Vikings fans of a certain generation are haunted by the organization’s four Super Bowl losses. In person, on e-mails, via online comments on stories about the team, they preface comments by saying, “I’m old enough to remember …”
A lot of Vikings fans, though — perhaps even the majority? — are not old enough to remember. Tuesday marked the 41-year anniversary of the last time the Vikings even played in a Super Bowl, a 32-14 loss to the Raiders that was the Vikings’ third Super Bowl loss in four seasons and the fourth in eight years.
For more recent generations of fans, the pain is focused more acutely on memories of great Vikings teams that had a Super Bowl appearance within its grasp, only to have it cruelly snatched away.
The best of those teams was the 1998 Vikings, a juggernaut that went 15-1 and set a record (at the time) for points in a season. That team’s overtime loss in the NFC Championship Game to Atlanta left a mark that remains today.
It’s a significant part of the reason Vikings fans haven’t been able to simply enjoy this year’s 13-3 team or fully allow themselves to believe a Super Bowl appearance at the Vikings’ home of U.S. Bank Stadium is within reach. This year’s Vikings finished with the best record since 1998 — the only other season in franchise history with at least 13 victories.
Coach Mike Zimmer emphatically said last week that the Vikings do not have a “curse,” but plenty of Minnesotans still are wondering: Is it OK to watch with both eyes open when the Vikings open the playoffs Sunday against New Orleans, and is this finally the year that doesn’t end in heartbreak? To deconstruct that question and search for answers, let’s travel back in time almost two decades.
The 1998 Vikings outscored opponents 556-296 during the regular season. Entering that game against the Falcons, they had won each of their last eight games, including the playoff opener against Arizona, by at least 10 points.
John Randle, part of a defense that was no slouch — the Vikings ranked sixth in the NFL in points allowed that season (18.5) — said the team’s dominance created a sense of overwhelming confidence. But as the stakes were raised, pressure entered the equation.
“We expected the playoffs, just the way the season went, to be that much easier,” Randle said. “We put that pressure on ourselves and when we lost to Atlanta, that was almost like a dose of reality.”
Offensive coordinator Brian Billick, the architect of that record-setting offense that included electrifying rookie receiver Randy Moss, eventual Hall of Famer Cris Carter, resurgent quarterback Randall Cunningham, 1,000-yard rusher Robert Smith and a dominant offensive line, remembers things much the same way.
“I don’t think that team took anyone for granted,” Billick said. “But we had such faith and we were so good that it was hard to conceive of anyone beating us.”
For a while, it looked like the Falcons game would follow a familiar script. Minnesota, a double-digit favorite even against the 14-2 Falcons, led 20-7 late in the first half before a fumble helped the Falcons pull within six points at halftime.
The Vikings led 27-20 late in the fourth quarter and were set to take a two-score lead, but Gary Anderson — who hadn’t missed a field-goal attempt all year — sent a kick wide left. Atlanta drove 71 yards in eight plays and tied the score. The Vikings still had a little less than a minute left in regulation, but after two plays yielded only 7 yards, Cunningham took a knee and sent the game to overtime.
“The end of the game, when they took a knee, that gave us the upper hand,” said Esera Tuaolo, a Vikings defensive lineman from 1992-96 who was on the 1998 Falcons team. “When you do stuff like that with an opposing team that’s an underdog, it gave us everything we needed to follow up in overtime.”
The Vikings had two overtime possessions but couldn’t move into field-goal range. On their second drive of overtime, the Falcons ended the Vikings’ dream season 30-27.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from that game, it’s well-worn but true: Never take anything for granted. Billick carried that message with him when he became head coach of the Ravens, winning a Super Bowl two years later.
Randle’s Hall of Fame career as a defensive tackle ended without a Super Bowl title. His message is directed squarely at this year’s Vikings.
“There’s the former player in me who says take it one game at a time,” Randle said. “I don’t want to all of a sudden put any negativity on my Vikings. Just keep saying one game at a time and look at it that way.”
Safe to believe?
The 1998 season was a significant focus of a 2017 YouTube documentary released by recent St. Cloud State graduate Bailey Cossairt. The title, “Wide Left,” says it all — summing up two decades of Vikings history with a description of both Anderson’s miss and Blair Walsh’s 2015 playoff miss.
“I remember one guy I talked to said he didn’t remember anything about the [1998 NFC Championship Game] except for the kick,” Cossairt said. “He didn’t remember anything else. Nothing else resonated. Just that one moment, even though it wasn’t a game-winning or game-losing kick, it just stuck in his mind.”
A self-described huge Vikings fan, Cossairt says he can sense fans are “definitely reluctant to get excited again.” As for him?
“I have to remain optimistic, but I can’t get my hopes too high,” he said.
Vikings owner Mark Wilf said he has heard from excited fans, but he also is well aware of the history.
“Listen, it’s a tough business to win,” Wilf said. “But we think with the coaching staff and the team we’ve put together, we’re looking forward to continuing this march.”
Billick said the collective emotions of the Vikings fan base are something players and coaches will need to be aware of as the playoffs approach.
“You can’t live there and not have that sense. The pressure and emotion of having the chance to win the Super Bowl will be strong,” Billick said. “I would be conscious of that for my players so they don’t get emotionally worn out.”
That said, Billick said he “loves” this year’s Vikings team and “likes their chances” of reaching the Super Bowl. He praised their balance on offense and defense, noting the Vikings can win in a variety of different ways.
Billick said this year’s Steelers remind him the most of the 1998 Vikings, given all their offensive talent. But as we all know, it’s not always the most explosive team that wins.
This year’s Vikings don’t really resemble that 1998 squad, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be comparisons. It’s mentioned to Randle that talk of the 1998 team will only intensify given the success of this year’s team, the potential to play Atlanta again in the NFC Championship Game and the fact that the Super Bowl is here. Is that OK with him?
“I’m never OK with that because still, for me, 1998 was one of the hardest seasons ever,” Randle said. “But you know what, this is 2017 and I believe and hope this is going to be the year that suddenly we make history.”