 rushing yards and eight total touchdowns.
Minnesota’s defense wasn’t lacking in play-makers, either. A 31-year old John Randle recorded 10.5 sacks, making his sixth straight All-Pro squad. As a unit, Minnesota surrendered just 296 points, good enough for 18.5 per game, and allowed just 17 passing touchdowns to opposing teams thanks to a stout pass-rush. Each of the four members of the secondary had at least two picks, with cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock leading the team with seven.
Hell, Minnesota even had a Hall of Fame player/All-Pro selection on special teams, with long-time placekicker Gary Anderson, at the ripe age of 39, hitting 35-of-35 of his field goal attempts and 59-of-59 on extra points during the regular season.
With homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, Minnesota rolled through the Arizona Cardinals, 41-21, in the NFC Divisional Round. The Vikings got off to a quick 17-0 lead, and went into the half leading 24-7. Two second half Cardinals touchdowns made the score seem closer than the game truly was, as Minnesota cruised to victory with 188 rushing yards, 26 first downs and three Arizona turnovers.
Minnesota’s defense limited Cardinals QB Jake Plummer to just 23-of-41 passing, with just 242 yards, zero touchdowns and two picks. The following week, in the NFC Championship game against the Atlanta Falcons, however, was a bit of a different story. Minnesota struggled to limit Atlanta’s veteran QB Chris Chandler, as he threw for 340 yards and three touchdowns, with zero picks.
It was an offensive duel for much of the game, trading touchdowns and field goals throughout the game. But it was special teams that gave Atlanta the edge by game’s end, with All-Pro Minnesota kicker Gary Anderson missing a late crucial field goal, giving Atlanta the opportunity to tie the game at 27 and sending the game into overtime. It ended up being a game-winning Morten Anderson field goal from 38 yards out that ended Minnesota’s magical season.
And, as we all know, John Elway’s Denver Broncos ended Atlanta’s magical season two weeks later.
This is the season that we will always remember Dennis Green for, and the 1998 Minnesota Vikings could very well be the best team to never win it all.
Remember when Moss torched the Cowboys on Thanksgiving that year? (3 catches, 163 yards, 3 TD). Relive it here:
Photo: Star Tribune