On my first assignment covering the NFL, I listened to new Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gleefully discuss replacing legend Tom Landry with a brash college coach named Jimmy Johnson while promising to oversee every aspect of the Cowboys’ organization “from socks and jocks.”
Later that year in Dallas, Buddy Ryan made fun of Johnson’s hair and put out an unofficial bounty on the Cowboys kicker, and then Johnson traded Herschel Walker to Minnesota for a dozen players and draft picks and 5,000 lakes.
Then, I left Dallas for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and found out that the Cowboys could not match the masters of American sports drama. The Minnesota Vikings are the kings of interesting.
Two weeks ago, the Vikings were inspiring justified optimism while demonstrating organizational stability and unveiling a new stadium that reminds everyone within eyesight of downtown Minneapolis that the NFL dominates American sports.
Then Teddy Bridgewater blew out his knee while making a throw during a practice and without getting hit, and the Vikings traded a first-round draft pick and another high pick for another team’s starting quarterback.
The events were shocking only if you expect normalcy.
Remember, this is a franchise that gave you the Love Boat, the Original Whizzinator, a kicker being accused and acquitted of drug smuggling charges, a coach threatening to sue his owners, Randy Moss’ Book of Memorable Memes, Moss’ Lambeau goalpost butt rub, a coach scandalized for scalping Super Bowl tickets, Brad Childress’ quarterback wars, helicopters circling above Brett Favre’s arrival, excruciating NFC title game losses, the Bounty on Brett, Joe Webb starting a playoff game, Adrian Peterson breaking records and wielding switches and Percy Harvin throwing a weight at a coach.
There are NFL teams that have been relentlessly uninteresting, like the Titans, and those that have attracted interest by winning, like the Packers and Patriots. The Vikings may stand alone when it comes to attracting interest while not winning it all.
When the Minnesota Twins stink, they fade into the background like beige wallpaper. When the Vikings make news, they assault the senses like a superhero movie.
Sports curses do not exist, but franchises do develop distinctive personalities that shape their efforts. Bridgewater’s injury was atypical and shocking because of its timing and nature, but key NFL players are injured every season.
What made this sequence of events so typically fascinating is that the Vikings, consistent with their history, reacted in the most dramatic way possible in a desperate attempt to win a Super Bowl.
They made a deal that no one would have predicted. We know this because for all of the intense and capable reporters who cover the NFL, none predicted the possibility of the Vikings trading for Sam Bradford. The Vikings never fail to shock.
The move was unpredictable because Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman covets draft choices and because Bradford is unproven as a winner.
If Spielman wanted justification for making this deal, he could have done so by becoming the first Vikings employee ever to look back fondly on the Walker deal.
Yes, Johnson bamboozled the Vikings in that deal, leading to the departure of General Manager Mike Lynn and the retirement of coach Jerry Burns. Yes, it ranks as one of the worst trades in NFL history.
Here’s why that trade justifies Spielman’s decision: 2½ years later, the Vikings, having hired Dennis Green to coach them, went to the playoffs. They would make the playoffs in eight of nine seasons and reach two NFC Championship Games. They would build perhaps the NFL’s most talented roster in 1998.
Spielman was right not to fear a major and costly deal. NFL teams can recover from costly trades, and Vikings history demands that he pursue championships while he can.
Vikings history also suggests that embracing drama is not merely a strategy, it is an inevitability.