1993 Minnesota Vikings: Solidifying A Playoff Foundation

Dennis Green arrived in Minnesota in 1992, and promptly won a division title. The 1993 Minnesota Vikings didn’t quite match that feat. But they made it back to the playoffs and solidified what would be a perennially contending team throughout the 1990s.

The defensive front was the foundation on which this team was built. John Randle, the great Hall of Fame defensive tackle, had a 12 ½ sack season in 1993. Henry Thomas had nine more sacks at the other tackle spot and made the Pro Bowl. No combo anywhere in the league could disrupt the interior like Randle and Thomas. And that allowed another great talent, Hall of Fame defensive end Chris Doleman to pick up 12 ½ sacks of his own.

All that pressure on the quarterback enabled free safety Vencie Glenn to intercept five passes. Even with weaknesses at other spots in the back seven, the Vikings still ranked 12th in the NFL in points allowed.

The offense was the problem. Green was looking for a solution at quarterback. There were certainly good targets to throw to. Cris Carter, a future Hall of Famer, would catch 86 passes this season and make the Pro Bowl. Anthony Carter (no relation) was a veteran and caught 60 more balls. Steve Jordan’s 56 catches showed he was still as reliable a tight end as there was.

But there weren’t a lot of good options at QB. Green signed Jim McMahon. A veteran of the Super Bowl champion 1985 Chicago Bears, McMahon was colorful, a leader…and also injury-prone with a weak arm. His 5.9 yards-per-attempt in 1993 was one of the league’s worst. But his 60 percent completion rate was solid and he steered clear of mistakes. It made him a good fit for a team that wanted to win with defense.

A running game would have helped a lot, but even with another Hall of Famer, Randall McDaniel, keying the offensive line, the Vikings could not generate a consistent attack. Everyone from Scottie Graham to Barry Word to Robert Smith to Roger Craig got a chance. None maintained any consistency. So the Minnesota offense ranked just 20th in a 28-team league for points scored.

The Vikings opened the season in Los Angeles against the Raiders, another team that had the postseason in their future. The McMahon experiment didn’t begin well—he was intercepted twice, there was no running game, Minnesota was in a 21-0 hole by half and lost 24-7.

A home game with Chicago saw the Vikes play more to their identity. It was a tough defensive game and McMahon made the big throw—a 16-yard touchdown pass Carter was the difference in the 10-7 win. After a bye week, Minnesota won another physical  home game against a key division rival. They beat Green Bay 15-13 on the strength of five field goals from Fuad Reveiz and McMahon avoiding mistakes, while young Brett Favre made them on the other side.

Minnesota went back on the road to play San Francisco, one of the league’s best teams in this era, with Steve Young at quarterback. McMahon threw an early touchdown pass for a 7-0 lead, and then a fourth-quarter TD toss that had the Vikings within 24-19. But with an upset in sight, the defense collapsed and the 49ers pulled away, 38-19.

Back at home against a division rival, Minnesota got back in their comfort zone. They beat Tampa Bay (prior to the realignment of 2002, the Bucs shared the NFC Central with the four current teams of the NFC North) 15-0 thanks to five turnovers, including two picks by Glenn.

A second bye week—a concept the NFL experimented with this season and then thankfully dropped—preceded a Monday Night visit to Chicago. It was a homecoming of sorts for McMahon, even though he’d had a couple of stops since his glory days in the Windy City. The Minnesota defense stole the stage. They got nine sacks, three from Randle and two by Doleman. Audrey McMillan produced a Pick-6. The Vikes won it 19-12.

Another prime-time game against a division rival was up when Detroit came in for Sunday Night Football. McMahon was knocked out early. Sean Salisbury, last season’s primary starter, came in and showed he wanted his job back. Salisbury went 25/37 for 234 yards. Smith rushed for 115 yards. The Vikings led 27-13 in the fourth quarter. Then the defense completely fell apart and lost 30-27.

The job was still Salisbury’s for a home game with mediocre San Diego. The backup QB produced his numbers—29/47 for 347 yards, with Cris Carter catching ten balls for 164 yards. Minnesota led 17-16 after three quarters. Then the defense again came apart in the fourth quarter, the result being a 30-17 loss.

Salisbury started again at playoff-bound Denver and again had a big day. He went 19/37 for 366 yards, with both the Carters going for 100-plus yards receiving. Minnesota got a big road win over John Elway, 26-23.

At 5-4, the Vikings needed to keep it going when they went to Tampa Bay for another Sunday Night appearance. Salisbury was hot. Maybe this new revved-up attack was going to work. Actually, no.

