It had been a dry football decade for the good people of the Twin Cities as the 1987 Minnesota Vikings prepared for the season. After their team dominated its division and won three NFC titles in the 1970s, the winning slowed down in the 1980s. The last playoff appearance had been in the strike-torn year of 1982. In 1987—ironically another year marred by a strike—the Vikings got back to the postseason, did major damage when they got there and set the tone for a long run of success.
Jerry Burns, the long-time offensive coordinator to legendary head coach Bud Grant, had taken the reins in 1986 and produced a winning team. Burns had to navigate a difficult quarterback situation between Wade Wilson and Tommy Kramer.
The 28-year-old Wilson was the primary starter and had a big arm—his 8.0 yards-per-attempt were the best in football. But he could be erratic and also threw 13 interceptions—or 4.9% of his total passes, which was in the league’s bottom echelon. Wilson started seven games and played in all twelve games played by NFL regulars, but Kramer got his own share of snaps in the process.
Whomever was behind center had the envious task of simply looking for Anthony Carter. The wide receiver made the Pro Bowl and his 24.3 yards-per-catch was the best in the NFL. Running back Darrin Nelson was another big-play threat. Though not a true workhorse back, the Stanford product still gained 642 yards and his 4.9 yards-per-rush was also the league’s best.
Nelson could come out of the backfield to catch passes and he joined Pro Bowl tight end Steve Jordan in giving Minnesota a collection of potent weapons. Up front, the Vikings had the best left tackle in football with future Hall of Famer Gary Zimmerman.
With all this talent, you might wonder why they only finished 13th in the league in points scored. Some of that had to do with the talent being top-heavy—there were a lot of stars, but not as much depth. And some had to do with what we’ll soon see, which is that the three weeks the players went on strike did some serious damage to the Viking season and team-wide statistics.
Minnesota wasn’t quite as loaded defensively, but still an elite strong safety in Joey Browner. He picked off six passes, was 1st-team All-NFL and made the third of what would be six Pro Bowls for his career. Middle linebacker Scott Studwell was another Pro Bowler. And there was a rising star in defensive tackle Keith Millard, who would be Defensive Player of the Year by 1989. The Vikings finished 16th in the league in points allowed.
The season began at home against lowly Detroit and Minnesota fell behind 19-10 in the third quarter. Then the big-play ability emerged. Wilson threw a 52-yard touchdown pass to rookie running back D.J. Dozier. Wilson connected with Carter on a 73-yard scoring strike. The quarterback threw three third-quarter touchdown passes in all and led the way to a 34-19 win.
Minnesota traveled west to play a playoff perennial in the Los Angeles Rams. But though the Rams had gone to the postseason for four straight years, this season would be a tough one for them. Wilson again threw three touchdown passes and again made the big-play. He found Cater on a 46-yard touchdown strike and later hit Hassan Jones from 41 yards for the game-winner in a 21-16 victory.
The labor stoppage hit following the Week 2 games. All Week 3 games were canceled and would not be made up. The NFL owners decided to bring in replacement players and count the games in the standings. For three weeks, while the dispute raged on, these replacements were what fans got for NFL football.
Minnesota’s front office waited until the very last moment to sign replacements and their season took what could easily have been a fatal blow. They lost all three games, being decisively pounded up front in all three.
Moreover, all the losses were to divisional teams. The Vikings lost at home to Green Bay, on the road in Chicago and down in Tampa Bay (the Bucs were in the old NFC Central prior to 20002, along with the four current teams of the NFC North). The Packers and Buccaneers both had poor teams, so this was a big hit at a point in the schedule the Vikings could have easily continued their strong start.
A high-profile Monday Night home game against John Elway and the Denver Broncos was next. Denver had reached the Super Bowl in 1986 and would do so again this year. But the local fans couldn’t be blamed if they had a hard time getting excited for football—the previous night in the Metrodome, the baseball Twins won Game 7 of the World Series.
The return of regular football did prove exciting, if not particularly well-played. Wilson threw five interceptions, but Minnesota’s defense sacked Elway five times. Nelson needed just eleven carries to run for 98 yards and the Vikes pulled out a 34-27 win.
