The 1986 Minnesota Vikings marked a new era in franchise history. The legendary head coach Bud Grant retired for good after 1985. Grant initially retired in 1983, then came back after a disastrous season in 1984. This time around the Vikes did what they should have done the first time and hired Grant’s long-time offensive coordinator Jerry Burns as the new head man. The Vikings had a winning season in 1986 and set the tone for a strong run in the latter part of the 1980s.
Burns had a terrific staff around him. Monte Kiffin, who would one day become a great defensive coordinator was the linebackers coach. The secondary was run by Pete Carroll, who merely became one of only three men in history to win both a college football national title and a Super Bowl.
Tommy Kramer was a veteran quarterback at age 31 and he was productive, throwing for 3,000 yards. Kramer’s 55% completion rate was about league average, but he made up for it with an 8.1 yards-per-attempt that was in the league’s upper crust.
But Kramer had always been able to make big plays. What made his 1986 season so impressive was that he cut back on his mistakes—the TD/INT ratio was 24-10 and more important was that he only threw interceptions on 2.7% of his passes, well above the league average.
Kramer had a diverse group of targets that started with Pro Bowl tight end Steve Jordan, who caught 58 passes for 859 yards. Wide receiver Anthony Carter didn’t make the Pro Bowl this season, but he had that kind of talent and he caught 38 passes for an outstanding 18.1 yards-per-catch. Darrin Nelson was terrific out of the backfield, catching 53 balls while also rushing for 793 yards. Leo Lewis provided a complementary big-play threat, catching 32 balls and also being over 18 yards per catch.
The running game wasn’t great. Nelson was a smallish back more suited to catching the ball and he was the leading rusher. There was no Pro Bowl talent on the offensive line although 25-year-old left tackle Gary Zimmerman joined Carter as being a player on the verge of that type of breakout. Even so, there was still enough weapons on hand for the Vikings to rank fourth in the NFL in points scored.
Minnesota’s defense was led by a rising star in Keith Millard. The defensive tackle finished with 10 ½ sacks, and had a future that would see him win Defensive Player of the Year by 1989. Strong safety Joey Browner was a Pro Bowler, and defensive end Dough Martin finished with nine sacks. The Viking D didn’t get the same attention as the high-powered offense, but they ranked fifth in the league in points allowed.
The season didn’t start well—Minnesota was outrushed by a weak Detroit team 224-62 and they lost 13-10 at home. The Vikings were able to turn it around against the horrible Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Defensive end Chris Doleman came up with a 59-yard Pick-6 in the first quarter and the Vikes forced three turnovers in a 23-10 win. It got them off the schneid, but it was a less than inspiring road win over the worst team in the league.
Kramer opened things up the following week at home against a subpar Pittsburgh Steeler edition. He threw a 55-yard touchdown strike to rookie wide receiver Hassan Jones, then again found Jones from six yards out. Kramer went 19/27 for 257 yards and three touchdowns in the easy 31-7 win. Green Bay came to the Metrodome next and Kramer exploded, throwing four touchdowns in the first quarter alone. By game’s end, he was 16/25 for 241 yards and threw six TDs. Jordan and Jones were each over 100 yards receiving and the final was 42-7.
After home wins by a combined score of 63-14, a visit to Soldier Field to play the defending Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears was a rude awakening. Kramer struggled against the league’s best defense, the Vikes were outrushed 171-45 and they lost 23-0.
But though the shutout might have been embarrassing, there was no shame losing on the road to a team that would go 14-2 and run away with the NFC Central (the four current teams of the NFC North plus Tampa Bay). And Minnesota would respond with two big wins.
The rain was coming down in San Francisco against the 49ers, who were two years removed from a dominating Super Bowl run of their own and would win the NFC West this season. The Vikings caught a huge break with Joe Montana being hurt and Jeff Kemp in as the starting quarterback. They were able to take advantage.
A defensive touchdown led to a 14-7 first-quarter lead, although when the Niners scored 17 unanswered points, it looked like the game was set to get away. Kramer responded. He hit Carter with a 35-yard touchdown pass and finished the game 26/41 for 326 yards. A field goal tied it and the Vikings ultimately won 27-24 in overtime.
