A Contemporary History of Minnesota Vikings Quarterbacks
It’s rather amazing how quickly us Vikings’ fans can forget our own history. Perhaps that speaks to an innate human tendency to hope, or perhaps we’re just so desperate for news that doesn’t include the words “government shutdown” or “Minnesota Twins” that the Vikings inspire optimism by comparison. Whatever the warts are with our current quarterback – age, immaturity, arrogance, injuries, turnovers, chemical dependency, legal issues – we can explain them away. If the quarterback hasn’t failed wearing purple, then he hasn’t failed at all.
Since it’s so easy to forget and ignore history, let’s run through the QB history of the Vikings starting with the first season I can actually remember.
After the previous season ended with the Rich Gannon-Sean Salisbury QB carousel of mediocrity, in 1993 the Vikings brought in a washed-up Jim McMahon, the brash, shades-wearing 33-year-old former Chicago Bear, who had bounced to San Diego and then Philadelphia after winning a Super Bowl with the Bears in 1985. He lasted one year with the Vikings, leading them to a 9-7 record and a first-round playoff loss to the New York Giants.
1994 saw the Vikings trade for 38-year-old legendary Houston Oilers QB Warren Moon, who proceeded to throw 18 TDs versus 19 picks and lead the Vikings to a third straight first-round playoff loss under Dennis Green, this time losing 18-35 to the Chicago Bears. Moon returned semi-rejuvenated in 1995, throwing 33 TDs (17 to Cris Carter), but the team finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs. In ’96, now 40, Moon threw 7 TDs and 9 interceptions in 8 games before breaking his collarbone and giving way to Brad Johnson, whom the Vikings drafted in 1992 in the 9th round as the 227th overall pick. The Vikings would finish 9-7 and once again lose in the first round of the playoffs, this time getting crushed 40-15 by the Cowboys. Moon’s reign with the Vikings included a domestic violence trial in which he was acquitted, and also his own pregame show that had a theme song set to Deadeye Dick’s “New Age Girl” (tragically, I cannot find a clip of the theme song anywhere on the Internet – just this commercial for the show that will likely cause you to have a seizure).
“Warren Mooo ooo ooo ooo ooo oon . . . he’s the Vikings quarterback . . . Warren Moon Warren Moon.”
Brad Johnson started for the majority of the 1997 season . . .
but when his super-cool elbow pads caused numbness in his throwing hand, he gave way to . . .
34-year-old Randall Cunningham, who had been out of football the year before. The team finished 9-7, and Cunningham led the Vikings to their first playoff win under coach Dennis Green, sneaking by the Giants 23-22 before losing 22-38 to the 49ers.
1998. The black mark on Vikings’ fans’ souls. Johnson started the first two games before spraining his ankle, and Cunningham came in and led the Vikings to a 15-1 record and an NFL-record 556 points, bolstered by a supporting cast featuring sensational rookie Randy Moss, Hall of Famer Cris Carter, and Robert Smith. Along the way, the Vikings seemingly exorcised their 1990’s demons, twice beating the Brett Favre-led Packers (including a Monday night win in Lambeau that featured Randy Moss hurdling Packers defenders on his way to 190 yards and two touchdowns) and also dismantling the Cowboys in Dallas.
We all know what happened next: seemingly destined for a showdown with the John Elway-led 14-2 Denver Broncos, the Vikings blew the NFC Championship game against the Atlanta Falcons, losing in overtime after then-perfect kicker Gary Anderson missed a 41-yard field goal that would have sealed the win in regulation.
After the ’98 season, the Vikings were able to trade Brad Johnson to the Washington Redskins for 3 draft picks: first- and third-rounders in 1999, and a second-rounder in 2000. They used the first-rounder, the #11 overall pick in 1999, to draft Daunte Culpepper.
The Vikings tried to run it back in ’99, but Cunningham’s smoke-and-mirrors show was over. He threw 9 picks in 6 games, so the Vikings replaced him with . . .
