The snow relented, the crowd came, Favre reappeared, the Vikings bombed

Fans cheers as the Vikings take to the field before the start of their game against the Chicago Bears
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Fans cheers as the Vikings take to the field before the start of their game against the Chicago Bears

The Vikings attacked the Chicago Bears with a pre-Christmas snowstorm, a freezing drizzle and single-digit windchill. They added a parade of stars summoned from 50 years of football history and a Brett Favre suddenly  rehabilitated as their starting quarterback.

Add snowballs from playful customers at the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank stadium. Thousands of them reveled in their Arctic boots and coveralls and their escape from 29 years of indoor football.

What they lacked was an organized football team on the tundra.

That and some minimal strategy to stop Jay Cutler in the air, Matt Forte on the ground and the record-setting Devin Hester when they were rash enough to kick the ball to him.

For a while it looked like a ten-strike. Favre was playing, declaring his throwing arm sound enough after the Vikings had virtually announced that he couldn’t play. After one of his overnight revelations, Favre persuaded them to change their minds. And the Vikings jumped out into the lead.

Unimpressed, the Bears recovered and ultimately walloped the Vikings 40-14 Monday night to clinch the title in the National Football League’s North division.

Banged head on the freezing turf

Winter playing conditions in Minnesota have never terrified the Bears. They get lousier weather coming off Lake Michigan. And the Vikings might have played it closer if Favre had lasted. But he left the game unable to return after being sacked by the Bears’ Corey Wooton early in the second quarter and banging his head on the freezing turf.

The Vikings trailed 10-7 at the time. Favre’s replacement, the rookie Joe Webb, couldn’t move the team consistently, although his raw athletic gifts were undeniable. So it was an almost a predictable climax — but not the finish — of a Viking season of alternating bathos and turmoil.

They began the year touted as a prime Super Bowl contender. After their remaining games at Philadelphia and Detroit, they will finish with a losing record and without knowing who will be their starting quarterback or their head coach in 2011.

But they do lead the division in self-induced misery and novelty. It began with the second annual vaudeville of Favre’s return, the dismissal of Coach Brad Childress, the Randy Moss debacle, and finally the orphaning of the team with the Metrodome collapse. By this week most of the tension of an underachieving season was gone, but so was all pretense of hope.

For a while this week it looked as though all of downtown Minneapolis might have to be postponed. But the natives declined to panic, regiments of snow shovelers had exhumed the university football field. The emergency vehicles did their work. And more that 40,000 people (compared with the sellouts of 63,000 at the now-deflated Metrodome) came with their woolies, facemasks, snow pants and fanny warmers.

“The fans had a secret weapon nobody counted on,” said Tom Szarzynski a Minneapolis high tech equipment dealer. Szarzynski watched the game from the end zone with his girlfriend, Megan Orr, after paying $20 to park his car in a nearby lot.

“We stood up most of the game. So did almost everybody else. That way your butt wasn’t welded to the seat,” he said. “I can’t say we were especially cold. I just love outdoor football, getting involved with the elements, whether its sunshine or the snow and even the rain we had during the game. You just seem more of a community that way.

“So our guys lost. It was still something to carry away. And for me the biggest thrill — as a guy who has watched this team year in and year out — was to see those great retired players on the field, and Bud Grant being lifted on their shoulders. And while I love to watch Adrian Peterson run, there was Chuck Foreman out there with the others at halftime, the Ellers and Marshalls and Randalls and all the others. Seeing Foreman out there took me back to those spin moves he use to make running at top speed and faking those linebackers into the second row.”

‘The cold didn’t bother me’

Millions of others watched the game around the country and what was almost certainly Favre’s last appearance on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” a venue in which he has performed some of his most memorable heroics.

It wasn’t going to happen this time. He said he went blank after hitting the ground early in the second quarter. “The cold didn’t bother me,” he said. “I’ve played in cold before and blizzards.”

Nor could he fully explain his sudden urge to contact interim Coach Leslie Frazier early in the morning with the news that he wanted to play, despite “having no idea whether I could throw the ball.”

He called Frazier Monday morning after having a sudden urge to play in the game, which usually translates into something like: This is a “Monday night game, I play in games like this, so why not? “

“I said I’d hate to put [Frazier] in an awkward position, but if we could work it out…”

Not surprisingly, Frazier said it was possible. Interim coaches have a hard time saying no to Brett Favre. Favre made his case. “It would be my last home game and I actually look forward to playing in blizzards.”

Sounds logical. His throws looked good in the pre-game. And Favre threw an early touchdown pass to Harvin, then went down and left the game with an apparent concussion.

“Do I regret playing?” he asked himself after the game.”No.” Would he play again, one last time, evidently, and call it a career? “I don’t know. Based on this concussion, I don’t know. Based on time, based on my decision making….?

