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Zulgad: Immediate impact: Randy Moss’ arrival took Vikings from ho-hum to must-see

By Judd Zulgad

Dec. 21, 1997.

The significance of that date should not be lost on anyone who will be in attendance at U.S. Bank Stadium on Monday night to witness Randy Moss’ induction into the Vikings’ Ring of Honor at halftime of his former team’s game against New Orleans.

That Sunday afternoon in 1997 marked the Vikings’ final regular-season game of the year. It also is the last time a Vikings’ game was blacked out locally after failing to sell out by the mandated time.

The 1997 Vikings weren’t a bad team – they beat the dreadful Indianapolis Colts in that game to finish 9-7 and qualify for the playoffs – but fan enthusiasm had waned and if the Vikings hadn’t rallied from a 22-13 deficit in the fourth quarter against the Giants in their playoff opener it was expected coach Dennis Green would have been fired.

Eddie Murray’s 24-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter gave the Vikings a 23-22 victory and Minnesota wasn’t eliminated until the following weekend when a 16-point loss at San Francisco in the Divisional playoffs sent them home.

The quarterback-starved Colts took Tennessee star Peyton Manning with the first pick of the 1998 draft. Quarterback Ryan Leaf went to San Diego with the second pick, defensive end Andre Wadsworth was taken third by Arizona. He was followed by cornerback Charles Woodson (Oakland) and running back Curtis Enis (Chicago).

It was at this point it became clear Moss was about to go into a free-fall through the draft. Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones had told the wide receiver if he was available with the eighth pick that Dallas would take him but when the Cowboys’ selection arrived the decision was made to go with North Carolina linebacker Greg Ellis.

A wide receiver wasn’t taken until the 16th pick when the Tennessee Oilers selected Utah’s Kevin Dyson. It was probably around this point that Green and the rest of the Vikings’ officials in the draft room at Winter Park began to hold their breath.

The Cincinnati Bengals, who had taken linebacker Takeo Spikes at No. 13, drafted again at 17 and selected another linebacker, North Carolina’s Brian Simmons. The New England Patriots took running back Robert Edwards, the Green Bay Backers went with defensive tackle Vonnie Holliday, the Detroit Lions took cornerback Terry Fair.

Now, the Vikings were on the clock.

It has long been the theory here that Green and the Vikings learned a valuable and painful draft lesson in 1995. The Vikings were picking 11th that year and needed help on the defensive line.

Warren Sapp was considered to be a sure top-five pick in that draft but reports circulated that Sapp had tested positive for marijuana four times while playing college football at Miami. There also was a New York Times report that Sapp had tested positive for cocaine, although the NFL labeled the report “inaccurate.”

All of it was enough to scare off many teams, including the Vikings. Minnesota drafted Florida State defensive end Derrick Alexander with its pick, enabling Tampa Bay to grab Sapp with the next selection. Sapp went on to a Hall of Fame career and Alexander lasted four seasons in Minnesota.

Moss also fell in the draft because of off-the-field concerns. He had originally planned to attend Notre Dame but his enrollment application was denied after he was charged with a misdemeanor following a fight at his high school. His plan to then attend Florida State came to an end when the school dismissed him after he tested positive for marijuana.

That’s how Moss ended up being a star at Marshall for two seasons, catching 78 passes for 1,709 yards and 28 touchdowns in 1996 and 96 passes for 1,820 yards and 26 touchdowns in 1997.

The Vikings might have had concerns about Moss, but those weren’t enough to allow him to drop any closer to the end of the first round. The Vikings selected Moss. They thought they were taking a potential star wide receiver; they actually were selecting a guy who would do much more.

Moss made his impact felt immediately.

The Vikings opened the 1998 season on Sept. 6 against Tampa Bay at the Metrodome. Moss caught four passes for 95 yards in that game, including first half touchdowns of 48 and 31 yards from Brad Johnson. Moss had four touchdown receptions in his first four games, creating plenty of buzz about his speed and ability to go get the football no matter where it was thrown.

If that buzz had been contained to the Twin Cities that came to an end on Oct. 5, 1998. Playing at Lambeau Field against the Packers on Monday Night Football, Moss put on a show for the national audience, catching five passes for 190 yards, including touchdowns of 52 and 44 yards.

Johnson was injured by this point and Randall Cunningham had taken over at quarterback. It didn’t matter. Cunningham was marvelous during the 1998 regular season, but Moss’ ability to catch anything thrown his way made the quarterback even better.

On Thanksgiving Day, Moss caught three passes for 163 yards in a 46-36 victory at Dallas. Moss’ catches that day went for 51, 56 and 56 yards. All of them were touchdowns.

The Vikings’ victory at Lambeau remains the game that stands out in my memory – that game caused Packers general manager Ron Wolf to use his first three picks in the 1999 draft on defensive backs 6 feet or taller — but there are so many Moss-defining moments from which to pick in the Vikings’ 15-1 season.

That is the season that ended with a heart-breaking loss to Atlanta in the NFC title game, but it also was the season that changed how many felt about the franchise and created a young fan base that good or bad hadn’t existed previous to Moss’ arrival.

Moss’ high-flying exploits caused many to buy his jersey and make plans to show up at the Metrodome on Sunday afternoons in the fall. The Vikings no longer felt stale and the reason was Moss’ presence. He might have played when he wanted to play, but when he did the football gods were smiling.

So why is Dec. 21, 1997 important?

Because it marks a clear line when things changed for the Vikings franchise. The Vikings were an option on Sundays before Moss; they became must watch with him and thus sellouts became the norm.

The fans that fell in love with Moss saw plenty of good and bad in his seven-year stay in Minnesota – his four-game return in 2010 is best forgotten – but it was never boring with Randy and when the quarterback thew him the ball the results were often spectacular.

Moss’ first honor will be going into the Ring of Honor but it also should include first-ballot induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame next summer and the Vikings eventually retiring his No. 84.

This is the type of recognition one gets when he changes the course of an NFL franchise and there is no doubt that Moss did exactly that for the Vikings.

The post Zulgad: Immediate impact: Randy Moss’ arrival took Vikings from ho-hum to must-see appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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