The 1989 Minnesota Vikings were a team looking to get over the hump. In 1987 and 1988 they had been a solid playoff team and were widely considered to have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. They did everything they could to reach the final plateau, including a midseason trade that lives in sports infamy. But in the end, the ‘89 Vikings were much like their immediate predecessors—they were good, but they weren’t championship quality.
Minnesota’s success started with one of the best defensive lines in football. Keith Millard at defensive tackle recorded 18 sacks and won Defensive Player of the Year honors. On the edge, Chris Doleman rang up 21 more sacks. The secondary had a pair of Pro Bowlers in corner Carl Lee and strong safety Joey Browner. The unit as a whole ranked sixth in the league in points allowed.
Offensively, quarterback Wade Wilson could be a little erratic, throwing an average of one interception per start. But he also had a live arm and one of the better receivers in the NFL in Anthony Carter, who enjoyed a Pro Bowl campaign and produced over 1,000 yards in the air. If Wilson wanted to throw underneath he had another Pro Bowl talent in tight end Steve Jordan. Hassan Jones was a reliable second receiver.
The Vikings’ offensive front was no less loaded than the rest of the team. Randall McDaniel was a Pro Bowler at left guard in 1989 and he ended up in the Hall of Fame. Gary Zimmerman made the Pro Bowl at left tackle. Minnesota just needed someone who could run behind this line consistently. Darrin Nelson was a nice back, but more of a pass-catcher. Fullback Rick Fenney wasn’t a big-play threat. The Vikes needed a runner to complete the puzzle.
BLAST-OFF AGAINST HOUSTON
Minnesota played the marquee late-afternoon game of Week 1 when they hosted the Houston Oilers—ironically another team who had been to two straight postseasons, was widely considered to have excellent talent and had not turned it into a Super Bowl. The Oilers had a future of Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon and an offense that could spread the field and score quickly.
Moon spent most of the game on the Metrodome turf. Millard and Doleman set the tone for the season with a combined five sacks. Minnesota’s defense as a whole got to Moon seven times. The result was a 38-7 rout and those Super Bowl expectations in the Twin Cities were looking good.
BACK TO EARTH
Another big game in the 3 PM Central time slot was up next in Soldier Field. The Chicago Bears were the gold standard in the NFC Central Division (the four current teams of the NFC North plus Tampa Bay) and had won the division the last five years. Minnesota came into the game as a (-1.5) road favorite, indicating that oddsmakers felt their time had come.
The time didn’t come on this afternoon. Wilson threw four interceptions and a game that was close after three quarters got away late and turned into another ugly 38-7 score, this one in the wrong direction. Minnesota’s problems running the football surfaced again the next week in Pittsburgh. The Steelers were a team that would end the year in the playoffs, but hadn’t started particularly well. The Vikes helped them find their footing, being unable to stop the run and losing 27-14.
THE BIG MOVE
Minnesota came home to play two straight subpar divisional opponents. They dominated Tampa Bay defensively and won 17-3. Against Detroit, a second-quarter explosion produced 24 points, including a 90-yard Pick-6 by Isaac Holt. The Vikings didn’t score outside the second quarter, but they didn’t need to, winning 24-17.
Another NFC Central foe that was perceived as subpar at the time, the Green Bay Packers, were up next. Minnesota was a game back of Chicago in the divisional race and decided now was the time to make a big move. The Dallas Cowboys were enduring an awful season under first-year coach Jimmy Johnson and had one tradeable asset—running back Herschel Walker. The Vikings needed a physical runner. The Cowboys needed a future. It was an ideal trading match.
Dallas got another suitor, the Cleveland Browns, interested and Johnson got a bidding war going. By the time it was done, the Vikings had parted with five veteran players, including Nelson, along with several high draft picks.
This was steep, but there was more in the fine print. If Dallas cut the five vets by the end of the season, they could cash them in more draft picks. Viking GM Mike Lynn believed the Cowboy roster was so bad that Dallas would have to keep the vets in order to maintain a viable product. He was right, but wrong in his read of the situation. Johnson had the backing of owner Jerry Jones to tear the entire thing down and start over, and he had no intention of keeping the players. Minnesota’s entire future ended up mortgaged for Walker.
In the short-term, Lynn looked like a bold visionary. Walker dominated in his debut against the Packers, rushing for 148 yards. Minnesota dominated in a 26-14 game not as close as the score makes it sound. They went to Detroit the next week where Walker outrushed exciting Lion rookie Barry Sanders, while the defense forced five turnovers and keyed a 20-7 win.