Favre made a nod to the quirks of his decision making. “I probably shouldn’t tell you, one way or another”

He suffered a shoulder sprain two weeks ago and sat out the Vikings’ game with the New York Giants last week. The daily bulletins on Favre’s condition seemed to leave no possibility that he might come back this week and Joe Webb became the centerpiece of the pre-game talk. Favre is rarely intimidated by everybody else’s certainty. So he put it to Frazier on a sorta, kinda basis.

Frazier, trying to make no waves, didn’t argue. He said, “Let’s see.”

“I had no idea whether I could throw until I got to the stadium,” Favre said. But he felt and looked good in the warm-ups, and by the time all of the announcements had been made and nobody had much doubt, he found Harvin open in the first quarter, fired and suddenly the Minnesota Vikings were leading 7-0. In fact they seemed to be playing with more urgency than the Bears.

But Cutler threw a perfect rainbow to the flying John Knox for a 10-7 Chicago lead, then a 15-yarder to Hester for a 17-7 halftime lead. Hester set an NFL record by bringing a punt back 64 yards to score, the 14th time he has returned a punt or kickoff for a touchdown. Webb scrambled 13 yards to narrow the Bears’ lead to 27-14, but Cutler threw his third touchdown pass to Rashied Davis and Robbie Gould padded it out with field goals.

With Adrian Peterson sidelined with injuries, the Vikings ground game did not especially frighten Brian Urlacher and his carnivorous pals of the Bears’ defense. Webb’s passes scared them even less, although the young sixth-round draft choice roused the crowd with his long-striding scrambles away from the blitz. In the end, the Bears dominated across the board and happily strolled to their locker room afterward, wearing their freshly minted division champion hats.

What did bring down the thunder for the evening for the Vikings was the celebration of their 50th years in the NFL, climaxed by the halftime appearance of some of their greatest stars. The fans gave them and their Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant an ovation that ultimately constituted the one stroke of exhilaration in their mournful year of 2010.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/21/2010 - 10:12 am.

    No game for old men.

    The difference between wanting to play and being able to play is is the difference between this year and last year.

    It turns out the report of a too-hard playing surface was more true than not. But the NFL, in support of Wilf’s desire to build on the old Metrodome site, decided that safety be damned, it was time to inaugurate the alternate playing field for the duration of the construction process.

    So I would guess that an under-field heating system is in the offing for the TCF stadium.

  2. Submitted by myles spicer on 12/21/2010 - 10:21 am.

    This game was not lost last night — it was lost in the off season with a series of bad judgements made by the owners, managers and coaches of the Vikes. The essentially “disassembled” the core of a decent team…stuck with some overrated palyers (especially on the offensive line)…failed to fill in needed gaps (especially in the defensive backfield)…gave in to the dumb idea of bringing Favre back even when he showed lack of enthusiasm…failed to plan for the need in the QB position (probably should have kept Rosenfels at least)…and kept a coach that was not only unpopular but had limited creativity (partially because of the influence of Favre).

    The really bad news is, the team now has so many gaps to fill, rebuilding could take several seasons (and a big coaching decision).

    The good news is, I have changed my mind about an open air stadium. Everything we worried about in Minnesota in December came true last night…and it was a HOOT!

  3. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 12/21/2010 - 01:37 pm.

    I have to disagree with Myles on a couple points. Far from disassembling the team, it was kept together. All starters returned, so continuity couldn’t have had more of a chance. I understand wanting Favre back after last season. Age can catch up fast like it did for Favre, but it’s hard to predict.

    I really disagree about the open air stadium. I can get why the Vikings would want it, because it takes a lot of money off the cost. The fans can tolerate the cold, though in December in Minnesota, there will be a lot of local TV blackouts. more important is that in terms of getting political support for a new stadium, much as it helps to cut the price, it’s not going to happen if it’s good just for Vikings games. The dome gets a lot of use most of us are unaware of, and those uses mostly require a roof.

    If the stadium is built in a way that makes it more multi-use like the dome, and something of a public space like Target Field’s plaza, it will be a great public asset. If it’s good just for Vikings games, even I have to reconsider my support, and I’ve been strongly for it.

  4. Submitted by myles spicer on 12/21/2010 - 02:44 pm.

    Well Eric, you make good points. But we have know for several seasons, Jackson was a mediocre QB. Rice was hurt, and Harvin has migraines, and we have a depleted receiving corps. Our offensive line is terrible, yet not repaired (McKinnie overrated, and Loadholt less than average. In that regard Childress got rid of Birk. He let Rosenfels go. He let Renaud go (good return man). Our defensive line is good, but getting old. We never solved our poor defensive back situation in the off season. Wilf is well intentined and willing to spend the money, but clearly the decisions made have deteriorated the team, not built it.

    Sure you are right abouth the stadium (I had season tix in both the old Met and the dome, and certainly appreciated the dome more). But the vikes had a terrific reputation as a cold weather team under Grant, and I must say, it was fun to see the game outdoors…as long as I don’t have to sit out there!

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