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Celebrate '98: Vikings Look Back at Memorable Season

Has it really been 20 years since …

… the Vikings put together a historic 15-1 season, becoming the third team to navigate through a 16-game season with just one blemish on its record?

… a rookie wide receiver took the league by storm and helped ignite one of the most dynamic offenses in NFL history?

… an opportunistic defense enabled a remarkable turnaround?

"Twenty years … it flies," said former Vikings running back Robert Smith, who was one of 10 Pro Bowlers for Minnesota in 1998.

Added Pro Bowl defensive tackle John Randle: "It doesn't feel like 20 years. It goes by quick, man."

A contingent from one of the most memorable teams in Vikings franchise history is reuniting this weekend as the organization celebrates the season that was in 1998.

They won't be returning to the Metrodome, a stadium where the Vikings put up a staggering 282 total points (35.25 points per game) at home in eight regular-season games.

Instead, the reunion will take place at U.S. Bank Stadium, the Vikings glitzy and glamorous stadium that now sits on the site of the utilitarian Metrodome.

The memories, however, remain.

"I have a mosaic of all the memories and relationships of the guys I played with," said tackle Todd Steussie, a Pro Bowler in 1998. "I'm looking forward to seeing some guys this weekend."

Perhaps the strongest memories are of an offense that was unlike anything the NFL had ever seen before.

The Vikings scored 556 points in 1998, averaging almost 35 per contest, which set an NFL record that has since been eclipsed. Minnesota scored at least 24 points in every game, and broke the 30-point barrier in 11 of 16 regular-season games.

There were plenty of standout individual performances along the way.

Future Hall of Famer Randy Moss, the 21st overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, earned Offensive Rookie of the Year honors after having 69 catches for 1,313 yards and a rookie-record 17 touchdown catches.

Cris Carter, another future Hall of Famer, recorded 78 receptions for 1,011 yards and 12 scores. Jake Reed had 474 receiving yards and four touchdowns as the wide receiver group earned the moniker of 'Three Deep.'

Robert Smith ran for 1,187 yards and six scores, and fellow running back Leroy Hoard found the end zone nine times on the ground.

And Randall Cunningham, who began the season as the backup, went 13-1 as the starter as he threw for 3,704 yards with 34 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. He had nine games with a passer rating of 100 or higher and threw four touchdowns in a game on four separate occasions.

"We were just really good," Smith said. "It wasn't about trying to make a statement, it was just an illustration of who we were and what kind of talent we had."

Added Steussie: "It seemed like game day was kind of our playground."

Minnesota opened the season with a resounding 31-7 win over NFC Central rival Tampa Bay. Quarterback Brad Johnson threw for four touchdowns, including two to Moss in the receiver's debut game.

"I guess my first strong inclination that this might be unique was the opening game against Tampa," Steussie said. "It seemed like things were coming together in a way that our team speed was pretty evident, especially against a team like the Bucs who had a strong defense. I don't know if that was our coming out party, but it was certainly a good indicator."

That jump-started a 7-0 start, with five of those wins coming by double digits.

"I remember we went undefeated in the preseason, and it just kind of had a different feel to it," Smith said. "Everybody just kind of seemed to be on the same page. But [all teams] generally feel good during training camp before you get into games.

"We didn't really know what we had until the real games started," Smith added. "You keep winning and you start building momentum and you realize you have something complete different [than ever before]."

Minnesota's lone loss came in Week 9 at Tampa Bay, a 27-24 defeat at the hands of Buccaneers head coach Tony Dungy, who had spent the 1992-1995 seasons as the Vikings defensive coordinator.

"He was the guy who basically invented our defense," Randle said. "If anybody knew how to play us, it was Tony Dungy. He was the original godfather of this defense."

But the Vikings ripped off eight straight wins to end the season, following the same formula for success over and over and over again.

Moss, Carter and Smith would usually help get the Vikings out to a halftime lead, and then would continue to pour it on in the second half.

The Vikings defense, meanwhile, would face opponents who would abandon the run game and try to play catch up in the second half. It worked right into Minnesota's favor.

Minnesota had a double-digit halftime lead in eight of 16 games, and had 12 victories by 10 or more points in 1998.

"With Randy and everybody, we just scored so many points," said Randle, who had 10.5 sacks that season. "As a defensive player you would come to the sideline and every time the offense was on the field, they were scoring.

"For the defensive guys, we had a lead so early and were so many points ahead," Randle added. "With me being a pass rusher, we were always rushing the passer and that's what we wanted. Nobody could really try to run the ball because they were behind."

Added cornerback Corey Fuller: "A lot of it had to with how potent our offense was. We got a lot of teams behind, and they had to do things they didn't want to do. I don't know why we finished so low in '97 on defense because it was the same group of guys the next year."

The Vikings were among the league's most porous defenses in 1997, ranking 29th out of 30 teams in yards allowed per game (355.4) while tying for 19th in points allowed per game (22.4).

Minnesota was much improved in 1998. The Vikings ranked sixth in points allowed per game (18.5) and were 13th in yards allowed per game (316.6).

What led to the drastic turnaround?

"It was because of the offense," Randle said with a laugh. "If it wasn't a touchdown, we were at least kicking a field goal."

The defense wasn't afraid to score on its own either.

Jimmy Hitchcock picked off a career-high seven passes. And the cornerback led the league with three interception returns for touchdowns and 242 return yards. Linebacker Dwayne Rudd also returned two of his three fumble recoveries for touchdowns.

And the special teams units did their part. Gary Anderson made all 35 of his field goal tries, and return man David Palmer had a kickoff return for a score.

The Vikings secured a first-round bye before opening the postseason with a 41-21 win over Arizona in the Divisional Round at home.

But Minnesota's magical season wasn't meant to include a trip to Super Bowl XXXIII. The Vikings fell to Atlanta in the NFC title game despite holding a touchdown lead in the game's final minutes.

The dream of escaping the Minnesota winter to play the Super Bowl in Miami was dashed.

"The saddest part was driving home from downtown on [Highway] 394," Randle said. "On a personal note, I felt as if we let our fans down because there was so much hype and belief for us to get to our destiny and to get to the Super Bowl. For a lot of Vikings fans, 1998 was supposed to be our year."

As players, coaches and those associated with the 1998 Vikings reconnect this weekend, there are a mix of emptions.

There is a feeling of grief that Dennis Green, the former head coach who passed away in 2016, won't be part of the reunion.

"The saddest part about this is that Denny is not here to see the celebration," Fuller said. "It was one of his greatest accomplishments as a leader."

And there is still a bittersweet nostalgia that players feel as they recall the memories of perhaps the best season in Vikings history, while also wondering, even 20 years later, what could have been.

"Most people, when they think of '98, you always think of the last game," Smith said. 'It's unfortunate that that's the case, but it's just reality … that you think of the way the season ended.

"But then when you think about the season itself, it kind of takes a lot of that pain away just because it was so much fun," Smith added. "There are a lot more great memories than bad memories … it just so happens that the bad memory was the last memory."

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