When they write the review of the Minnesota Vikings' 2001 season, the question will be: Where do you start?
Do you begin with a head coach who's been criticized for losing control of his players? Do you start with veteran wide receiver Cris Carter's sideline tirade? Will star wide receiver Randy Moss' "I play when I want to play" comment be the starting point? Or do you go all the way back to training camp and the tragic death of Pro-Bowl offensive tackle Korey Stringer?
This has been a season of controversy and tragedy for the Vikings. This Sunday, the Vikings (5-8) will attempt to avoid the team's first losing season under head coach Dennis Green, when the Vikings host the Jaguars (5-8).
"Dennis has done an outstanding job and we're very fortunate he's here," owner Red McCombs said recently of Dennis Green. McCombs added Green will "absolutely" be retained as the Vikings' head coach.
"I've been pleased with everything Dennis does. We have a lot of people around here who contribute to the overall operation. It works well. I see it as being an effective program."
Others don't agree.
The Vikings are a team with ongoing salary cap problems, but they pale in comparison to the ills Moss has introduced this season. Moss has taken his most major step in living up to his reputation for being a trouble-maker.
He was fined $15,000 by the Vikings in Nov. for having verbally abused a group of corporate sponsors on the team bus in Philadelphia. He was also fined by the league a total of $20,000 for three infractions this season; two for taunting and another for a dress-code violation. Add those to $65,000 in fines for three previous incidents between 1999-2000.
Sounds like a retirement plan.
Yet, McCombs, Green and the Vikings have been supportive of Moss, which has caused critics to charge Green for having lost control of his team.
"We're very proud of Randy and glad he's a Viking," McCombs said of Moss, with whom the Vikings agreed to an eight-year, $75 million contract right before the start of training camp.
"But statements like the ones he made are not in his best interest and they're not in the best interests of the Vikings. We know him and we know what he's about as a person. Whether he talks about whether he plays hard or not, we know he is a very good person. That's what's important to us," McCombs said.
Moss is the player on whom the Vikings must rest their future hopes. He's their star; the most talented big-play pass-catcher in the game.
Quarterback Daunte Culpepper has also emerged as one of the league's premier offensive players, but Culpepper has been sidelined by a knee injury. Todd Bouman has performed admirably since replacing Culpepper on Dec. 2.
"Our offense looked like the offense the way it was created to be," Carter said following a win over Tennessee on Dec. 9. "The way we played in, say, nine or 10 other games this year, we haven't looked that way."
The emergence of rookie running back Michael Bennett has been a major factor. He scored on an 80-yard screen pass late in the loss to Pittsburgh, and rushed for 113 yards and touchdown runs of 31 and 10 yards against Tennessee.
Bennett may be the key player for a team that lost star running back Robert Smith in a surprise retirement last offseason. The Vikings need Bennett to pose the threat of a running attack for the Vikings' spread-formation passing attack to be successful.
The Vikings will need all of the offense they can muster to offset a defense that is ranked 28th in the league, 30th against the run. Following this Sunday's game against the Jaguars, the Vikings will travel to Green Bay and to Baltimore.