Thursday, September 08, 2005

Vikings: 28 next years and counting

Take a look at this chart. It ranks NFL teams by the number of playoff appearances they have made in the 39 years of the Super Bowl era. Also included are the number of conference (or league, pre-1970) championship games the teams have reached, how many Super Bowls they have played in, and the number of Super Bowl titles each has won:


The chart is all you need to know about being a Vikings fan.

I grew up in Minneapolis, and the first NFL game I can remember watching was Super Bowl XI: Minnesota Vikings vs. Oakland Raiders. Particularly when you're a 7-year-old kid, your first experience with something becomes your point of reference, so I just assumed that the Vikings were in the Super Bowl every year. This wasn't entirely ridiculous: The 1976 season marked the fourth time the Vikings had reached the Super Bowl, meaning they had appeared in more than one-third of the games to that point, and half of the past eight. (Dallas and Miami had each been there three times.) Midway through the fourth quarter, when Willie Brown intercepted a Fran Tarkenton pass and ran it back 75 yards for the nail-in-the-coffin TD, I thought something along the lines of "we'll get 'em next year."

Twenty-eight next years later, the Vikings have yet to return to the Super Bowl. Purple Power!

The research that produced the chart above came from a hunch. I suspected that the Vikings just had to be the team with the most playoff appearances without a ring. They made the postseason eight times in the 1970s, five times in the '80s and seven times in the '90s. In addition to their four Super Bowl appearances, they played in the NFC Championship Game four times. I assumed that repeat champions like the Steelers, Raiders, Cowboys and 49ers had made more trips to the playoffs, but no one could match the Vikes for the sheer number of postseason trips with nothing to show for them.

When I got all the numbers together, it was even more depressing. The Vikings have been to the playoffs more than any team except Dallas. There are teams with a total of 15 titles weirdly clustered at 21 appearances each, three fewer than the Vikings. The Patriots have been in the playoffs half as many times yet have been to one more Super Bowl and have won three rings. The Redskins and Packers have each been to the dance 10 fewer times, yet each club has three titles.

Now, I have long since quit living and dying by the Vikings. But understand that this is what it's like to be a Minnesotan: Year after year, you think you have a shot, and you get nothing. You can lose big (e.g. Walter Mondale in 1984; or Giants 41, Vikings 0 in the 2000 NFC Championship Game). You can lose narrrowly (Hubert Humphrey in 1968; or Falcons 30, Vikings 27 in overtime in the 1998 NFC Championship Game). You can lose year after year after year (Harold Stassen, the Jerry Burns era). But you will lose. Oh, sure, the Minneapolis Lakers didn't lose; they won several NBA titles. But the state lost the team to L.A. The Minnesota North Stars lost the 1991 Stanley Cup Finals, and the state soon lost that team to the burgeoning hockey hotbed of Dallas/Fort Worth. The Minnesota Twins -- God love 'em, the only team that can still make me cry -- won the World Series twice in five years, and Major League Baseball put out a contract on them, or whatever that was. This is sports life in the Gopher State.

But back to the Viqueens, as Morgan Mundane loved to call them. The deeper you look into the numbers, the more maddening they become. Many of the teams at the top of the list went dry at one time or another. The Rams, for example, made the playoffs in 1989, when they were still in Los Angeles, and didn't get back until 1999, by which time they had moved to St. Louis. The Raiders went in 1993, while they were in Los Angeles, and their next appearance wasn't until 2000, by which time they had moved back to Oakland. The 49ers played in the NFC Championship Game in 1970 and '71, made the playoffs in '73, then disappeared until '81. The Cowboys were out of it from 1986 through 1990. The Vikings' longest stretch without a playoff appearance: four years, 1983-86. That matches the worst stretches of the Dolphins (two rings) and Steelers (four). The Vikings are always a threat to make the playoffs; they just don't do anything to make you proud while there.

The Vikings' postseason futility spans all eras. Since their last Super Bowl, they've lost the conference title game after the 1977 season (under Bud Grant), 1987 (Jerry Burns) and 1998 and 2000 (Dennis Green). The only Vikings coaches (except Norm Van Brocklin in the post-expansion years) who haven't made it to -- and lost -- the NFC Championsip Game are Mike Tice (working on it) and Les Steckel (3-13 in 1984). Further, it wasn't just losing those games; it was the way they were lost:
1977: Defending NFC champion Minnesota goes into Texas Stadium and gets throttled 23-6. Dallas goes on to wipe its shoes with the Denver Broncos.
1987: The Vikings, who had been on strike and unloved while the Twins were becoming World Series champions, win back the hearts of Minnesotans in the playoffs by crushing the Saints 44-10 and shocking the 49ers 36-24, both on the road. They proceed to break those same hearts in the NFC title game when Darrin Nelson drops the tying touchdown in the end zone, the Redskins win 17-10, and Washington disassembles the Broncos in the Super Bowl.
1998: The original Greatest Show on Turf. Randall Cunningham, Cris Carter, Randy Moss, Robert Smith and the rest of the boys in violet set a league record with 556 points scored. They go 15-1, winning games by gaudy scores of 41-7, 50-10 and 31-7. Gary Anderson, who was a million years old even back then, misses only one kick all year: the winning field goal in the NFC Championship Game. Atlanta wins in OT and goes on to face the damn Broncos. At least this time the Broncos win. Cold comfort.
2000: Minnesotans see this loss coming, though not the size: Giants over Vikings, 41-0. Kerry Collins, who two weeks later would turn in the most dreadful appearance by a quarterback in Super Bowl history, looks like Y.A. Tittle in slicing the Vikings to ribbons. At least the Giants, rather than the Vikings, go on to get killed by the Ravens. At least, at least, at least. Even colder comfort.

A reasonable person could say that this is being awfully hard on the Vikings. After all, they've made the playoffs. If the chart above proves something else, it's that the St. Louis/Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals are truly the pits of the league. But nowadays, people in Arizona are thinking about going to the playoffs and are excited about the prospect. Vikings fans don't get excited by being in the playoffs. They're like Atlanta Braves fans that way: They want to know, what are you going to DO with this opportunity? I'd venture to say that Vikings fans would trade all those 9-7 seasons, all those losses in the wild-card round, all those shellackings in someone else's stadium, for a single five-year stretch that ends in a Super Bowl victory. Like Tampa Bay in 2002 or Baltimore in 2000. Or, hell, the Minnesota Twins in 1987 and 1991.

As it stands now, Minnesotans know tht the Vikings could make the playoffs this year. They're almost dreading it.


Note: Yes, the Vikings were officially NFL champions in 1969, the last year before the merger. They even wore a patch on their uniforms to that effect in 1994 (the 25th anniversary season). But they lost the Super Bowl to the Chiefs. The championship was only a technicality.

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