Dennis Green Returns The 1992 Minnesota Vikings To The Playoffs

After a nice run of playoff teams from 1987 through 1989, the Vikings had slipped to .500 and then to 6-10 the past two seasons. Dennis Green, the head coach at Stanford, was hired to put the franchise back on track. He did exactly that. The 1992 Minnesota Vikings won a division title and set the stage for a decade of success.

A physical running game was the focal point of the offense. The Vikes had Hall of Fame offensive lineman in guard Randall McDaniel and tackle Gary Zimmerman. They paved the way for running back Terry Allen to clear the 1,200-yard mark. Minnesota also added Roger Craig, a veteran of the great championship teams with the San Francisco 49ers, and the 32-year-old Craig chipped in over 400 yards.

There was no shortage of weaponry on the outside, with another future Hall of Famer, Cris Carter, catching 53 passes for 681 yards. Anthony Carter didn’t make it to Canton, but he was an explosive target and at age 32 still hauled in 41 passes for 580 yards. Tight end Steve Jordan was a reliable third option.

The offense finished fourth in the league in points scored, and the defense wasn’t far behind at seventh. Chris Doleman led the way on D, getting 14 ½ sacks and making 1st-team All-NFL at defensive end. Al Noga on the other side got nine sacks. The interior of the defensive line was disruptive, with Henry Thomas going to the Pro Bowl and John Randall racking up 11 ½ sacks.

That defensive front four woke up echoes of the old Purple People Eater units of the 1970s and keyed a D that included 1st-team All-NFL corner Audrey McMillan, Pro Bowl strong safety Todd Scott and a future head coach, Jack Del Rio, calling the shots at middle linebacker. And the coordinator who oversaw this unit? Tony Dungy didn’t do badly for himself.

In this litany of talent, you have no doubt noted an important omission. We haven’t discussed quarterback play. As seems to have been the case so often in Minnesota Vikings history, a talented team had trouble behind center.

The day would come when Rich Gannon would win an MVP award, but that was still ten years off and in Oakland. As a 27-year-old who started most of the season, Gannon was erratic in 1992. He ranked in the lower half of starting quarterbacks for completion percentage, yards-per-attempt and interception percentage. Gannon had an uneasy relationship with the starting job and eventually lost it to Sean Salisbury down the stretch.

It was a humid day in September when Minnesota opened the season at Green Bay. Green sent an early message about the kind of offense he would run, as Allen ran for 140 yards. Doleman’s two sacks keyed the defense. The Vikes made some mistakes with penalties and turnovers that kept the game close and sent it to overtime, but they eventually won 23-20.

A Week 2 visit to Detroit was a disaster, with Gannon throwing three interceptions and a non-existent running game at fault for a 31-3 deficit and eventual 31-17 defeat. But Minnesota bounced back in the home opener a week later against Tampa Bay. Gannon tosses an early 30-yard TD pass to Carter. Allen ran for 187 yards. Gannon was knocked out, but Salisbury came on and went 12/22 for 162 yards in the 26-20 win.

Gannon returned in Cincinnati and played excellent football against a bad team, going 25/32 for 318 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Doleman again picked up a couple sacks and Scott intercepted Bengal quarterback Boomer Esiason three times. The result was a 42-7 rout and set up a big home game with the Chicago Bears.

Mike Ditka’s Bears were the gold standard of the old NFC Central (the four current teams of the NFC North, plus Tampa Bay) from 1984-91. Minnesota needed to go through Chicago if they wanted to get to the top of the division. And when the Vikings fell behind 20-0 after three quarters, things weren’t looking too promising.

Then Scott picked off a Jim Harbaugh pass, took it 35 yards to the house and the comeback was on. Gannon’s efficient football, 20/25 for 187 yards eventually paid off and Minnesota rallied with a 21-20 win. The Vikes rolled into their bye week at 4-1 and in first place.

The Vikings came back with a Thursday Night home date against the Lions. Gannon threw a couple long early TD passes, 47 yards to Carter and 43 to Hassan Jones. Minnesota got some revenge with a 31-14 win that was never close.

A 15-13 loss to the Washington Redskins was no big deal at this time, even at home. The Redskins were the defending Super Bowl champs. Minnesota was still 5-2 and it was time for another big game with the Bears, this time in Soldier Field and on Monday Night.

