The 1996 Season
1996 (9-7): Second in NFC Central
Head Coach: Dennis Green
9/1 W 17-13 Detroit 52,972
9/8 W 23-17 @ Atlanta 42,688
9/15 W 20-14 @ Chicago 61,301
9/22 W 30-21 Green Bay 64,168
9/29 L 10-15 @ N. Y. Giants 70,970
10/6 W 14-12 Carolina 60,894
10/13 L 13-24 @ Tampa Bay 32,175
10/28 L 13-15 Chicago 60,774
11/3 L 6-21 Kansas City 59,552
11/10 L 23-42 @ Seattle 50,794
11/17 W 16-13 OT @ Oakland 41,183
11/24 L 17-21 Denver 59,142
12/1 W 41-17 Arizona 45,767
12/8 W 24-22 @ Detroit 46,043
12/15 W 21-20 Tampa Bay 49,302
12/22 L 10-38 @ Green Bay 59,306
NFC First-Round Playoffs
12/28 L 15-40 @ Dallas 64,682
Key Draft Picks
The 1996 draft could be selected as Green’s worst draft in his tenure as the head-coach of the Vikings. With the 16th overall pick the Vikings selected a tweener defensive lineman/linebacker out of California, Duane Clemons. Defensive tackle James Manley was chosen in the second-round. Kentucky running back Moe Williams was selected in the third-round and was followed in the fourth by tight-end Hunter Goodwin.
By the time the Vikings played the Kansas City Chiefs at the halfway point of the 1996 season they were 5-3 and had just lost two straight. But that day proved to be a turning point for the organization as it proved the Vikings had not only national but worldwide appeal as well. Glenn Christian and Greg Steed hopped an overnight train from Little Rock, Arkansas. Ike House of Louisiana surprised his wife Robin with airline tickets to watch the Vikings play in person for the first time from the comfort of seats on the 25-yard line. But topping them all was Geoff Reader, a season ticket holder, from Bedford, England. After watching the Purple defeat Green Bay in September, Geoff also witnessed the defeat at the hands of the Bears. Fitting in a short trip to sunny California to escape the flipping (English slang for bloody but more polite) cold weather, Geoff returned to sit alongside this writer to watch our beloved team take on the Kansas City Chiefs.
After escorting the House’s to the ticket office for a personal tour of the sacred playing field, Geoff and I were off in search of several pints of bitter. After muddling through several pints we went in search of Chief’s fans that were dressed as bad as Sloane Rangers. We found several mucking about outside Gate B and they began taunting us, feeling confident because of recent Viking injuries and thinking the Chiefs had the Vikes by the short and curlies. Not being afraid to say boo to a goose, I quickly engaged in a colorful rhetoric with these toffee-nosed fans dressed in red. Having arrived the night before from Kansas City, they soon discovered they were trying to teach someone’s grandmother to suck eggs. In short, you can’t teach Albert Einstein about the theory of relativity and you can’t shake Mr. Cheer Or Die with tripe. They walked away quickly, wishing they had come better prepared.
The Vikings soon wished they had come better prepared as well. For the Chiefs were animals that day as I’m sure the national viewing audience noticed. They were indestructible creatures made of sticks and stones and ball bearings. Their mission was clear: win anyway possible. The overspill of boo’s erupting from the stands voiced the fans disappointment as the Vikings suffered a malicious wounding.
The Vikings had found themselves in a sticky wicket as a result of three bad calls on a Kansas City drive shortly before half-time. The letters on the back of this particular zebra’s jersey said “SJ” but I found out afterwards it wasn’t for Side Judge but rather the letters stood for Schottenheimer’s Judge. The calls were horrendous, but the play of the Vikings offense in the second half was even worse.
It seemed that offensive coordinator, Brian Billick, had no clear game plan. At times there was mass confusion on the sidelines as tight ends, running backs, full backs and third receivers were standing wondering whether to go in or go out of the huddle. And although the line only allowed one sack of Brad Johnson today, giving him time to throw, the routes were not finished or the passes were thrown poorly.
After the game came rumblings out of Winter Park that spelled discontent between coaching, the board of directors and the Player Personnel department. Several members of the board of directors were busily shopping for head coaching replacements upsetting the present coaching staff and the rest of the board.