A road trip to Seattle didn’t go as well, with Wilson sacked four times in a 28-17 loss. Kramer got the start the following week against a poor Los Angeles Raiders team. With just a 7-3 lead at halftime, Burns went back to Wilson, who threw a 58-yard touchdown pass to Jones and an 11-yard scoring pass to Jordan. Minnesota won 31-20.
Tampa Bay and Atlanta came to the Metrodome next, continuing the soft homestand. And the Vikings continued to take advantage. Even though both Wilson and Kramer were inconsistent against the Bucs, Nelson led a running game that overwhelmed Tampa. Minnesota won the rushing battle 224-15, enough to squeak out a narrow 23-17 win. Both quarterbacks were again shaky against the Falcons, but a 78-yard punt return from Leo Lewis keyed an eventual 24-13 win .
The two-quarterback approach took to the national stage on Thanksgiving Day when the Vikings went to Dallas, and this time Kramer stepped up. He threw a pair of touchdowns to Carter, one from 37 yards out, and also ran for a score. Nelson rushed for 118 yards on 16 carries. A shootout went to overtime 38-38 when Nelson finally finished it with a 24-yard touchdown run.
Minnesota was 7-4 as the calendar flipped to December. The three losses by the replacement team meant they were still two games back of Chicago in the division race, but they were two games up on several teams to get a wild-card spot. When they hosted the Bears on Sunday Night Football, then in its first season, and took a 24-20 lead into the fourth quarter, it looked like the NFC Central race might get interesting.
Instead, that’s the point the Viking season started to teeter. The defense coughed up ten fourth quarter points and wasted a nice outing from Wilson, who had gone 12/19 for 211 yards and three touchdowns. Worse was what happened the following week on the road against Green Bay. Playing in old Milwaukee County Stadium, where the Packers used to play three home games a year, the offense bogged down after an early Kramer-to-Carter TD pass from 40 yards. The Vikings lost 16-10.
Any hopes of catching Chicago were long gone and now, at 7-6, the Vikings had the St. Louis Cardinals in their rearview mirror at 6-7—and it was St. Louis that would hold the tiebreaker if they managed to pull even.
Minnesota went to Detroit and again played down to the competition. This time the Vikes were able to survive 17-14, as Wilson played mistake-free football and the running game still produced over 200 yards. St. Louis won and kept pace.
On the season’s final week, the Vikings were set to play the Washington Redskins in a Saturday afternoon game for national television. The Redskins had clinched the NFC East and all they had to play for was the marginal hope that Chicago would lose the following day and give Washington the 2-seed. Minnesota was playing for its life in front of the home fans.
For much of the game, the Vikings played like it. They dominated on the ground again, winning the rushing battle 204-77. Wilson threw a 73-yard touchdown pass to Nelson. The defense picked off four passes and the lead was 24-14 in the fourth quarter. Redskins’ coach Joe Gibbs had seen enough—he pulled starter Jay Schroeder and went with Doug Williams. In a move that would ultimately have historic implications, Williams came on and stunned the crowd by rallying his team to a 27-24 win.
Now Minnesota had to wait and hope. St. Louis was playing Dallas in the early afternoon window on Sunday. In later years the name “Herschel Walker” would bring a bad vibe to Viking fans, as the organization gave a boatload of draft picks to Dallas to obtain the running back in 1989—picks the Cowboys used to build a three-time Super Bowl champion in the early 1990s. But on this day, Walker saved the Vikings from themselves. He ran for 137 yards, Dallas beat St. Louis 21-16 and Minnesota was going to the playoffs for the first time under a head coach not named Bud Grant.
It’s easy to look at the final week and say the Vikings backed in. But this was still a team that went 8-4 with its regular players. In the end, this was a playoff-caliber club and in ways no one anticipated, they proved it.
The New Orleans Saints had gone 12-3, the second-best record in all of football. They were stuck behind the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC West in the divisional alignment of the time and the 49ers had gone 13-2. The Saints were confined to the wild-card game, but installed as a solid 6 ½ point favorite over the Vikings.
Another quarterback change was in store as Kramer got the playoff start. He fumbled a snap early in the game, setting up a touchdown pass by New Orleans quarterback Bobby Herbert. Kramer left the game with a pinched nerve. Wilson came on and the game was never the same.
