The Minnesota Vikings had settled into a pattern of mediocrity by the time the 1980s arrived. The franchise had dominated the old NFC Central (the four current teams of the NFC North plus Tampa Bay) through the 1970s, but 1977 was the last time they were really among the NFL elite.
The Vikings still won division titles in 1978 and 1980, but they were now anywhere from 9-7 to 7-9. The 1981 Minnesota Vikings continued that pattern, with a disappointing late season fade that cost them a division crown.
Minnesota had evolved from a defense-first team during its heyday to one that relied on its offense. In 1981, the Vikings ranked 13th in the NFL in points scored, while struggling to a 21st ranking in points allowed.
The key to the offense was a good group of receivers. Ahmad Rashad made the Pro Bowl at age 32, as did tight end Joe Senser. And the best skill player of all was running back Ted Brown, who rushed for over 1,000 yards and caught 83 passes to lead the lead the team.
Quarterback Tommy Kramer had plenty to work with, as he completed a solid 54.3% of his passes, although Kramer’s 24 interceptions, while not intolerable in this era, were on the high side. Particularly given that his 6.6 yards-per-pass was not exceptionally high.
Defensively, Minnesota had a Pro Bowler in veteran outside linebacker Matt Blair. And right tackle Ron Yary, a future Hall of Famer, was still going strong at age 35. But there weren’t enough like them on defense or in the trenches to make the Vikings a playoff team.
Whatever problems Bud Grant’s team had, they had still won the NFC Central in 1980, and the season opener saw them go to Tampa Bay, who had taken the division in 1979. Minnesota trailed 14-13 in the fourth quarter and was driving to take the lead, when Kramer was picked off in the red zone and the ball taken the other way for a touchdown. It was a fitting dagger in a game where the Vikes ran 83 plays to 50 for the Buccaneers, but turned the ball over four times.
Minnesota came home to the old outdoor Metropolitan Stadium for a Monday Night date with the defending Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders. The Raiders didn’t have a good year in 1981, but you would never have guessed it on this night. The Vikings were outrushed 149-42, the Raiders scored two touchdowns on defense and Minnesota took a 36-10 rout.
A home game with Detroit was now getting perilously close to must-win in September. Brown rushed for 77 yards along with catching nine passes for 115 yards. Minnesota had leads of 14-0 and 23-14, before falling behind by a point and then getting a late Rick Danmeier field goal to win 26-24.
The turnaround continued with two more wins over NFC Central foes. Minnesota played Green Bay in a road game at Milwaukee, where the Packers used to play three games a year. After spotting the Packers a 10-0 lead, the Vikes took over, with Brown running for 109 yards in a 30-13 win. Then they won a home game with the Bears, shutting down the great Walter Payton, getting 97 yards from Brown, taking a 17-0 lead and holding on for a 24-21 win.
Minnesota went to San Diego in Week 6. The Chargers were the two-time defending AFC West champs, would win a third division crown this year and had the most feared passing attack in the NFL with Dan Fouts at quarterback. This game showed Tommy Kramer at his best. The Viking quarterback had the ability to be genuinely prolific and with a 444-yard performance he outgunned Fouts in the latter’s house.
Trailing 31-24, Kramer threw what appeared to be a tying touchdown to Terry LeCount. But a botched extra point kept Minnesota down by a point. No matter. Kramer led his team back into field goal range and Danmeier won it with a 38-yard field goal.
Another impressive win came next at home against the Philadelphia Eagles, who were the defending NFC champs and came to the old Met at 6-0. Kramer threw four touchdowns, no interceptions and Brown caught ten passes out of the backfield in a 35-23 win that was never close.
Just as the Vikings were getting people excited though, they slipped back. In a home game with the mediocre St. Louis Cardinals, Minnesota abandoned the running game, threw 55 times and lost 30-17. The running game was completely unproductive the following Monday Night in Denver, as the Vikings fell behind the Broncos 19-3 before late rally made the game cosmetically close at 19-17 (the two-point conversion was still more than a decade away in the NFL).
A home game with Tampa Bay was going to be key in what was proving to be a stacked NFC Central race, with the Vikings, Buccaneers, Lions and Packers all jousting. Minnesota played a terrific game against Tampa, as Brown got back into the flow with 129 yards rushing and eight catches. Senser caught eight passes for 101 yards, as Minnesota took a 23-0 lead in the third quarter and won 25-10.
Kramer showed his ability to stretch the field in a 20-10 home win over the New Orleans Saints. The quarterback was little erratic, at 19/40, but he made the completions count for 287 yards, including big downfield throws to receivers Sammy White and LeCount.
The record was 7-4 and Minnesota was in first place as they got set for their third Monday Night appearance of the season, this was one in Atlanta. The Falcons would struggle to a losing record after a 1980 season where they had won twelve games. The national audience watched the best and worst of Tommy Kramer on display.
Kramer threw for 330 yards and four touchdowns, keeping the Vikings in the game. But he also threw four interceptions and the most costly was a Pick-6 that came with the score tied 24-24 and gave Atlanta the lead. Two more drives resulted in field goals, but Minnesota could not get over the hump and lost 31-30.
Three straight divisional games loomed, and the Vikings, at 7-5, still had sole possession of first and were a (-7) favorites in a home date with the Packers. Kramer hit Rashad for a 50-yard strike in the first quarter, then followed it up with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Senser and a 14-0 lead. In spite of the early lead, the Vikings abandoned the run, opting to throw the ball 55 times. Kramer threw five interceptions and the game completely got away, in a 35-23 loss.
The NFC Central was now a three-way tie with the Vikings, Buccaneers and Lions all at 7-6 and the Packers a game back.
Minnesota’s next game was in Chicago, the division’s one non-contender. It was a defensive battle, and the Vikings had a 7-3 lead in the fourth quarter. For some reason though, Minnesota again did not give Brown the ball even though the game situation made it possible. They threw 36 times, only ran it 19 and their five turnovers did them in. The Bears got a late 72-yard touchdown pass and won 10-9.
Tampa Bay moved to 8-6, while Minnesota was joined by Detroit and Green Bay at 7-7. The Vikings-Lions game the following Saturday was now a literal playoff game for Minnesota. In the final week, Detroit would play Tampa Bay head-to-head, and Lion victory over the Vikings would thereby ensure that either Detroit or Tampa would finish the season at 9-7. Minnesota, obviously, could not afford an eighth loss.
That Saturday afternoon in the Silverdome proved to be a deflating end to a once-promising playoff run. The Viking rush defense was pounded by Billy Sims and the Lions. Kramer threw four interceptions and the result was a 45-17 blowout.
Minnesota closed the season at home against the Kansas City Chiefs. The 10-6 loss that sent the Vikes to a losing season was depressing, although perhaps nothing could be more depressing than having to finish the season by playing a meaningless game in temperatures that were (-8) with the windchill. Fittingly, Brown was ignored, only getting six carries and the lack of a running game meant turnovers—four of them in all—causing the defeat.
The 1981 Minnesota Vikings are an unfortunate case of missed opportunity. They weren’t going to a Super Bowl in any case—the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys were head-and-shoulders above the rest of the NFC. But another Central division title was theirs for the taking and this franchise, built on a tradition of physical football, seemed to abandon that at the season’s most critical moment.