The 1998 Season
Note: 1998 was the second season that I wrote down thoughts the entire year. Therefore, the 1998 season summary will come in multiple additions to my blog. Today's 1998 entry will be Training Camp Report thoughts.
1998 Training Camp Report
"If anyone doubts my veracity, I can only say that I pity his lack of faith."
Baron Munchausen 1737-1794
The past few seasons theyíve been referred to as pretenders but the Viking team that took the field before my eyes on Monday are contenders. The rest of the NFL better get used to it.
You can talk about Tarkenton, Foreman and the Purple People Eater defense.
You can talk about Kramer, Rashad, Studwell and Browner. You can talk about Wilson, A.C., Del Rio and Doleman. They made it big time: setting records, winning championships and Hall Of Fame Inductions. Fame and glory.
But they did not win a ring, thereby achieving their glory and their downfalls on the very same days. Lost playoff games, lost championship games, lost Super Bowls. Some still talk about the "lost" Super Bowl season in í75 when the Hail Mary pass became forever etched in football lore. Time to let it go, people, for a new Purple Monster is taking the field.
Warning: Read on only if you have medical clearance because the report I am about to bring you from Mankato is going to give you severe heart palpitations and sweats. As you read, the blood will pump noisily through your veins, and you will lie awake at night moaning softly, "Bring on Tampa, bring on Tampa."
I was smoking a cigar after finishing my first tailgate meal of the day, steak and eggs, with my good buddy from Milwaukee, Mark Gresbach. Mark was tooting away on a three-foot purple party horn. I turned to him suddenly and told him to be quiet, for in the distance I heard the familiar sound of cleat on pavement.
Itís a sound instantly associated with tailgates, crisp autumn days, cheerleaders and touchdowns. You know, the stuff that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up and your skin break out in goose pimples. The boys were making their way across the street.
All of you, of course, will want to know about the Vikingís No. 1 draft pick, Randy Moss, and my initial observation of him. So letís not waste any time. Buckle up, people, and read on.
As the day progressed I grew utterly fascinated with Randy Moss. My metaphor for him is a black hole: defenders seem to swirl around but not adhere to him. Without any significant effort on his part, as if his presence distorts space so that all defenders led to him then disappear, Moss is running, no, zipping down the field without anyone around him.
Moss did nothing out of the ordinary. He caught balls over his shoulder. He caught sideline passes with one hand. He made slant cuts; he did hitch-and-go's. He broke away from two cornerbacks at the line. He made receptions of perfectly thrown Brad Johnson passes in between two defenders.
But then, we as Viking fans, expect that from our receivers. So if Moss was doing nothing special, why my fascination with him? The best way to explain is to put yourselves in the shoes of a cornerback. You see this lanky receiver running at you in a very easy first gear, the first 5 to 7 yards. He hits second gear somewhat normally and is running effortlessly beside you. Thatís your first clue that you may be in trouble. This young receiver then hits third gear and you blink. During that blink, that millisecond of time, the receiver has gone from third to fourth gear in half a stride and you are saying, "Oh, merde!" and he is gone.
I do not exaggerate. I stretch the truth in no way. I can only tell you, the Purple Faithful, to watch that first game. Watch Moss explode from third to fourth gear in the blink of an eye. Watch it over and over again and your significant other will walk into the room to find you giggling like a idiot, finger pointing at the television, because your brain cannot register what your eyes are seeing. The Freak is now, and forever more, in your blood.
Letís look at the other positions one by one, concentrating on the new faces in camp.
Specialists: The only thing of importance to report with this unit is that while Gary Anderson was in camp and dressed, he was not kicking. I asked Vikings officials about it and no one knew of any injury so I am just assuming he was simply a veteran with nothing to prove and taking an off-day. Also of note was Johnson sharing place-kick holding responsibilities with punter Mitch Berger.
Defensive Backs: The second most impressive player of the day behind Moss was Jimmy Hitchcock. Hitchcock broke up two consecutive Johnson balls and was playing the exact opposite of one Dewayne Washington, by blanketing the receiver step for step rather than doing the 10-yard back pedal we all remember Washington doing last year.
Hitchcock was first-unit right corner while Fuller was first-unit left corner. Larry Brown was backing up Fuller and playing nickel. Brown looked to be in great shape and was very focused throughout both practices, which tells me he has something to prove, and thatís no bad thing. Rookie Ramos McDonald also saw a great deal of scrimmage time at left corner and did a good job, except when covering Jake Reed, who seemed to be able to turn the rookie at will, then slant to the inside for an easy reception.
McDonald will need to work on his inside game but his outside play seemed solid. Orlando Thomas and Torrian Gray will be battling for a starting spot, and I give the nod to Gray at the moment as he played the majority of the first unit snapsÖand looked good doing it. The hit of the day came from Fuller, who flattened tight end Hunter Goodwin, bringing back memories of Fullerís big hits in recent years. Fuller was focused and I did not hear him trash talking at all, a change from previous training camps. Look for Kerry Cooks to make the team. I was pleased with this safetyís play and he seemed to catch some eyes Monday.
Linebackers: Night and day from last year. Call it an intangible, but Iím much more confident in the unit this year. First, Ed McDaniel has that look back in his eye. It was missing through all of last year and he didnít seem to be enjoying the game. The old Eddie Mac is back with a vengeance! And heís not taking prisoners.
The best example, and comical as well, occurred when Eddie Mac went to get a drink of water. John Randle was guarding the water station and would only allow Eddie Mac a drink by squirting him with the plastic nozzle. Eddie finally stormed Randle so fiercely that the Big Dog took off in a full run, whimpering like a dog just chased away from his favorite spot. McDaniel played first unit middle linebacker the entire day. My initial feeling is he will be fine covering the run but may need a few preseason games to pick up the pass plays in his new home.