The Vikes drove for a 44-yard field goal. Carter began putting his mark on what would be a historic postseason for him, with an 84-yard punt return that gave Minnesota in 10-7 lead. Wilson threw a pair of short touchdown passes in the second quarter, one to Jordan and the other to running back Allen Rice. The underdog Vikings were taking apart one of the league’s best defenses and were up 24-7.
New Orleans got a field goal in the second quarter and the game was ready to go to halftime at 24-10. In the fact, the clock had run out with Minnesota having the ball on the Saints’ 44-yard line. But New Orleans was penalized for twelve men on the field. Given an untimed down, Wilson threw the ball into the end zone…where Jones came down with it. The score was shocking 31-10.
The Vikings had a balanced ground attack rolling. Nelson’s 73 yards led the way on a team-wide attack that again went over the 200-mark. Minnesota’s defense held the good New Orleans rushing tandem of Reuben Mayes and Dalton Hilliard to 50 yards. They intercepted four passes and the final was 44-10.
No one was expecting a reprise when the Vikes went to San Francisco the following Saturday afternoon. The 49ers were an eleven-point favorite. But Minnesota hung in for a quarter, as they teams felt each other out and kicked a field goal. In the second quarter, the Vikings began to again stun the nation.
In short order, Wilson found tight end Carl Hilton on a 7-yard TD pass. They added a field goal and then got a Pick-6 from Reggie Rutland. And in between all this, Carter was dominating in a fashion rarely seen by a wide receiver. He caught ten passes for the game and set up a playoff record with 227 receiving yards. It kept the Minnesota offense churning, even after Wilson threw a Pick-6 of his own in the third quarter. The Vikes marched back down the field, with Jones catching a five-yard toss from Wilson.
At 27-10, with the defense forcing the great Joe Montana into a 12/26 for 109 yards showing, the unthinkable happened. Montana was yanked in front of his own crowd. The Vikings pressure was too much. They sacked Montana four times in less than three quarters and San Francisco coach Bill Walsh decided to go with the more mobile Steve Young.
Young played well, going 12/17 for 158 yards and running for 72 more, but Minnesota’s lead was too big. The score was 30-17 going into the fourth quarter and Minnesota added a couple more field goals, closing out the 36-24 win.
The Vikings were on a high and ready for another game with the Redskins for the NFC Championship. After dismantling the two best teams in football, Minnesota was getting newfound respect. They were only a three-point underdog in Washington, the amount generally given for homefield. It’s an indication the oddsmakers saw the teams as essentially even on a neutral field.
The Redskins were the more accomplished team (since 1982, Joe Gibbs had led them to five playoff berths, four division titles, two NFC crowns and one Lombardi Trophy) and had a decidedly superior record, 11-4 to 8-7. But the latter was misleading. Washington had been well-prepared for the strike and won all three games. Their regulars, like Minnesota’s, had gone 8-4.
Minnesota-Washington wasn’t a particularly well-played conference championship game, but it was a good one. During the playoff win over San Francisco, only a nitpicker would have pointed out that the Vikings bogged down inside the 10-yard line three different times, settling for field goals instead of touchdowns. But a nitpicker would have foreseen that this lack of red zone execution would ultimately do Minnesota in.
Trailing 10-7 in the fourth quarter and with first-and-goal on the three-yard line, the Vikes had to settle for a tying field goal. And trailing 17-10 in the final minute they were stopped inside the 10-yard line again. A fourth-down pass to Nelson in the end zone was on target, but a jarring hit from Washington’s Hall of Famer corner Darrell Green knocked the ball free. Minnesota’s bid to return to the Super Bowl had fallen short. The Redskins would bury the Broncos, with Williams–a backup when the season finale against the Vikings began–ended up the first African-American quarterback to win the Super Bowl.
No one could doubt that the 1987 season was an unqualified success though, as the franchise got into the playoffs and had a bright future. No one could doubt that the bright future came through, with playoff appearances under Burns in each of the next two years. The disappointment was that this was the closest Burns got to the Super Bowl, falling in the divisional round in 1988 and 1989. Minnesota was back, but they could still break the heart of their fans.