Salisbury played poorly, the running game continued to be non-existent and Minnesota lost 23-10 in a game where they were an eight-point favorite. A 17-14 home loss to mediocre New Orleans, marked by giving up a special teams TD, pushed the Vikes under .500.

It wasn’t too much to say that the season was on the line when Minnesota went to Detroit. McMahon returned to the lineup. The Lions had taken a big blow themselves, losing their great running back, Barry Sanders, to a knee injury on Thanksgiving. Not having to key on Sanders, freed up on the Viking defensive front. And did they ever unleash. Randle had a three-sack game. Doleman added two more. Seven sacks on the day led a 13-0 shutout.

The NFC Central was jam-packed. Minnesota was 6-6, and chasing Detroit, Green Bay and Chicago, who were all 7-5. The alignment and playoff format of the time had three divisions per conference and three wild-card spots. One of the wild-cards would go to the NFC East, where the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants were having big years. But the other two were open, with only 7-5 New Orleans being in the mix outside of the NFC Central.

Unfortunately for the Vikes, the eventual Super Bowl champion Cowboys were next on the schedule. In the late afternoon window at home, both McMahon and Salisbury played. Neither particularly well. Minnesota trailed 27-6 by the third quarter and lost 37-20. Detroit and Green Bay both won and created some space in the race for the division title. The good news was that Chicago and New Orleans both lost. The Vikes were still within a game of the playoffs.

But they had to win against Green Bay. Playing in old Milwaukee County Stadium, where the Packers used to play three home games a year, the Vikings trailed 10-7 at the half. McMahon then did what proud veterans do. He played beyond what his body could still realistically do. The quarterback finished 22/31 for 207 yards. He threw three touchdown passes, two of them to Cris Carter in the second half. The 21-17 win kept Minnesota alive. Chicago and New Orleans both lost.

The Vikings were in a three-way tie for one spot, themselves, the Bears and Saints all 7-7. Minnesota would have the tiebreaker on Chicago within the division, but would lose a tiebreaker with New Orleans. And on top of all this, the Vikings were still only a game back in the NFC Central…and their 6-2 divisional record ensured they would win any tiebreaker.

The next game was a Sunday Night home date with a good Kansas City Chiefs team that had Joe Montana at quarterback. The events of that afternoon sorted a lot out. Detroit and Green Bay both won, ensuring their head-to-head game the following week would settle the division. But Chicago and New Orleans both lost. The Vikings controlled their own destiny for the playoffs. And if you wanted more good news for Minnesota, it’s that the day’s results clinched the AFC West for Kansas City and reduced the Chiefs’ urgency.

McMahon threw a 31-yard TD pass to Cris Carter for a 10-0 lead in the second quarter. At 10-3 in the third quarter, McMahon and Carter hooked up again from 29 yards out. Graham had his best night of the season, with 166 yards. The Vikings cruised to a 30-10 win.

They weren’t in yet, but they had control and the schedule would finally work in their favor. The Washington Redskins, one of the league’s best teams for the previous 12 years, were in a massive downward spiral following the retirement of head coach Joe Gibbs. That was all that was standing in the way of Minnesota and the postseason.

New Year’s Eve fell on Friday and the league decided to schedule this game for 3 PM that afternoon, so the Vikings went to D.C. on a short week. They didn’t play well up front, being outrushed 112-46. But McMahon and Cris Carter had something going together down the stretch and it continued here. The receiver caught seven balls for 113 yards and keyed a 14-9 win.

For the playoffs, Minnesota might have preferred not to be so strong in the tiebreakers. Because it meant that they would be in the 5-seed position, ahead of whomever lost the Detroit-Green Bay game. Which meant that instead of playing the winner of that game (it would be the Lions), the Vikings had to go and play the 11-5 New York Giants, who had chased Dallas to the final game of the season.

But the Giants had lost an overtime showdown with the Cowboys in that regular season finale and perhaps were a little drained. Playing in the swirling winds of the Meadowlands early the following Sunday afternoon, McMahon threw a 40-yard TD pass to Carter and put Minnesota up 10-3 at the half.

An upset was brewing, but the physical New York ground attack finally took over. The Vikings were outrushed 176-79. Not being able to run the football was fatal in a game like this, on a day when passing was difficult. Minnesota lost 17-10.

It was a second straight playoff trip, but Green and the Vikings clearly wanted more. In the ensuing offseason, they swung a trade for Warren Moon, the future Hall of Fame quarterback with the Houston Oilers. The results didn’t change dramatically, but Minnesota got back on top of the balanced NFC Central in 1994. And they continued to churn out playoff appearances all the way through 2000.