There were many sounds of shoulder pads popping with running backs laid flat out, staring into Dixon Edwardsí eyes. Edwards seems very comfortable and should be a real force this season. Dwayne Rudd has definitely added some upper body strength this offseason. The best thing I can tell you about Rudd is I never saw him out of position Monday. So in addition to the added strength, it appears Rudd spent a lot of time reviewing game tape.
I watched rookie Kailee Wong closely for most of the afternoon drills. Heís big, easily the largest linebacker we have. Wong was mainly learning today and did not see too much scrimmage time. The same with Kivuusama Mays. But these are the big, bruising linebackers weíve been wishing for. If they listen and learn from the first unit, they will be factors in the years to come.
Defensive Linemen: Iím waiting for the afternoon practice to begin and I am loading film by one of the tackling dummies. The players are beginning to filter onto the practice field. I hear this guy humming very loudly behind me. "I am unbeatable. I am the Big Dog!" boasts this person. I decide not to challenge John Randle on that statement, and he saunters by, wraps his arms around Tony Williams and starts yelling, "GoooAAAAALLL!" over and over into the young Williamsí ear. As I have tried to explain to Vikings fans before, donít try to understand Big Dog, just sit back and enjoy.
The unit looked good and flustered every quarterback today except for Johnson. Time and time again Randall Cunningham was pursued by any number of defensive ends and broke up field or found himself wrapped in a tightly held bear hug. The only player I had any disappointment in was Duane Clemons who seemed to get turned around during a few of the scrimmages, allowing a running back through a huge hole. Iím hopeful that will be addressed as Clemonsí pass rush remains strong.
Offensive Linemen: Jeff Christy is back, Jeff Christy is playing, and Jeff Christy is on the first unit. There is joy in Purpledom. I was extremely happy to see Christy back in action and he looks as though the broken ankle was a thing that never occurred, never happened.
In perhaps the single strongest Vikings unit, the likes of Todd Steussie, Randall McDaniel, David Dixon, and a noticeably slimmer and more focused Korey Stringer should immediately put to rest any concerns you have on the offensive line.
St. Paul native Matt Birk was constantly getting yelled at but in years past, I have found that to signify a young player who the coaches want on the team. Everett Lindsay looked to be in great shape as did Bob Sapp and Eric Moss. Sapp and Moss could end up battling for the final offensive line spot, the loser ending up on the practice squad.
Tight ends: Andrew Glover caught everything thrown to him today. I repeat: everything. He ran every drill hard. He ran an extra 20 yards at the end of each reception. He looked like the Glover who won the Cardinals game for us last year. Glover also had something he lacked late last year: consistency. Hunter Goodwin and Greg DeLong have the other two positions sewn up in the least competitive unit on the Vikings team.
Wide Receivers: I donít know who the guy in number 80 was. He was the only player out there with no name sewn on his jersey so I asked around to find out. Some guy named Cris Carter. Hard worker, catches everything thrown to him. Kept yelling at rookie Randy Moss to "Stay alert!" and "Hustle back!" and such. I mean, the arrogance. This Carter guy might make it, might not. Certainly seems to be able to get Brian Billickís ear at will so maybe heís got a connection.
Jake Reed made great sideline catches today. Matthew Hatchette continues to show he has good speed. Tony Bland made one very difficult sideline catch, coming down with both feet in bounds and a defensive back all over him. Chris Walsh is going to have a complex by the end of the season because the coaches count his 40-yard dash by a calendar compared to all the new-found speed in camp, but he will be running the slot behind Carter. Yes, I did see a lot of three receiver sets today: Moss by himself at one end, Reed at the other with Carter in the slot. My only question is whether Billick is going to use the set on things other than third-and-fifteen. Weíll have to wait until the first game to find out.
Running Backs: I never realized before how well Moe Williams can run in the middle until today. Granted, it was not full pads, but he bounced off tackles with ease, and before the defense could say, "Where did he go?" Williams was 20 yards down the field. Leroy Hoard impressed me all day with his pass catching.
Robert Smith, sporting new sideburns, came into camp beefed up, more so in the legs than last year when he added quite a bit of upper body mass. And he hasnít lost a step, many times breaking into the defensive backfield. Again, these werenít full contact drills but he still has that ability to break it any time he touches the ball. My only concern with this unit could be lack of depth.
Fullback is set with Charles Evans, the most underrated full back in the NFL today, but no one clear candidate is there to back him up. My vote would go to Scottie Graham simply because of Grahamís stellar special teams play while with the Vikings. You might see the Vikings scour the waiver wire in weeks to come for a backup full back.
Quarterbacks: Brad Johnsonís leg development has to be seen to be believed. Hopefully, my photos will turn out nicely and youíll see for yourself by mid-week on the Viking Underground. The other impressive thing about Johnson is he has grown still further as a leader, involved in teaching the offense and pointing out weaknesses to Billick all day long.
If I had to vote on who the single-most focused player on the team is presently, I wouldnít hesitate in selecting Johnson. Go to sleep at night knowing that while the Lions fans have nightmares about Scott Mitchell, and the Bucs fans cringe every time Trent Dilferís name is spoken, we have Brad Johnson, quite possibly the hardest working guy in the NFL today.
Cunningham has the number two job and looks much more comfortable in camp than last year. Much more. A real battle is taking place for that third spot, however. Todd Bouman and Jay Fiedler each played well today with a slight nod going in favor of Fiedler. But I look for Bouman to fight tooth-and-nail for the third spot.
And there you have it, folks, observations after Day One of training camp.
So, are you excited yet? If not, you will be. Everyone wants to say they picked the Super Bowl champion before the season began. And youíll see for yourself very soon that the choice is easy. Pick purple!