The next Sunday the Vikings lost 42-23 in Seattle and the wheels appeared to be coming off the bus. Grumblings about Green’s immediate dismal could be heard in the media and radio call in shows. That Friday, Minneapolis was hit with sleet and snow and bitter, burning wind. The lake nearby my home was frozen hard, and its icy grip beckoned me to visit. The sleet cut through my coat, chafed at my cheeks, brought tears to my eyes, and froze them as they trickled down my face. The wind howled around the empty vastness of the lake, forcing itself through every exposed pore of my body.
Out upon the frozen lake, the wind and ice shrieked and snapped as light snow was sent running and swirling over the ice like a strange white beast, a ghostly animal all asparkle, wearing first one shape and then another, changing constantly as it ran. And then, as the Ice Beast slowed momentarily, I recognized the malleable creature. And I smiled, savoring the fury of the Ice Beast being unleashed. For the beast had taken the shape of John Randle. And at that moment I knew the Vikings were assured a victory that Sunday night at Oakland. Jeff Hostetler got to know the Ice Beast too. For when the Ice Beast cometh, there is no protection against his wrath.
On a night when the Viking offense had over 400 total yards but only scored 16 points, the defense once again buckled down and relinquished very little turf. The Ice Beast continually unsettled the Oakland offensive line and sent them backward time and time again. Oakland was powerless to make any changes and was doomed to see the Ice Beast in its backfield again and again, as the game moved to its inevitable conclusion.
It’s safe to say that John Randle is more than the sum of his parts. It’s also safe to say the Vikings would not be playing a part in any postseason activity without him. Close your eyes and picture him drumming his fingers on the turf, moving over one lineman then another. You’d think getting to the quarterback was quite a fashion these days with the Ice Beast. John Randle realizes he is different. He doesn’t want to cause harm but causing a disturbance is something he feels he has to do. And he doesn’t give up until that’s done.
The Vikings had a problem of appearance before this game. Dennis Green knew this and implemented a game plan to change the way Oakland perceived them. That night against Oakland those changes worked and the Vikings weaknesses were not so noticeable. A message had been sent to the teams remaining on the Vikings 1996 schedule. The Ice Beast awaits you.
It was following the Oakland game that Lou Holtz and the ten-headed hydra that served as the Viking board of directors discovered that using the media could be fun. It was not only fun for both of them but there was also a major advantage. Had they discovered that season ticket holders disliked the thought of Holtz becoming Viking head coach, they’d suddenly remember that neither the board nor Holtz had any interest in the first place. If, on the other hand, they had discovered that the fans were clamoring for such a move, they’d announce that nothing immoral or wrong was done during the season. It would be risky to say they had been collaborating all along and the announcement would have been presented in a way to express genuine surprise of Holtz being available. A surprise to all, but fans and media alike.
Coaching is a harsh mistress in the NFL. And Lou Holtz discovered that he was not needed at Winter Park among the ragtag collection of mavericks that then presided on the board. What was needed was for the NFL to present an adrenalinizing, mind-stretching, conviction testing ultimatum to the ten-headed hydra; 30% ownership by one individual and a clear voice to the fans of the Minnesota Vikings. The search for majority ownership had begun but would not be resolved until 1998.
In week twelve the Vikings hosted a Super Bowl contender, the Denver Broncos. The Vikings lost 21-17 but played the Broncos tough. The leader of the Broncos had done his best to stay out of the vicinity of the Viking onslaught. He was constantly having arms shoved into his shins in the backfield, his feet trod on everywhere, his ribs painfully struck by helmets or shoulder pads. His jersey was so frequently roaming from one defender to another that he finally asked his mentor for a change in formation so that he could stand alone for at least three seconds.
John Elway has found a certain satisfaction in being able to ignore the nuisances of opposing defenses. And for the gazillionth time he rose above the constraints of time perpetrated on him with massive and complete disdain. Elway knew the Vikings knew exactly what he was doing, and there was nothing they could do to thwart him.
A considerable and silent Viking crowd lined the ramps to the Metrodome exits. Previously, a curious rippling groan came from them as if they had been expecting the worst and had been steeling themselves. Viking fans stared straight ahead, lips pressed firmly together, but the redness in the face was evident. John Elway had won again. Plain and simple to me although most fans immediately started talking of bad spots, bad breaks, poor use of time-outs, and batted balls. The Broncos and their followers had come expecting an easy victory. Instead, they found the Vikings had exposed glaring weaknesses. Just as the Purple had done to that other so-called Super Bowl team, the Cheeseheads, in week four.
The Vikings and Dennis Green raised their heads and realized they had a real playoff chance. To one side they could see a spectacular playoff run, the other the crushed pride of a team teeming with talent and half-trapped by what went on behind closed doors at Winter Park. The Broncos had aspirations of a playoff run of their own. But that Sunday, their hearts all but stopped when their motion was almost abruptly turned back by our lads in purple...and what must have seemed like a lot of unnecessary noise coming from the followers of the Minnesota Vikings. Noise, that is, that would continue to build as the decade continued.
In week fifteen the Vikes hosted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Early in the second half Buccaneer quarterback Trent Dilfer came within a cry of The Thunder Zone at the snow covered Metrodome. The purple clad fans found within unfurled their banners, blew upon their horns, and a sarcastic cry of DIL-FER rang out and sent a message for John Randle to unleash his fury. Randle and company did not disappoint.
One could debate the big play of the game. Mitch Berger’s open field tackles or his 64-yard punt that went out on the one-yard line. Leroy Hoard’s avoidance of a safety. All-Pro Cris Carter’s game winning catch late in the fourth quarter. All admirable plays and important in the outcome, for this writer, the outcome was decided by the fans of the Vikings. Their cries were loud. Their hearts were filled with certainty in times of darkness. They beleaguered Dilfer to such an extent that he continually signaled to the sideline that he could not hear. The sounds coming from Viking fans drove against Tampa Bay, piercing their offensive press with the thrust of doom and defeat. The Vikes won their third straight 21-10.
The last week of the season found the Vikings playing at Green Bay. In week four the Vikings had embarrassed the Packers 30-21 to start the season 4-0. Vikings fans knew that a win would carry the Vikings into the season with a four game winning streak. Instead the Purple Faithful tipped their collective hats to the NFC Central Division champs for coming out in the second half of what was, until that time, a very close and hard fought contest. In the first half both teams slugged it out reminiscent of the old black and blue days of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Except for an inexcusable incident by Corey Fuller, the fans at Lambeau Field loved seeing both teams playing their hearts out. And since both teams were playing for little if any playoff significance, they enjoyed seeing players play for the thrill of defeating a hated, yet respected, division rival.
Arguably the toughest division in the NFL in 1996, the NFC Central would be sending two top-flight teams to the playoffs. Packer and Vikings fans were hoping to see the Vikings take on the Pack one more time in a rubber match for the ‘96 season. A defeat of the Dallas Cowboys in a NFC Wild Card game coupled with a win by the 49er’s over the Eagles in the other Wild Card game would lead to such a ballyhooed game and bragging rights for the entire off-season. Alas, it was not to be. Brad Johnson as “tight,” “nervous,” “intimidated.” Such were the dismal adjectives spouted by the buffoon crew of ABC sports consisting of Al “I Hate Minneapolis” Michaels, Frank “I Love My Wife” Gifford, and Dan “I Don’t Deserve to be in the Hall of Fame” Dierdorf in their description of the Minnesota Viking quarterback’s play during his lackluster performance in the early stages of last season’s playoff loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Personally, I was grateful for the sharing of these expert insights, as, silly me, I’d assume the unhindered Cowboy pass rush and run stoppage might have had something to do with Johnson’s predicament.
Then, midway through the first half, Johnson led the Vikings towards the end zone. Dierdorf dutifully observed, “It looks like Johnson is loosening up some.” But then Amp Lee fumbled on a sure touchdown. And the word from the ABC booth? The Cowboy secondary was “pumped.” Meanwhile, faced with a dagger through the heart, the poor Vikings, quoth Gifford, had “tightened up again....”. Game over and Green was now 0-4 in the playoffs and many of us were starting to whisper the F word.
1996 Significant Events
Another significant event happened off the field during the 1996 season. The early precursor to the Viking Underground Fan message board, Viking Fans On-Line, was formed. By seasons end Viking Fans On-Line boasted 500 strong and was represented by members in 47 states and 9 countries. It was directly responsible for the Vikings setting a single day attendance record on September 22, 1996. The Viking Underground web site, begun by Dan Hildreth, was honored in The ‘Net magazine as the best personal NFL football web site. The Viking Underground & the Mr. Cheer Or Die web sites were honored with The Gold Start Trophy award honoring the best in NFL related web sites. Viking Fans On-Line assisted in initiating, creating and developing the very first Viking Fan Club Convention during the 1996 training camp.