EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — An offseason of criticism is nothing new for Minnesota Viking coach Dennis Green. Neither is a winning season.
This one is turning out no different. Green entrusted the team to a raw quarterback, turned over much of his coaching staff and released a Pro Bowl offensive lineman for starters, yet the Vikings are 5-0 going into tonight's game at Chicago.
"The seat's hot," said Viking defensive line coach Fred vonAppen, "and he's willing to sit in it."
Things were perceived to be so bad for Green, the dean of NFL coaches in his ninth season, that his job was believed in jeopardy. He had won but twice in the postseason, never reaching a Super Bowl.
Then there's his differences with some members of the Twin Cities media, which have become irreconcilable. For every time he could remind them that taking Daunte Culpepper ahead of Jevon Kearse in the 1999 draft appears to have panned out, they could point out that end Dimitrius Underwood was a bust in the same draft.
The coach on a hot seat was given a three-year contract extension after three games this season.
"It's amazing, when things turn out right, the people who kind of forget that," said Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, a former Vikings and Stanford assistant under Green. "The sad part about it is, you make one decision and it turns out right. You make another decision, and it turns out right. Then, as luck would have it, you make one wrong decision and they say, 'See, he is a bad coach.' "
Green's recipe for survival is a fairly simple one:
He finds the right players. Then he keeps as many of them as the salary cap will allow.
"Denny may be the best coach in the NFL when it comes to sizing up personnel," Billick said. "I'm talking about coaching and playing personnel.
"Everybody is all giggles over Daunte Culpepper, but look up and down that roster. Nobody thought Robert Tate could make the switch from receiver to cornerback. (Starting safety) Robert Griffith was supposed to be strictly a special teams player. Matt Birk wasn't ready to start on the offensive line. There's example after example after example."
Many of them involved quarterbacks, those lightning rods of controversy.
"When we signed Randall Cunningham back four years ago, very few people thought Randall could still play," Green said. "We believed it, and we were correct. Then when we signed Jeff George, we believed he would fit into our program. We were correct in that regard, too.
"And we also didn't hesitate in the other decision we had to make (on Culpepper). You analyze things, you try to be clear-cut about it, and then you have to be decisive."
The Vikings are on their fourth quarterback in as many seasons. Yet they went 9-7 behind Brad Johnson in 1997, 15-1 with Cunningham in 1998, 10-6 with George last season and are unbeaten behind Culpepper, the second-year player from Central Florida. Still, critics point out that none has taken them to a Super Bowl.
"I'm looking at a guy who has won consistently the past few years with a different quarterback under center every time, and he is criticized for it," said vonAppen, who is coaching with Green for the fourth time. "That's amazing to me. You would think they would laud him for it."
Many of his players do. Cris Carter is in his ninth season with Green. Robert Smith is in his eighth. Younger stars such as Culpepper and Randy Moss also pledge their allegiance.
"If he hasn't been to the promised land, he's been everywhere but there," Moss said. "Why get down on the man just because he hasn't been to the Super Bowl?"
Special teams star Chris Walsh, who played three seasons under Green at Stanford and is in his seventh with the Vikings, said, "He's tough, but he treats you right and treats you fair. You don't hear him rip guys in papers. Guys appreciate that, especially if they've come from different places. They say we don't know how good we have it."
Green said he stays in touch with developing players by working with scout teams.
"The greatest joy you have is developing players," Green said. "Like watching (linebacker) Eddie McDaniel being a practice-squad player developing into a front-line player. Robert Griffith, who could not even get to the (scouting) combine, nobody thought he could play in the National Football League, watching him become one of the best safeties in the game.
"And then you've got guys like Daunte Culpepper and Cris Carter and Randy Moss who come to the game with a lot, and you try to help them reach those goals that are really big that they have set for themselves."
Green keeps doing just that.