The Vikings held a 14-3 lead at halftime, but the Bears were driving into the red zone, poised to get back in the game. Once again, a Pick-6 of Harbaugh did the trick. Del Rio intercepted a pass and went 84 yards for the score. Carlos Jenkins took another pick to the house later in the game. The rout was on and the game ended 38-10. The Ditka Era was over and Chicago collapsed to a 5-11 finish.

Opportunistic defense continued to lead the way in Tampa. Jenkins took a fumble to the house and even Doleman got in on the Pick-6 act. It was 28-0 by halftime and ended 35-7. Minnesota was running away with the NFC Central, three games ahead of the Bears and four games ahead of a Green Bay Packer team that hadn’t been relevant for twenty-five years.

Regard for the Vikings among oddsmakers was also rising. They were a comfortable 7 ½ favorite over the Houston Oilers, a playoff perennial and on their way back to the postseason in 1992. Minnesota’s defense again delivered points, this time a fumble return by defensive back Anthony Parker that gave an early 10-3 lead. But Gannon played poorly, the running game didn’t get going and that was the only Viking touchdown in a 17-13 loss.

The offensive doldrums continued for three quarters in Cleveland, against Bill Belichick’s improving Cleveland Browns. Minnesota trailed 13-3 after three quarters. Salisbury came into the game. He threw a short TD pass and another Pick-6, this one from McMillan, gave the Vikes a 17-13 win.

Salisbury played very well at the mediocre Los Angeles Rams, going 23/34 for 238 yards. The defense’s ability to make plays continued to amaze, with Parker intercepting two passes and a 31-17 lead bringing November to a close. Minnesota was 9-3 and even though Green Bay was starting to get some momentum, the Packers were still 6-6.

But a tough schedule was ahead, with road trips to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh sandwiched around a home date with San Francisco. Salisbury was sacked five times by a tough Eagles defense in a 28-17 loss. Gannon got a chance against the powerful 49ers, on their way to a 14-2 season, but he struggled to 9/21 for 102 yards, while Allen was held to 39 yards. Minnesota’s defense contained Steve Young, who was on his way to the MVP award, but they still lost, 20-17.

There was no shame in losing either game, but Green Bay was coming. When the Packers upset the Oilers in Houston that Sunday Night, the Pack was 8-6. Even though Minnesota held the tiebreaker, the teams still had to play in the final week of the season. And if the Vikes didn’t want that to be a division title showdown, they needed to find a way to win in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers would end up the 1-seed in the AFC playoffs and as nice as Minnesota’s season had been, they still hadn’t beaten an opponent of note. The playoff contenders they faced—Redskins, Oilers, Eagles and 49ers—resulted in defeats.

Even the Week 1 win over the Packers had come two weeks before Green Bay changed the fortunes of their season and the entire trajectory of the NFL by going with 23-year-old Brett Favre at quarterback. There was considerable doubt about Minnesota’s ability to compete with the league’s best teams and with the Packers surging, and the Eagles and Redskins in position to secure wild-card spots, the room for error was rapidly vanishing.

The defenses came to play in the Vikings-Steelers game, a war so fierce that it called to mind the struggle these teams waged in the Super Bowl following the 1974 season. That one didn’t end well for Minnesota, but this one did. With Allen rushing for 172 yards, the Vikings won 6-3 and clinched the division crown.

Minnesota was locked into the 3-spot for the NFC playoffs and would play either the Packers or Redskins. The Vikes would have a direct say in who that would be—if Green Bay could win in Minnesota, it set up a playoff rematch the following week. If the Vikings won, they would host the Redskins.

You could hardly have blamed Green if he had just mailed in the regular season finale, gotten the defending champs out of the picture and just prepared for a Packer rematch. As a Redskins fan, I feared he would do precisely that. But that’s not what happened. The Vikes picked off Favre three times, Allen ran for 100 yards and Salisbury delivered a 20/33 for 292 yards with no mistakes performance. The result was a 27-7 win.

And how did Washington repay Minnesota for their generosity? Well, after spotting the Vikings a 7-0 lead behind an early touchdown from Allen, the Redskins took over the football game. Minnesota was outrushed 196-73 and gave up four sacks. Salisbury went 6/20 for 113 yards. The final was 24-7 and the season was over.

The 1992 campaign was still a success by any reasonable measurement and the winning under Green was just beginning. He made the playoffs eight times in nine seasons. And while the Super Bowl continued to be an elusive prize for this franchise in the post-Bud Grant era, Green took them to NFC Championship Games in 1998 and 2000. It all began in 1992.