Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Reliving a nightmare

I've been avoiding this for almost 10 years.

Last weekend, as I was scrolling through this week's NFL Network programming schedule, I noticed a peculiar listing: "NFL's Greatest Games: 1998 NFC Championship - Atlanta Falcons at Minnesota Vikings". Many, many thoughts immediately went rushing through my head, the first of which being "NFL's 'GREATEST GAMES'?!? Is this some kind of cruel joke??" My next thought: was this really 10 years ago? Has it been THAT long?

Like any sane (or maybe insane?) Vikings fan, I've gone way out of my way to avoid seeing any highlights, getting involved in or initiating any discussion, or thinking about it any way shape or form whatsoever. Repression at its finest.

As I've said in earlier writeups, I'm not ashamed to admit that the day of this game is one of the worst days of my life. Some life, huh? But you have to bear in mind three things: I was 16 at the time, the Vikings meant the world to me, and they happened to have the highest scoring offense in NFL history to date. They went 15-1 during the regular season, something only two other teams had ever done before. As Ron Burgundy would say, they were kind of a big deal. To this day, I can still name just about every player on the roster, and recite just about every final score of every game that year. Not only that, but this was during a time when the Twins were a joke, and the Timberwolves were nothing. The Vikings were the be all end all of Minnesota sports. I was a fanatic and I loved it.

So to see this listing innocuously pop up on NFL Network set me back a bit. I decided to grit my teeth and write about the experience, blatantly stealing Bill Simmons' live-blog format. Just to be safe, I've primed myself with two beers before this program started.

7:03 - They start out with a highlight reel of the Vikings '98 regular season. Even with all the nonstop hype at the time and since, it's easy to forget just how incredibly LOADED this team was on offense. I mean, they just showed about 8 different highlights with 8 different guys catching touchdowns. Moss, Carter, Hoard, Glover, Smith, Hatchette, Palmer... yeah, time to crack open beer number three.

7:07 - A much more in-depth feature on the Falcons' regular season, detailing exactly what a ridiculous fluke their 14-2 season was. For instance, in the two seasons before '98, they won a total of 10 games. In the two seasons after, they won 9. Their best player was some guy named Jamal Anderson, who made a career out of using artificial turf to his advantage until it bit him in the ass and ended his career. And the perpetually injured journeyman Chris Chandler was their quarterback. In other words, this was almost as bad as the Colorado Rockies reaching the 2007 World Series.

7:13 - The Falcons win the toss, which leads to "Dan Reeves playing Denny Green like a fiddle", exhibit A: the Vikes stack the line and run-blitz like crazy to stop Jamal Anderson, so quarterback Chris Chandler completes 4 straight passes to start the game, almost immediately getting them first and goal at the Vikings 10 yard line. Denny really turned getting overwhelmed in a big game situation into an art form, as they have him miked on the sideline spouting cliches like, "Be aggressive!" Right. After two run stops, Jamal Anderson gets in front of the now-immortalized Dwayne Rudd and catches a simple circle route over the middle for a touchdown. 7-0 Falcons.

But you know, I remember about watching this live and thinking, "No big deal." Every Vikes fan thought that all year. No matter the deficit, no matter the yardage on third down, no matter the situation, the Vikings would get it done somehow. What a great feeling. There hasn't been a Minnesota team since then that I've been that confident about (not even CLOSE), and there might not be another again.

7:23 - The Vikings go right back down the field in 7 plays, Cunningham 31 yards to Moss, touchdown, tie game. Point proven.

7:29 - Atlanta turns the ball over in each of their next two possessions, leading to 10 points for the Vikings. 5:53 left in the first half. The crowd is going nuts and everything is how the script says it should be. Honestly, I thought I'd be freaked out by watching this, but I'm surprised... I'm comforted. It was FUN watching this offense operate, having the confidence knowing they could score from anywhere on the field at any time. In fact, I think I'm ready to make that an official statement after watching this, and reassessing my feelings after 10 years: It was pretty fun watching the 1998 Vikings destroy teams in the regular season, and it was fun watching their record-setting offense work their magic, regardless of how awful things turned out in the post-season.

