If the first 20 years of Vikings history were defined by success but near-misses in the Super Bowl, the last 30 years have been defined by success but near-misses in the NFC title game.
The Vikings have just one championship in their history — the 1969 NFL title, won before the AFL and NFL officially merged into one league with two conferences but not typically recognized because Minnesota went on to lose the Super Bowl that year. The last year the Vikings played in the Super Bowl was 1976. I was 2 months old when the lost to the Raiders 32-14 that year. I do not remember it.
What those who have followed the Vikings since the mid-1980s remember, instead, is that the best Minnesota seasons since Super Bowl appearances were routine have generally come via the surprising emergence of a quarterback.
The Vikings have reached the NFC title game four times from 1987-present. The 2000 team was led by first-year starter Daunte Culpepper, who was drafted a year earlier. That team went to the NFC title game and was, ah, non-competitive in a 41-0 loss to the Giants. Culpepper taking over wasn’t a complete surprise, but there had at least been offseason whispers of bringing in veteran Dan Marino (who instead retired).
The other three seasons are better examples.
The 1987 Vikings rose to prominence and engineered a playoff run thanks to the arm of Wade Wilson, a 1981 eighth-round draft pick who had started 10 games in his career before 1987. Tommy Kramer was the entrenched starter, having gone to the Pro Bowl in 1986, but he battled injuries in 1987 and opened the door for Wilson. The QBs split time in 1987, with Kramer getting the start in the Vikings’ playoff opener — only to be reinjured early with Wilson taking over. He led huge wins over the Saints and 49ers before the Vikings — who went just 8-7 in the regular season, but really 8-4 since they went 0-3 with replacement players during the labor stoppage — lost 17-10 to Washington in the NFC title game.
The 1998 Vikings, of course, started the year with Brad Johnson as the main quarterback. He had started 25 games combined for Minnesota the previous two seasons. But Johnson was injured during the Vikings’ second game of the year. Randall Cunningham took over and engineered an offensive explosion, keying a 15-1 season that ended infamously in overtime of the NFC title game.
And then the 2009 Vikings lured Brett Favre to Minnesota late in training camp, and he had the best regular season of his long career before the Vikings’ season again ended in overtime of the NFC title game. The Vikings had previously signed Sage Rosenfels, who was expected to compete with Tarvaris Jackson for the starting job.
So here’s Case Keenum in 2017. He was signed to be Sam Bradford’s backup, and potentially to be third-string if Teddy Bridgewater returned to health (as he has). After Bradford was injured early, Keenum played OK but fans couldn’t wait for Bradford’s return against the Bears. He was lousy and reinjured himself in that game. Keenum saved the day, and the Vikings have won six in a row with Keenum playing.
Keenum just beat his old team, the Rams, to move the Vikings to 8-2. He’s now second in the NFL in Total QBR, behind only the injured Deshaun Watson. He keeps playing well enough to keep his job even though Bridgewater has been deemed ready to return.
It’s a strange, wonderful story. But it’s just an extension of the typical Vikings’ QB playbook when they have succeeded in the past three decades: A veteran quarterback unexpectedly taking over and overachieving. We’ll see if Keenum can sustain it — and if this time it leads not just to a near-miss but the ultimate goal.