It was a sweet win, but even sweeter was a revenge win over the Bears back in the Metrodome. Kramer flipped a pass to fullback Alfred Anderson who took it 37 yards to the house. Kramer then stretched the field with Carter on a 60-yard touchdown play. The defense would shut down the great Walter Payton and Minnesota got a surprisingly easy 23-7 win in a game they were a (+9) underdog.
The Vikings were 5-2 and it was fine to think about a return to the playoffs for the first time in four years. But the schedule didn’t get any easier—two teams on their way to 12-4 seasons and conference championship game appearances were on deck.
Minnesota hosted the Cleveland Browns and jumped out to a 17-3 halftime lead, with Kramer going 18/35 for 261 yards and Nelson rushing for 118 yards. The Vikings were lined up for a field goal that would have put them in complete control in the third quarter. Instead, the kick was blocked, returned for a touchdown and the momentum turned. Minnesota lost 23-20.
A road game in the nation’s capital with the Redskins was a big shootout between Kramer and counterpart Jay Schroeder. Kramer threw for 490 yards and had his team ahead 38-26. But the defense allowed 375 pass yards to Schroeder and the Vikes lost the ground game 109-75. They were nearly saved by Washington’s special teams’ ineptitude—the Redskins missed three extra points, including on each of their two touchdowns that wiped out the Minnesota lead. The game went to overtime at 38-38, where Washington won it.
Playoff hopes were now dangling by a thread at 5-4 and the Vikes needed a road win in Detroit. Browner got it started off right with a Pick-6. The defense held the Lions to 81 rush yards in a 24-10 win. A week later the Vikings slugged it out admirably with the ultimate Super Bowl champion New York Giants. But Kramer was knocked out in the second half while counterpart Phil Simms threw for over 300 yards. Another narrow loss to a very good team was the result, 22-20.
The tough schedule and the tough luck in close games continued in a road trip to Cincinnati. Wade Wilson started in Kramer’s stead against a Bengals team that would finish the season 10-6. Wilson was erratic, 15/32 for 181 yards and Minnesota lost 24-20.
With a record of 6-6, the playoffs seemed like a longshot. The Bears had run off and hid from the NFC Central at 10-2. The lowest wild-card team was the 49ers, sitting at 7-4-1. But Minnesota finally got a soft spot in the schedule and they took advantage.
Wilson carved up Tampa Bay to the tune of 22/33 for 339 yards, with Jordan catching seven balls for 97 yards. The final was 45-3. Kramer returned for a road trip in Green Bay and led the way to a 32-6 win. Nelson gained 71 yards on just eight rushes and also caught five passes for 67 yards.
The result was that the Vikings pulled within a half-game of the 49ers and the schedule was still in Minnesota’s favor. They had games against the mediocre Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints to close the season. The playoff dream was still alive.
But the dream died hard in Houston. Kramer was awful, going 3/13 for 47 yards and being yanked for Wilson—who was even worse with three interceptions. Minnesota lost 23-10. It wouldn’t have mattered—San Francisco won each of their last two games and caught the Los Angeles Rams for the NFC West title—but it was a tough way to get eliminated.
There was still the matter of a winning season. Minnesota hadn’t finished over .500 since the shortened strike year of 1982 and hadn’t done so in a full schedule since the division title run of 1980. Wilson got the start at home against the Saints to try and get win #9.
Wilson delivered, going 24/39 for 361 yards and three touchdowns. Jones, the rookie, who made sporadic splashes, made one here, catching five passes for 100 yards. Nelson caught six passes and Jordan hauled in seven more as Wilson spread the ball around. The final was 33-17.
To miss the playoffs in spite of having a top-five ranking in both offense and defense was disappointing, as the close losses against good teams—the Browns, Redskins, Giants and Bengals in the difficult late October/November stretch—were too much to overcome. But a foundation was in place. Carter, Millard and Zimmerman kept getting better. Kramer gave way to Wilson. And the Vikings made the playoffs each of the next three years.