7:37 - Vikings up 17-7 with the ball at the Atlanta 28, a chance to put the game away. Perfect third down throw from Cunningham is dropped by Moss in the middle of the end zone. Right off his hands. Forget everything I just said earlier. GOD DAMMIT. I don't think Moss gets enough flack for dropping passes. He's ridiculously athletic with freakish size and speed, but he has average hands. I don't care how good that offense was, it had its flaws. The O-line has been rather horseass as well. Fucking shit. Vikings settle for a field goal.

7:39 - Vikings get the ball back at their own 20 with 1:08 left in the first half, setting the stage for a classic instance where Denny and offensive coordinator Brian Billick demonstrate their staggeringly large egos and insist on taking multiple shots downfield, despite being at their own 20 yard line and being up 20-7. Okay, first down and maybe second down, sure take a shot. Third down, run the damn ball and punt, get to halftime. But this of course leads to a third down play of Cunningham getting stripped by Atlanta DE Chuck Smith as he's about to heave it downfield. Smith: "I read Todd Steussie's stance. I'd basically been whooping his ass all game by running around him, so he set up soft. Instead of blowing past him, I decided to bullrush him." That should be the subtitle of this show if it comes out on DVD. "The 1998 NFC Championship: Whooping Todd Steussie's Ass All Game". Atlanta recovers the fumble at the Viking 14 yard line. The very next play, Chandler complete to Terrence Mathis, touchdown. Atlanta cuts the lead to six.

7:41 - Robert Smith's assessment of that previous sequence -- "You've got a chance to put a dagger in their heart right before halftime and you gotta take that chance. And really, if everyone just does their job, then that fumble doesn't happen." But it was third down. There's just over minute left in the half. YOU'RE AT YOUR OWN TWENTY. YOU'RE ALREADY UP 20-7!!! WHY TAKE THAT RISK??? WHHHYYYYYYYYYYYYY????!?!?

I'm opening beer number four.

7:45 - Chuck Smith again: "That was the best walk to the locker room we'd ever had." I'm still reeling from that last sequence. This sucks.

7:48 - Vikings go three and out to start the 2nd half. Atlanta comes back as we bear witness to "Dan Reeves plays Denny Green like a fiddle", exhibit B: Tim Dwight lines up at quarterback with Chris Chandler flank left. With the Vikings defense sufficiently baffled, Dwight takes the snap and charges right untouched for about 25 yards. The Vikes defense was always remarkably unprepared and woefully out of position for trick plays like this. Like clockwork. Atlanta eventually settles for a field goal and it's 20-17.

7:50 - Listening to Denny spout empty cliches on the sidelines is making me want to take a beltsander to my face. Actually, at this point, he's moved past cliches and is just repeating random things like some lost autistic child. "Second and five! Second and five! Second and five!" Christ, I used to do that in my head during 9th grade algebra tests. "Only five problems left! only five problems left!" Think Denny's nervous at all? Fucking shit.

7:51 - Cunningham rolls to his left, tries to go deep to Moss and gets LEVELED by Jesse Tuggle, which irrepairably rattles Cunningham for the rest of the game. Not surprising, as he just got CLOCKED. Even before that, he wasn't catching anyone in stride, but after that hit, he stutter stepped like nuts in the pocket and he didn't roll out or scramble much at all the rest of the game.
Regardless, they dink and dunk downfield, leading to a Matthew Hatchette touchdown catch on a quick slant over the middle to make it 27-17 Vikings. This was everyone's "whew, alright, we're good, everything's okay" moment at the time. I will never forget that. I'm starting to feel a bit queasy.

7:56 - Ensuing Atlanta possession, crowd going nuts. Chandler gets plenty of time and cooly throws deep down the left sideline to Tony Martin for 70 yards. How does a road team pull something like that off, on their first play after the other team has just scored? In the NFC title game! Seriously, how does that happen? HOW does that HAPPEN? It's Chris freaking Chandler for god's sake!!

7:57 - Vikings try to kill the clock with the following: run up the middle for 1 yard, run up the middle for 0 yards, 7 step drop pass for a sack. Classic Denny Green telegraphed sequence. "ATTN: OPPOSING DEFENSE - WE'RE TRYING TO RUN THE CLOCK, AND WE'RE GOING TO MAKE IT AS EASY ON YOU AS POSSIBLE, SO PLEASE EXPECT SOME VERY PREDICTABLE PLAYCALLS". Swept under the rug here is how TERRIBLE the offensive line was on that sequence. They just collapsed.

