A funeral was held for Don Riley, the legendary St. Paul columnist, on Friday. There were many jokes about Riley and the “Green Bushers,’’ even during the homily by the priest.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press had much circulation in western Wisconsin when the Vikings joined the NFL in 1961. As an irreverent sports columnist, Riley had the intuition to start needling the Green Bay Packers and their fans immediately.
This was outstanding for newspaper circulation, and also Riley’s pocket book, since he was in demand for years as a paid speaker at athletic banquets and other public events in western Wisconsin.
The deal is, the rivalry for decades was more a product of imagination, since the Vikings were a struggling expansion team when Vince Lombardi’s teams were great, and the Packers were mostly losers when Bud Grant’s teams were great, and then in the ‘80s, both teams were basically poor cousins to the Chicago Bears in the NFC Central.
The legitimacy of this rivalry can be traced to the crossing of paths of two very different gentlemen in 1992:
Brett Favre came to Green Bay as a novice quarterback, and Dennis Green came to Minnesota as a first-time NFL head coach.
The next decade was tremendous, not only for Vikings vs. Packers, but for the much-missed, five-team NFC Central.
The Tampa Bay Bucs were members along with the Vikings, Packers, Bears and Detroit Lions, and there was something about that – playing four teams twice, playing half the schedule within a division – that beats the four-team divisions that the NFL instituted for the 2002 season.
Green was the Vikings’ coach for a decade, with four Central titles and eight playoff appearances. Favre was the Packers’ quarterback for 16 seasons, and over his first decade [1992-2001], the Packers won three Central titles and made seven playoff appearances.
There’s the little thing about the Packers’ back-to-back Super Bowl appearances and one victory, but that’s not the point here – which is, that was the decade when the Packers vs. Vikings became real stuff and not just a few guys arguing in a bar in Stillwater or Hudson.
What’s also interesting is the NFC Central claimed 13 of the NFC’s 30 wild-card spots over that decade, including all three in 1993. The other teams in the division also had a Central title: Detroit (1993), Tampa Bay (1999) and Chicago (2001).
The division was difficult much of the time, with the Packers and the Vikings exchanging the biggest punches -- until 2001, the five-team Central’s last season, when the Vikings fell off the map to 5-11 and Green was fired.
The Vikings popped up with Favre as their quarterback during his amazing 40-year-old season of 2009, to bring a new level of emotion to the rivalry, but let’s face it:
The insults have been mostly one-sided since the Packers and the Vikings landed in the four-team North with Detroit and Chicago in 2002.
That changed this season, when the Packers went in the tank for 2 ½ months, and Mike Zimmer’s Vikings passed them on the last night of the schedule with a 20-13 victory in Lambeau Field.
This made the Vikings’ division champions for the third time in the 14 season of the North, and with a strong feeling from Vikes followers that the worm had turned Purple on a more permanent basis than when it happened in 2008 (with an uncertain quarterback situation) and in 2009 with Favre as a temp at quarterback.
And perhaps members of the Purple Faithful are correct.
There are numerous young studs on Zimmer’s defense and the days of Aaron Rodgers finding open receivers all over the field vs. the Vikings are gone, for sure.
There’s also reason to suspect that the new domed stadium will be more of a home advantage for the Vikings, even though TCF Bank Stadium served them well with an 11-6 record (including the recent Blair Walsh loss) in two seasons.
The deal is, after watching the Packers and the Cardinals engage in their astounding turns of events on Saturday night, I think what we’re looking at here isn’t as much a changing at the top as a return of the ‘90s, with the Packers and the Vikings exchanging blows.
Aaron Rodgers turned 32 in December. I don’t care about numbers:
To me, he threw more inaccurate passes this season than he did in the previous five total. That interception he threw to Xavier Rhodes to clinch the Vikings’ victory in Lambeau … that could have been a Joe Webb pass.
Vikings fans can look at this hopefully and say 2015 was the start of a decline for a quarterback getting older.
I doubt that. Rodgers is still mobile. He still has the incredible arm – as traveling from end zone to end zone with two passes in the final seconds of regulation vs. the Cardinals demonstrated to every football fan in the universe.
Give him back Jordy Nelson to go with the young receivers he found in Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis, and toss in Randall Cobb and Davante Adams, and maybe a tight end with speed to go with meat-handed Richard Rodgers, and I’d say Rodgers has another Super Bowl victory in him in the next five years.
Rodgers will have to beat the Vikings and Zimmer’s defense, both to win the North and to get back there, but what makes this a tale of caution for a Purple Faithful foaming with optimism is this:
Can T.E. Bridgewater become a top 12 quarterback, or will he stay firmly planted in the second dozen? Stay tuned for that one, because everyone at Winter Park can talk optimistically, but they are like Vikings fans:
They have hope but no certainty.