32-year-old Jeff George, who had already flamed out for three other teams. George was a fun gunslinger who led the team to an 8-2 finish and a playoff win over the Cowboys, but lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams.
In 2000, the Vikings finally turned the reigns over to a young player drafted by the team. Culpepper put up big fantasy numbers, but never seemed to inspire much faith in Vikings nation, probably because he had the highest fumbling rate in NFL history due to his tiny hands. A potentially more important reason Culpepper failed to inspire hope was his dorky touchdown celebration more befitting a pimply-faced adolescent than an NFL quarterback.
Playing on the same field as the naturally-cool and more-talented Moss further contributed to Culpepper’s unpopularity.
It’s also worth mentioning that Culpepper’s first season as a starter ended with the infamous 41-donut NFC title game in which he threw for 78 yards, three picks, and lost a fumble. Culpepper, and the team, never really recovered. Over the next four seasons, the Vikings went 5-11, 6-10, 9-7, and 8-8, although during the 8-8 season, they miraculously made it to the playoffs, leading to one of the great moments in Vikings history before they lost to Philadelphia the following week.
In the first 7 games of 2005, Culpepper threw 12 interceptions and fumbled five times before blowing out his knee, leading to . . .
The second coming of Brad Johnson! Johnson couldn’t complete a pass beyond 30 yards, but since he led the team to a 7-2 finish (9-7 again!), the Vikings named the 38-year old the starter heading into 2006. The Vikings also traded two third-round draft picks to Pittsburgh in exchange for the last pick of the second round, which Brad Childress used to select Tarvaris Jackson to lead his “kick-ass offense” [insert rimshot here].
Shockingly, led by the Brad Johnson-Tarvaris Jackson-Brooks Bollinger triumvirate, the Vikings finished 6-10. The next year, a similar troika of terror (Tarvaris-Kelly Holcomb-Bollinger) somehow won 8 games, giving way to the un-dynamic duo of Tarvaris and Gus Frerotte in 2008, 10 wins, and another first-round playoff exit at the hands of the Eagles.
Enter 40-year-old Brett Favre, the long-time Packer, archrival, nemesis, and instigator of millions of inappropriate jokes and curse words by Vikings fans (for example: “The Packers suck. Brett Favre swallows.”). The Baby Cheesus had one last gasp left in him, leading the Vikings to a 12-4 record and another kick-to-the-groin loss in the NFC Championship Game, this time to the Saints (the “12 men in the huddle” game), breathing new life to the nightmares still leftover from 1998.
Similar to their mistake from 1999 with Randall Cunningham, the Vikings ran it back for a second season in 2010. History repeated itself, as 41-year-old Favre was bad, then hurt, and the Vikings stumbled to 6-10. After years of will-he-or-won’t-he flirtation, Favre finally retired.
In 2011, the Vikings had the 12th overall draft selection. The day of the draft, there were rumors and indications they planned to use the pick on Christian Ponder, a semi-prospect from Florida State who had shot up the Vikings draft board for reasons still unknown, as nobody seemed to be as high on him as the Purple.
I remember playing cards at Canterbury Downs on the day of the draft, playing poker amidst hundreds of other Vikings fans. Four quarterbacks were drafted before Ponder, and in what felt like a colossal reach at the time and feels like an even more colossal reach now, the Vikings drafted Ponder at #12 overall. In a giant room full of Vikings fans, nobody celebrated.
Of course, our story would not be complete without one more washed-up QB, as the Vikings picked up an out-of-shape 35-year-old Donovan McNabb to start 2011. He was horrendous, and Ponder was starting by Week 7.
In 2012, Adrian Peterson’s 2,000 yard season dragged Ponder and the Vikings into the playoffs. Despite playing very well in the Vikings’ season-ending win over the Packers, Ponder could not start the following week’s playoff game against those same Packers. Led by Joe Webb, the Vikings were thrashed by the Packers.
2013 saw a mixture of bad Ponder, mildly better veteran never-was Matt Cassel, and a garbage audition by Josh Freeman, who had abruptly washed out of Tampa Bay after a promising start to his career.