The sky was falling and the natives were nearing cardiac arrest at the Metrodome Sunday. The Vikings’ season dangled on the edge of collapse in their battle for survival with the Dallas Cowboys. It was chippy and basically desperate football that for one moment late in the game was on the verge of shifting to Dallas. The crowd was roaring and into all of that turmoil stepped the most respected Viking player of them all.
Ten months ago E.J. Henderson, the middle linebacker and the revered captain of their defense, lay on the field with a broken leg so revolting his teammates had to turn away before he was carted to a hospital. His recovery this summer and fall, nourished by hundreds of hours of daily rehab, was considered extraordinary.
With the score tied 21-21 in the final minutes of the fourth quarter and the Dallas Cowboys’ veteran tight end, Jason Witten, breaking downfield, Dallas’ Tony Romo threw into what he thought was an open passing lane.
It wasn’t open. It was a ruse. Anticipating the throw to Witten, Henderson faked a blitz, dropped back into coverage and closed on the route just as Romo was delivering the ball to Witten. Henderson intercepted, his second of the game, and a few minutes later Ryan Longwell kicked a 38-yard field goal for a 24-21 Viking lead that withstood a carnival of Dallas laterals on the final play as time expired.
Basically it was E.J. Henderson’s personal sting operation. What else would you expect from a quiet guy who earned a college degree in criminology and criminal justice? It was one of two critical plays that might have rescued the Vikings’ season. The other was a speed-of-light kickoff runback of 95 yards by Percy Harvin to open the second half after Dallas had taken a 14-7 halftime lead. From there, with a battered Favre limited through the air, Adrian Peterson slashed for 73 yards in 24 carries to offset Romo’s big advantage in the passing game.
And yet the Cowboys might have prevailed on Romo’s two first-half touchdown passes to Roy Williams. This was a Dallas team being measured for the Super Bowl just three weeks ago, now inflicting mindless penalties on itself that destroyed at least two touchdowns with undisciplined play and chaos on the bench.
The game had been widely described as the death sentence for the loser. This turned it into a kind of early season futility bowl for both Minnesota and Dallas, meaning the loser would carry three or four losses practically out of the blocks through only the first third of the 16-game season.
That gloomy judgment now looks premature. The National Football Conference looks frail alongside the thick quality of the American Football Conference’s best. The NFC is cluttered with a mediocrity that’s compounded by injuries that in the last few weeks have exposed the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. Today in the Vikings’ NFC North it stands Chicago 4 wins and 2 losses, Green Bay 3 and 3, the Vikings 2 and 3 and Detroit 1 and 5.
Which means all of the familiar old grudges will renew this Sunday night when Favre returns to Green Bay, the scene of his first idolization, now largely revoked. Thousands of the loyal cheeseheads still keep the fires burning for their old champion, although his alleged sexy internet contacts with a New York Jets sideline reporter will probably thin the ranks. He is due to be questioned by a member of the National Football League office early this week. Unless the young woman publicly substantiates the reports — which she has declined to do — Favre is unlikely to face any league discipline. He is saying nothing publicly about the allegations, nor is his coach, Brad Childress, nor the Viking ownership.
The net effect of the national notoriety has the look of one more jock opera in the life of an amazing 41-year-old athlete-grandfather who stubbornly refuses all invitations to grow up.
He took a pounding from the Dallas rush Sunday and threw for one touchdown, was docked for a fumble on his blown handoff to Peterson and was sucking air from start to finish. But being Favre he played. And won. Although a cortisone shot last week relieved the tendinitis in his throwing arm, he was under constant harassment that limited his production to 118 yards on 14 completions in 19 attempts, including a touchdown pass to Greg Camarillo in the first half .
Much of that yardage was delivered by Randy Moss in his return to an arena where he once reigned as the best pass receiver in football, although not quite the most loveable. His skills after 12 years seemed scarcely diminished. What startled some of the veteran players was the sound of Randy Moss-turned orator at halftime, revving up his teammates with some hairy motivational language that seemed to excite Favre and others in the room. “Coaches can say those things but sometimes it’s in one ear and out the other,” Favre said later. “When you hear it from a guy like Randy…all of a sudden you hear guys saying ‘you’re right.'”
The Moss factor
This from a Randy Moss, whose previous drama credits included mooning a jeering crowd and spraying a bottle of fizz water at a game official as he ran past the Viking bench. So there is no question about the versatile gifts that Moss brings back to Minnesota, supported by the judgment of no less than John Madden, who calls Randy Moss one of the greatest pass receivers he has ever seen. If not the best.
Which means there will be practically no dull days ahead for the Vikings’ clientele. Dallas certainly was a virtual equal Sunday, dominating the clock for long stretches. But in the end in the National Football League, the game usually goes to the playmakers. Romo threw three touchdown passes and Favre threw one, but Peterson ran for another and Percy Harvin ran back a third on a kickoff.
The difference was the play of a linebacker whose career seemed ended just 10 months ago. The name of Henderson does not appear among the score makers. It did put Ryan Longwell’s field goal on the board. Somewhere down the road three months from now, that may be the most important play of the year.