7:58 - Atlanta goes three and out, Vikings get the ball back and Cunningham FUMBLES THE SNAP?! I'll be honest with you - I don't remember this at all. Falcons get the ball at the Vikings 30. The crowd is in full blown panic mode.

7:59 - Atlanta stumbles again (the Vikes DID stop the run pretty well), Reeves elects to go for it on 4th down and fails as the crowd collectively sighs in relief. Denny lucks into somebody else's mistake, imagine that. I seriously don't remember any of this originally, which leads me to believe that I was way too rattled to have been paying too much attention, or way too pissed off and nervous to have retained this for longer than an hour or two. There's six minutes left in the game, Vikings with the ball up by 7.

8:00 - Robert Smith: "They can talk all they want about how physical they were. When we needed to run the ball most, we were able to do it." I'm liking Robert Smith less and less.

8:01 - Vikings make Atlanta use up all their timeouts, during which we hear Denny interacting with Carter and Moss on the sideline. Well, less "interacting" and more "being talked at". Seriously, what the HELL? You're the COACH, tell these idiots to sit down and SHUT UP. The Vikings eventually drive into Atlanta territory despite the whining.

8:05 - Here it is. 38 yard field goal from Gary Anderson to make it a 10 point game, and essentially end it. And.... it's still wide left, 10 years later.

Fucking SHIT.

8:06 - Atlanta LB Keith Brooking says, "There was not a doubt in my mind that, after that, we were going to drive downfield and score seven points. Not. A. Doubt." Nice to see the Falcons players shared the same mindset as every single Vikings fan.

8:07 - This is sickening to watch. I mean, every receiver is WIDE open, and Chandler has a ridiculous amount of time to throw. I just caught myself audibly mumbling at the TV. I'm losing it all over again.

8:08 - The slicker-than-deer-guts-on-a-door-knob Chris Chandler scrambles for 9 yards. Exhibit C in the Dan Reeves/Denny Green chess match: 3rd and 1 on the Viking 38, and Atlanta has been pass-pass-pass this entire drive, so Denny, being Denny, has six defensive backs out there on a 3rd and 1. Handoff to Jamal Anderson goes for 8 yards. Denny is so in over his head here it's sad to watch.

8:09 - I experience another "OH MY GOD I FORGOT ABOUT THAT" moment as Robert Griffith comes within inches of picking off a tipped Chandler pass in the end zone. That's ANOTHER moment I actively blocked out, and now still wish I had. That one hurt. It sounds almost as if the crowd senses that was the Vikings one chance, as Atlanta has 2nd and 10 at the Vikings 21. They're loud, but unconvincing. With good reason. Chandler to Mathis, touchdown, tie game. Beer number five is long gone. Chris freaking Chandler.

8:10 - Inexplicably, the program glazes over Denny taking a knee with 1:40 left and two timeouts opting to send the game to overtime and completely pussying out due to his own fuckup at the end of the first half (really, the most frustrating and infuriating part of the entire game). Although maybe the skip isn't so inexplicable; it's possible NFL Network is in the midst of a class-action lawsuit involving destroyed TVs as a result of reliving Denny's Knee.

The quote of the show so far, as we head to overtime: "When the game went to overtime, that was the first time in my career that I REALLY felt nervous during a game." - Cris Carter. Somehow, I find that quote to be COMPLETELY counterproductive to the entire purpose of this exercise. Thanks, Cris Carter.

(Sidenote to get my mind off of this - NFL Network keeps airing this awful weightloss commercial... I'm not the only person that thinks Jilian Barbarie is horrifying, right? Not even five beers has made her remotely attractive. I think I'd rather make out with the melting Nazi from "Raiders of the Lost Ark".)

8:13 - Vikings first OT series - Cunningham is forced out of the pocket and scrambles to his right, getting stripped of the ball. Somehow David Dixon prevents nuclear meltdown and falls on it. The Vikings punt anyway. By the way, we're past the point where I, along with several thousand others, thought there was no chance in hell the Vikings were going to pull this off in overtime. Not after Gary Anderson missed. Not after how regulation ended. Not with Denny. The other shoe was going to drop any second.

8:15 - Atlanta gets two first downs on their first OT possession but eventually punts. Vikings get the ball back, and its third and 10 quicker than you can say "Purple Pride". BUT WAIT, DEEP TO MOSS AND IT'S... woefully underthrown. Moss had more than a step on Buchannan. That was it. Fucking SHIT, I had completely forgotten about that. That was IT.

