Vikings could join select few in turnaround department
From "The Mercury News"
Posted on Sat, Dec. 17, 2005
[size=18px]Vikings could join select few in turnaround department[/size]
BY SEAN JENSENKnight Ridder Newspapers
ST. PAUL, Minn. - An hour before the Vikings clinched their fifth consecutive victory of the season Dec. 4 at Ford Field in Detroit, defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell chatted with Lions free safety Jon McGraw during warm-ups.
" `They're playing well for you,' " Cottrell recalled McGraw telling him. " `You're doing just like we did with the Jets.' "That's when I first started thinking about it."
Since 1990, when the NFL adopted the six-team playoff format, just three teams have reached the postseason after a 2-5 start.
_In 1990, the New Orleans Saints squeaked into the playoffs with an 8-8 record after a Monday night victory over the Los Angeles Rams at the Superdome in the season finale. The win secured the franchise's second playoff berth.
_In 1995, the Detroit Lions rallied behind the most prolific offensive season in team history and nearly stole the NFC Central title away from the Green Bay Packers.
_And in 2002, McGraw and Cottrell helped the New York Jets regroup from an 0-4 start to reach the playoffs and achieve an even rarer feat: a shutout of Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
The 2005 Vikings, winners of six games in a row entering Sunday's showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers, plan on becoming the fourth team to complete such a turnaround.
Because just three of the 180 playoff teams since 1990 have overcome such a dreadful start to qualify for the postseason, there's no script to follow. But here's how those three teams did it, and here's how the Vikings have put themselves in a position to be become the fourth.
1990 NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
After making their first playoff appearance in the 1987 strike-shortened season, the Saints couldn't return to the postseason the following two years, despite 19 victories. But hopes were high for the 1990 season, with a high-energy defense, featuring four Pro Bowl linebackers, and quarterback Bobby Hebert efficiently leading the offense.
But Hebert held out because of a contract dispute, and the Saints started the season with John Fourcade, who joined the team as a strike replacement in 1987.
"Bobby was the guy, and we were missing him," said Vikings tight ends coach John Tice, a third-round Saints selection who started 56 games in New Orleans over 10 seasons. "I don't know if a lot of guys had confidence in (Fourcade). He was a freewheeler. He would run around like a maniac and not work the offense."
The Saints started the season 1-3, with Fourcade throwing three touchdown passes against eight interceptions, compelling the club to trade three draft picks to the Dallas Cowboys for quarterback Steve Walsh of St. Paul.
"Steve was a thinker, and he managed the game well, and we got back on track," Tice said. "The guys believed in Steve more than they did Fourcade."
But New Orleans endured an agonizing December, with all five of its games decided by three or four points. A 17-13 loss in Dallas to open the month dropped the Saints to 5-7. After a 24-20 victory in Los Angeles, the Saints lost 9-6 at the Superdome to the Steelers.
"During that season, this time of year was like a nervous breakdown every week," said then and current defensive line coach John Pease. "That's how all of December was for that team. We were fighting to get back into it after a poor start, and every play of each game seemed to take on greater importance.
"We all knew the playoff scenarios and tiebreakers, and we knew we always had a shot. So it was like a chance at the playoffs hung not only on every game, but every play."
The Saints edged the 49ers, 13-10, in San Francisco, setting up a New Year's Eve game at the Superdome against the Rams. With two seconds left, Morten Andersen kicked a game-winning 24-yard field goal to break a 17-17 tie.
Tice credited coach Jim Mora for his leadership that season. "Things were so detailed and so focused that it didn't matter if you were 0-8," Tice said. "He wouldn't let you believe you weren't a good team or didn't have a chance."
1995 DETROIT LIONS
Coming off two consecutive playoff appearances, the Lions started the 1995 season 0-3, prompting coach Wayne Fontes to call a meeting of his team leaders.
"We're about to play on `Monday Night Football,' against the 49ers, and we're staring at 0-4," Detroit quarterback Scott Mitchell said. "He just asked us, `What's going on? We're a talented team. How could we go 0-3?' The consensus was that our offense was too complicated, and we need to put our best players on the field."
The foundation of one of the NFL's most potent offenses was born in September 1995. The Lions simplified their playbook, basically rotating between eight pass and five run plays, and empowered Mitchell to look for matchup advantages.
Those were plentiful given his playmakers: running back Barry Sanders, and receivers Herman Moore, Brett Perriman and Johnnie Morton. The Lions' offensive coordinator was Tom Moore, who currently holds that position with the Indianapolis Colts.
The Lions defeated the 49ers, 27-24.
"That victory catapulted us another level," offensive tackle Lomas Brown said.
Detroit's defense also was star-studded, with players such as Robert Porcher, Luther Elliss, Henry Thomas and Chris Spielman.
Instability on the defensive coaching staff proved problematic.
"We didn't have any consistency or continuity," cornerback Ryan McNeil said. "We had a lot of veterans, like Spielman, but it took a while for us to get into a groove and let our offense do what they do best."
The Lions' offense set numerous team records: most passing yards (4,510), points (436), touchdowns (50), as well as total offense (6,115 yards) and first downs (349).
By early November, Detroit was 3-6. But slow starts were nothing new to Fontes' Lions. In 1994, they started 2-4 and made the playoffs with a 9-7 record.
After a 27-24 victory over Tampa Bay at the Silverdome, the Lions started to click, and they closed the season with seven consecutive victories, including their final four by an average of 24 points.
"When you're losing, once something bad happens you're thinking, `Here we go again,' " Porcher said. "When you're on a roll, no one wants to mess that up. You just want to continue to build on that momentum."
In fact, Detroit nearly snatched the NFC Central title from the Packers. But Steelers receiver Yancey Thigpen, who was wide open in the end zone, dropped a fourth-and-goal pass with 11 seconds remaining that would have given his team the lead against Green Bay. The Packers escaped 24-19.
"That's what's great about the NFL," Porcher said. "You just never know what each Sunday is going to bring. You never know how one play makes a difference."
By losing the division, the Lions got no bye and traveled to Philadelphia.
Brown generated bulletin board material by guaranteeing victory.
"It was taken out of context," Brown said. "I said, `If we keep playing like we've been playing, I guarantee we'll beat them.' But they didn't put that all in."
The Lions reverted to their early season play and were throttled 58-37 by the Eagles.
"They complete a Hail Mary right before halftime," Mitchell recalled. "It was just one of those days, where everything went right for them and wrong for us.
"We should have competed to go to the Super Bowl that season."
2002 NEW YORK JETS, 2005 VIKINGS
There are some striking parallels between these teams, although the Vikings have yet to secure a playoff spot.
The Jets' defense added five veteran starters: linebacker Sam Cowart, defensive tackle Josh Evans, cornerbacks Donnie Abraham and Aaron Beasley, and safety Sam Garnes.
The Vikings' defense also added five veteran starters: Cowart, nose tackle Pat Williams, linebacker Napoleon Harris, cornerback Fred Smoot and safety Darren Sharper.
The offenses struggled under the incumbent veteran quarterbacks, Vinny Testaverde and Daunte Culpepper, and rebounded after in-season changes, the Jets to Chad Pennington and the Vikings to Brad Johnson.
The Jets were blown out early in the season, losing three games by a combined score of 102-13, including two on the road. The Vikings were outscored in their first four road games 133-34.
"There are a lot of similarities," Cottrell said, reflecting on the two seasons. "A lot, come to think of it."
Last week, Cowart and Evans talked about the likeness of the Vikings' season to theirs in 2002.
"Everyone had written us off and said that we were a bad team," Evans recalled telling Cowart. "But we knew we had a lot of talent."
After an overtime victory over the Buffalo Bills in the season opener, the Jets lost four consecutive games, and the defense and offense struggled.
On defense, Evans said players didn't trust one another and questioned Cottrell's scheme.
"When big plays happen, usually someone is out of position. With us, that happened often," Evans said. "It was guys trying to make plays and guys trying to do too much. When we started relying on each other, we were something to be reckoned with."
Vikings defensive players acknowledged the same problem, as well as the same solution.
Cowart mentioned the 2002 Jets to the Vikings this season, and he repeatedly backed Cottrell's approach to his teammates.
"Preseason, it's all going good," Cowart said. "Then you lose a couple of games, and it's `Why we ain't doing that? I ain't being used right.'
"But Teddy did a good job of holding it together. We just got the guys believing, and we started playing better, then guys were like, `It does work.' "
The 2002 Jets offense took off after Pennington became the starter, and Curtis Martin paced the rushing attack.
In their final two games of the season, the Jets won by a combined score of 72-34.
"It just seemed like everything clicked at the right time," Evans said.
In their playoff opener, the Jets did the unthinkable. Not only did they beat the Manning-led Colts, they shut them out 41-0.
"Who would have thought you would hold Peyton Manning scoreless?" Evans said. "But Ted came in with a great plan against Peyton Manning, and obviously it worked."
The Jets lost 30-10 to Rich Gannon's Oakland Raiders in the divisional playoff.
Cottrell is proud of the 2002 Jets. But he's even prouder of the Vikings.
"This has been more emotionally trying, because of the off-the-field stuff," Cottrell said, referring to the infamous boat party on Lake Minnetonka that resulted in misdemeanor charges against Culpepper, Smoot, Bryant McKinnie and Moe Williams. "The negative publicity goes nationwide, then it paints the whole team in a bad light. I'm really happy for them, because they've shown that resiliency and bounced back.
"Sometimes you're better coming out of some adversity, and that's what happened to this team."
But the Vikings haven't capped the comeback yet. They are 8-5, and Sunday they're playing the 8-5 Steelers, who also are battling for a playoff spot.
Cottrell wouldn't mind a repeat performance of the 2002 Jets, though.
"I hope we can continue that way," Cottrell said, "because we got to the playoffs and we shut out the Colts."
A Vikings-Colts matchup would have to come in the Super Bowl.
Re: Vikings could join select few in turnaround department
I'm just praying, our last regular season game, comes down to playing for the Divisional Championship...
How could it get any better than that?...
Re: Vikings could join select few in turnaround department
It sure would help ease the pain of a 6-0 start and not making the playoffs by fading away at the end of the season. I would much rather be in this position. Play when it matters, get rid of the facades.