Watching the Vikings the past three decades has been like chronicling an ’80s hair band. It’s been all fun and games except for the times the lead singer got busted and the drummer spontaneously combusted.
For a franchise that has been frequently competitive, the Vikings have rarely experienced what felt like sustainable success.
They were once owned by a Gang of 10 that feuded with the general manager, who was replaced by a non-football executive who wore coach’s shorts and a stopwatch.
Their next owner lived in San Antonio, and, once he realized he couldn’t win big or get a stadium built, stripped the team to make it attractive to new buyers.
Red McCombs sold to Zygi Wilf, whose jagged learning curve led to the hiring of Fran “I know New Mexico Football” Foley and Brad Childress.
Jerry Burns was an elderly coach who would have retired even if he had won a Super Bowl. He gave way to Dennis Green, who collected enemies the way a coffee shop message board collects business cards. Green gave way to Mike Tice, who had never been a coordinator at any level before he became a head coach, and eventually Childress, who saved time by burning bridges before he bothered to build them.
Childress gave way to Leslie Frazier, who served as the asbestos quilt that ownership threw over their constant brushfires, then tossed aside once the flames went out.
The Vikings’ best teams since the mid-’80s have been one-offs: The 1987 team that backed into the playoffs, then won two games with Wade Wilson at quarterback. The 1998 team that resurrected Randall Cunningham. The 2000 team that relied on Daunte Culpepper to outscore a shoddy defense. The 2009 team that hired Brett Favre as a temp. The 2012 team that made the playoffs in Christian Ponder’s lone showing of competence.
The past 30 years of Vikings football have felt like annual acts of desperation. That might be changing.
Monday night, the Vikings open the 2015 season with an owner, general manager, head coach, offensive coordinator and budding franchise quarterback who all might have staying power, as their state-of-the-art stadium rises in Minneapolis like an homage to the most elaborate spaceships from “Star Wars.”
This group hasn’t won anything yet, but for once the Vikings look built to last, thanks to a four-month span that brought in a handful of underappreciated hires.
On Jan. 15, 2014, Vikings GM Rick Spielman hired a man who had almost given up on his quest to become an NFL head coach. Mike Zimmer looked and acted like a quintessential crusty defensive coordinator, the kind that often has trouble adjusting to leading a franchise. To date, he has impressed the front office and locker room with his teaching and leadership.
Zimmer in turn hired famed offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Suddenly the Vikings had offensive and defensive brains that would allow them to match up with most if not all NFL coaching staffs.
Turner in turn recommended the drafting of Teddy Bridgewater with the 32nd pick in the first round in 2014. Bridgewater has been one of the most accurate QBs in the NFL since November, including this year’s preseason.
With the ninth pick in that draft, Zimmer targeted a player underappreciated by analysts, a linebacker who had barely played the position. Anthony Barr might have become the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2014 if not for injuries, and he could be the best player on the defense this year.
The Wilfs have become more sound and patient decisionmakers, and their ability to land a new stadium ensures the Vikings should be stable and profitable for decades.
The Vikings have always had talent, and rarely had enough talent where it mattered most. They enter this season with a young roster, a quarterback of the present and future, a defensive centerpiece, expert schemers on the coaching staff and stability in ownership and the front office.
For once the franchise looks built to last, thanks to key personalities who don’t seem intent on doing anything stupid in the near future.
Now all they have to do is win.