8:17 - The narrative picks this time to lament over the injuries the Vikings defense sustained over the course of the game, namely Ed McDaniel and John Randle. Two huge blows, to be sure, but still, here's the quote we get from Denny: "That really hurt us. We didn't have the same guys on the field that got us to a 15-1 record."

First of all, you were 15-1 IN SPITE OF your shitty defense. Every idiot that watched 10 seconds of any Vikings game at any point of the season knew that. Second, should that really MATTER? Talent is one thing, but haven't the New England, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and San Diego teams (and scores of others) demonstrated over the past few years that this logic is completely empty and useless? It's the NFL and injuries HAPPEN. If the backups suck, then plan for a more basic defensive scheme and put more of an emphasis on positioning, rather than sticking to the same scheme fit for the faster and more athletic starters, which leads to round pegs in square holes. Yeah yeah, retrospect is 20/20 and blah blah blah, but seriously, these guys are paid a LOT OF MONEY to figure this shit out and to coach an ENTIRE 53 man roster, as in NOT JUST THE STARTERS, to be ready for any and every situation and oeriaufe j9834hjt938htj kadf.,amf.kd mklmawfm.x,

It's time for beer number six.

8:18 - Atlanta DB Ray Buchannan - "Why does football depend so much on a kicker?"

8:19 - Atlanta's 2nd drive of OT gets them within striking distance. Morten Anderson. 31 yards. The kick is up. It drifts ever so slightly to the right for a SPLIT SECOND... then, as if being pulled by a magnet, somehow starts hooking left.

Fucking. Shit.

It's remarkable how so much time can pass, yet an event such as this can evoke almost the EXACT same feelings as when it first happened. And they are as follows: You will never, EVER see a bigger choke job in the NFL, as long as you live. As a result, this game is proof that any cynicism I have developed as a Vikings fan was not created as some wimpy defense mechanism. Rest assured this team has EARNED EVERY OUNCE of my cynicism.

You will never see a team as mentally unprepared, as inexcusably nervous and unconfident (if that's not a word, then Denny created it for me) as this Vikings team, and ALL of that falls on the coaching. For enabling babbling misguided idiots like Cris Carter and a fucking ROOKIE (Moss) to help dictate his gameplan. Listening to Denny Green on the sidelines was sad. Listening to Carter and Moss whine at him like spoiled children, and watching Denny enable and appease them was pathetic.

I remember it was this point in time that I very slowly wandered up the stairs, completely dazed by what just happened, and taking the longest shower of my life. Thus completes my worst experience as a sports fan.

8:21 - Just to rub it in, Robert Smith busts out the classic, "We were the best team on the field that day, we just didn't get it done" bullshit. You can promptly fuck right off, Robert Smith.

8:25 - Atlanta gets predictably thrashed by Denver two weeks later in Super Bowl XXXIII. My thoughts on a Vikings/Denver Super Bowl haven't changed over the years: Denver was a much more complete team and would've beat the Vikes handily.

As we gloss over "highlights" for the Vikings over the next couple seasons leading to his firing, we're left with one last Denny quote: "I think anybody would tell you that 10 years in the same job is too long." Uh, WHAT? So you're saying you should've been fired after the 1996 season? I don't understand this quote at all, which means it's classic Denny. Great way to end the show.


As much as it helps to articulate this entire experience as an adult, guess what? It still sucks to be a Vikings fan. Imagine that. After this entire 90 minute ordeal, it would seem this entire writeup is an exercise in futility, needlessly dragging out old memories and old scars. And for what?

As it turns out, it was for the 16-year-old me. To be honest, before I started watching this, there was a small part of me that was afraid that I wouldn't care anymore, that I wouldn't get nearly as riled up anymore, that I'd consider wrapping myself into it as much as I did back then as a huge waste of time, that somehow my emotional investment had gone to waste. I'm relieved to type this out right now and declare that is not the case. As perverse as it may sound, I'm still a Vikings fan, I still have hope for this year, and I'm glad I was able to re-live the worst sports experience in my lifetime and come away with something.

If this little experiment has proven anything, it's that it takes more than 10 years and Denny Green to dim one's fandom.

No comments: