Preview: Vikings have been here before
The Minnesota Vikings' 2003 season began with high hopes. It ended with players throwing their helmets across the locker room.That team started 6-0 before falling apart and finishing 9-7. It all came crashing down when they were stunned, 18-17, a...
The Minnesota Vikings’ 2003 season began with high hopes. It ended with players throwing their helmets across the locker room.
That team started 6-0 before falling apart and finishing 9-7. It all came crashing down when they were stunned, 18-17, at Arizona on the final play of the season - a touchdown pass to the corner of the end zone on fourth-and-24 that knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs.
To make matters worse, it was archrival Green Bay winning the NFC North. Minnesota had needed a win or a Packers loss to make the playoffs, but they beat Denver 31-3.
“It was shocking,” said David Dixon, then a Minnesota guard. “Guys were throwing their helmets in the locker room, and they were yelling. People were just venting.”
Dixon, the offensive line coach at Burnsville High School who regularly attends Vikings games, hopes this year’s team won’t meet a similar fate. The Vikings have lost four straight since improving to 5-0 with a 31-13 victory over the Houston Texans on Oct. 9.
They’ll try to turn it around Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium against the Cardinals, who broke their hearts on Dec. 28, 2003, at Sun Devil Stadium in one of the most memorable finishes to an NFL game this century.
Arizona trailed 17-6 before scoring a touchdown with 1:54 left to cut the deficit to 17-12, then recovered an onside kick. Josh McCown soon ended it by hitting Nate Poole with a miraculous, 28-yard touchdown pass.
The 2003 Vikings are among just five NFL teams since 1990 to miss the playoffs after a 5-0 start. The others were New Orleans in 1993, Denver and the New York Giants in 2009 and Atlanta last season.
“I love the Vikings, and I’m going to stick with them,” Dixon said. “It hasn’t all slipped away. They’ve still got a chance to be NFC North champs.”
Several of Dixon’s 2003 teammates said they’re pulling for the Vikings, as well. They include quarterback Gus Frerotte, wide receiver D’Wayne Bates, linebacker Henri Crockett and safety Brian Russell.
“When we won our first six games in 2003, we were probably a little more confident than we should have been,” Russell said. “And then we lost four straight, and we were probably dwelling on those games a little bit more than we should have.
“My advice to this team - I know it sounds cliché - is you have to take one game at a time.”
Frerotte said it’s important for Minnesota’s veterans to provide leadership. Bates said the Vikings should avoid listening to what is being said and written by the media.
“Try your best to block out the media pressure because there’s going to be a lot written when they’re struggling,” Bates said. “I’m sure the coaches are already telling them that.”
If the Vikings want some firsthand advice on how to avoid what happened in 2003, they could go to backup quarterback Shaun Hill, who was the third-stringer on that team. Hill said Friday, though, he doesn’t plan to bring it up.
The 2003 Vikings had talent on offense, namely with quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who threw for 3,479 yards, and wide receiver Randy Moss, who caught 111 passes for 1,632 yards. The defense featured Pro Bowl safety Corey Chavous and rookie defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who would go on to make six Pro Bowls.
“We had tons of talent, and I definitely thought we had a good enough team to win it all,” said Frerotte, then Culpepper’s backup. “But it was kind of unchartered territory. It was new to some players, and to some coaches.”
Frerotte said he wasn’t pointing a finger at coach Mike Tice, who was in his second season after going 6-10 in 2002. But Crockett said Tice’s intense methods hurt the team.
“The practices were brutal,” he said. “All Coach Tice wanted to do was hit, hit, hit, hit. We just got beat up and worn down.”
After winning their first six games, the Vikings dropped their next four, three by 10 points or more. They never won two in a row the rest of the season. Still, entering the final week, the Vikings were in position to right the ship.
All they had to do was beat an Arizona team that Crockett called “terrible.” With that season-ending win, the Cardinals improved to 4-12.
Russell, who was defending along with cornerback Denard Walker, said McCown threw an ideal pass. The touchdown was signaled after it was deemed Poole had been pushed out of bounds, a rule that no longer exists.
“We shouldn’t have even been in the position where we needed to win on the road in Week 17 just to get into the playoffs,’’ Russell said. “But they made a good play at the end and they knocked us out.
“It was really tough, and it took a few months after the season to get the bad taste out of our mouths. But I think the Vikings now, they’ve got a good football team and they’re going to find a way to correct it.”
ARIZONA (4-4-1) AT VIKINGS (5-4)
What: NFL Week 11 game
When: Noon Sunday
Where: U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
TV: KQDS Ch. 21
Radio: KQDS-AM 1490/KQDS-FM 94.9