Vikings hope 1980s history repeats itself

Embarking on one of the most critical offseasons in team history, the Minnesota Vikings are looking for ways to change the direction of a team that has slipped precipitously the past two seasons.

When Minnesota finished 3-13 in 2011, it matched the 1984 team’s record for futility. The Vikings now hope to undergo as quick of a rise as the sudden fall they experienced after reaching the NFL Championship game two years ago.

If the current coaches, players and staff are searching for examples of ways to reverse their fortunes in a hurry, they need only look at the organization’s history. When the current team finished the season with a 17-14 loss at home against Chicago, it wasn’t happy about joining the 1984 squad in infamy. But if the Vikings can replicate what happened after 1984, 2011 could soon be an afterthought.

Following the disappointment of 1984, Minnesota went 7-9 the next season. Four straight winning seasons, including a trip to the NFC title game, followed.

“To say the least, it was an embarrassment,” former Vikings punter Greg Coleman said of the 1984 season. “You’re a professional, and we took that to heart. Guys worked their tails off, with (coach Bud Grant) coming back there was that familiarity and it didn’t take much to turn it around. And I think, with that, this time it won’t take that much to turn it around. You look at how many games they lost by seven points or less. If you win half of those, it’s a totally different season.

“You look at the Giants who were 7-7 at one point and are now having a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan. It doesn’t take long to turn it around. They have a good bunch of guys with a heck of a lot of talent. They have some holes to fill, obviously, but I’ve gotten to know some of these guys and see their resolve. I expect them to turn it around, without question.”

Coleman, the team’s punter from 1978-87, offers the perspective knowing what both the 1984 and 2011 teams had gone through. He is now a sideline reporter for the Vikings’ radio network and said he has talked with many of the current players about the similarities between the two teams.

Another resource is right down the hallway at Winter Park. Scott Studwell, the Vikings’ director of college scouting, was a Vikings linebacker from 1977-90 and led the team in tackles from 1980-85 and again in 1988 and 1989. Studwell said he has refrained from making too many comparisons, though he believes it may be easier to turn things around in today’s NFL than it was back in 1985.

“You can probably turn things around a little quicker these days with free agency, the player movement and the fact people are committed to younger players now,” Studwell said. “It still boils down to how good your roster is. We all have to take our piece in this, too. We have to get better players, too. The onus is on everybody in turning a team around.”
The players from 1984 attribute that team’s turnaround to a few key aspects. The switch back to Bud Grant after Les Steckel’s lone season as coach played a big role. Coleman also said the team learned from what it went through in 1984.

“That left a very, very bitter taste and nobody wanted to swallow that again,” Coleman said. “You called upon those ugly memories of how things went down and how it happened every now and then as a reminder of how bad previous year was. Nobody wanted to re-live that, and it made guys work harder in practice, watch extra film, do more in the weight room. We pushed each other as a team.”

Roster turnover also helped. New players came aboard and the Vikings became a younger team. Reports have circulated that current general manager Rick Spielman would like to accomplish the same thing heading into 2012.

Coleman and Studwell both believe the 2011 team was more talented than the 1984 squad, but the addition of players in 1985 played a big role in the team’s turnaround. With the fourth-overall pick in 1985, Minnesota drafted Chris Doleman, who was just elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Studwell and general manager Rick Spielman can only hope to have as big of a hit with the No. 3 overall selection this season.

Other players such as defensive tackle Keith Millard and receiver Anthony Carter also joined the Vikings in 1985, and the burden is on Minnesota to find similar talent upgrades this time around.

“The biggest thing to us turning it around so quickly was getting players,” said Tommy Kramer, the team’s starting quarterback in 1984 and following two seasons. “Over the years, drafting people and when you make bad decisions, you pay for it. But when you get good people then you get on a roll.”

One former Viking believes talent offers another reason to believe in a quick recovery.

“You know, the one good thing about really good players is they can have a short memory,” said former running back Darrin Nelson, who was on the 1984 team and then led Minnesota in rushing from 1985-88. “I wasn’t even thinking about 3-13 the next year. I think everybody else does that. Good players have short memories. If you run across middle and get hit in head, you have to forget it because later in game you’ll have to do it again. A whole new year brings a different perspective.”

The Vikings can only hope so, following the trend started in 1985.

Follow Brian Hall on Twitter.