The win streak came to an end on Monday Night Football against the eventual NFC East champ New York Giants, as the Vikes turned the ball over four times and lost 24-14. But they bounced back at home against another playoff team, the Los Angeles Rams. The game went to overtime tied 21-21, although the Vikings got there in a bizarre way—seven field goals, every one after the offense had driven into the red zone.
It was a game they seemed to be begging Los Angeles to take from them, but there was one more strange play left—Viking linebacker Mike Meriweather blocked a punt out of the end zone. The Vikes had a 23-21 OT win without ever getting into the end zone.
Minnesota went to Tamp Bay, got an early defensive touchdown, jumped to a 17-0 lead and coasted home 24-10. They were 7-3 and while the NFC Central race was tight, with Chicago and Green Bay both in the mix, the Vikings seemed to be taking control.
Walker opened a road game in Philadelphia with a 93-yard kickoff return and it looked the good times would continue. But a missed extra point was not only an omen, it cost the Vikes the game. They turned it over five times, Wilson went 14/34 for 151 yards and they lost 10-9 to another team that was heading for the playoffs.
More painful was the following week in Lambeau Field on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Minnesota was down 20-16 and driving for the winning score. The drive stalled on the 2-yard line in the fourth quarter and it was early enough that head coach Jerry Burns kicked the field goal. That was the difference in a 20-19 loss.
Minnesota was now tied with Green Bay atop the NFC Central at 7-5, with slumping Chicago at 6-6. A more ominous problem was that an inability to run the ball near the goal line had cost them against the Packers and nearly did against the Rams. This wasn’t what the Walker deal was supposed to bring.
PUSH TO THE PLAYOFFS
The Vikings had a chance to put away the Bears in a Sunday Night game to start the season’s final push. Wilson threw a 46-yard touchdown pass to Jones, keying an early 17-3 lead. Wilson finished 15/26 for 260 yards and led the way to a 27-16 win that all but ended Chicago’s hold on the division. And Minnesota kept pace with Green Bay.
The running game re-emerged at home against lowly Atlanta. The Vikes enjoyed a 220-67 edge in rushing yardage. They led 20-17 in the third quarter when Millard recovered a fumble and went 31 yards to the house. It triggered an outburst that led to a 43-17 rout. Green Bay lost at home to Kansas City and the Vikings were now a game up with the tiebreaker, thanks to a superior divisional record. They just needed one more win.
On an icy field in Cleveland facing a Browns team that would reach the AFC Championship Game, Minnesota lost a heartbreaker. Tied 17-17 in overtime and with kicking conditions miserable, the Browns executed a fake field goal for a touchdown. Meanwhile, Green Bay won decisively in Chicago. It would come down to the final week of the season.
The Packers beat the Cowboys and set up a monster Monday Night in the Metrodome. The Vikings would play the Cincinnati Bengals. The wild-card spots in the NFC were sewn up by the Eagles and Rams—this was win-or-go-home for Minnesota.
It was also win-or-go-home for Cincinnati. And it was Christmas Night, making it a memorable night in four different fan bases who had their playoff hopes in the balance (the Vikings had friends in Pittsburgh who needed the Bengals to lose).
Doleman was dominant and delivered four sacks. Minnesota forced five turnovers. Wilson went 19/35 for 303 yards, with Carter catching seven balls for 118 yards. The Vikes were up 19-0 by halftime, before the Bengals stormed back to cut the lead to 22-21. Minnesota faced a 4th-and-goal on the 1-yard line late in the game.
Burns had seen enough of red-zone failures. In the days prior to the two-point conversion, a touchdown would all but seal the win. The head coach went for it and called a play-action pass. The play to second-year tight end Brent Novoselsky worked perfectly. It was 29-21 and the Vikings were NFC Central champs for the first time since 1980.
THE END OF AN ERA
Minnesota went to San Francisco for the divisional round of the playoffs, the third straight time they had gone to Candlestick for this round. Each previous game had been a blowout—the Vikings stunned everyone in 1987 and the 49ers returned the favor in 1988. San Francisco took Game 3 and it was again a rout. Joe Montana threw four touchdown passes in the first half and the final was 41-13.
This loss was essentially the end of a short era for the Vikings, that of the late 1980s ascendancy. They missed the playoffs each of the next two years and Burns was replaced with Dennis Green, who got the franchise back on track. And as Minnesota fans know all too well, Herschel Walker never panned out, at least not at a star level. The Cowboys used those draft picks to build the great dynasty of the early 1990s.