MINNEAPOLIS – The loud knock startled Gus Frerotte, and when he opened the door to his downtown hotel room Saturday evening, he was surprised to see Minnesota Vikings assistant coach Todd Nielson standing there with a post-Halloween treat in hand.
An hour before a scheduled meeting to go over the team's offensive plan for the following afternoon's game against the Houston Texans, Nielson delivered the "First 15" script to Frerotte, and the 37-year-old quarterback smiled like a kid getting a big handful of Jolly Ranchers in his orange plastic pumpkin. For the first snap, Minnesota coach Brad Childress had chosen "Double Stutter Go," the very play Frerotte had requested.
This is gonna be good, Frerotte thought to himself.
For the first time since he'd replaced Tarvaris Jackson as the Vikings' starter in September, Frerotte's wife, Annie, and their children, Abby, Gunnar and Gabe, would be at the Metrodome. And, well, even otherwise humble seventh-round-draft-picks-turned-15th-year veterans like to show off a little.
So it was seven seconds into Sunday's game against the Texans that Frerotte derived an extra measure of satisfaction while making another big play in a redemptive season he never saw coming. As he said Sunday night while sharing a booth with Annie at a bar near his uptown apartment, which he is renting this season while the rest of his family stays at its residence in St. Louis, "We didn't expect it to play out like this, but isn't that typical for us?"
With 62,839 fans at the Metrodome hoping to see the Vikings start fulfilling their preseason promise, Frerotte dropped back, faked a handoff to halfback Adrian Peterson and cast a quick glance at wideout Bernard Berrian running a stutter-go route down the left sideline. Noticing that Houston free safety Eugene Wilson had drifted dangerously close to Berrian, who was being trailed by cornerback Jacques Reeves, Frerotte looked back to his right and waited patiently for Wilson to take the bait.
Finally, Wilson hesitated, and Frerotte uncorked a slightly under thrown 55-yard rainbow that Berrian snatched a split second before getting clocked by both converging defensive backs. As tone-setters go, it was as good as it gets. Three plays later, Peterson dove into the end zone for the game's first score, and nearly three hours later defensive linemen Jared Allen and Kevin Williams made back-to-back sacks to finish off a 28-21 victory over the Texans.
Though their spirits were lifted by the triumph over Houston (3-5), which had won three consecutive games coming in, the Vikings (4-4) view the first half of their season as a disappointment. After narrowly missing the playoffs in '07, Minnesota made a big play for Allen, the NFL's sack leader in 2007, acquiring him in a go-for-the-gold trade with the Kansas City Chiefs last April. That move helped make the Vikings a trendy NFC Super Bowl pick, but midway through the '08 campaign they are supremely average, one of the league's many inconsistent teams struggling to put it all together.
On a promising note, Minnesota remains in the thick of the NFC North race. After escaping with a 27-23 victory Sunday over the last-place Detroit Lions, the Chicago Bears (5-3) own a one-game lead over the Vikings and defending division champion Green Bay Packers, who meet next Sunday at the Metrodome in a showdown that will deal a severe blow to the playoff prospects of the loser.
"We've got to win," Frerotte said a few minutes later.
If the Vikings play the way they did on Sunday, they'll have a decent chance of reversing the outcome from their season-opening defeat at Lambeau Field. With a big day from Peterson (25 carries, 139 yards) that recalled his offensive rookie of the year brilliance of '07 and an aggressive defensive effort that forced three turnovers, Minnesota played its best overall game of the season.
Contributions from Allen (two sacks, one forced fumble) and safety Madieu Williams, an offseason free-agent signee from the Bengals who made an acrobatic end-zone interception in his '08 debut, gave the Vikings the sense that they are getting it together in time to save their season.
"Yeah, this was the real Vikings," defensive tackle Pat Williams said after the game. "Before this we weren't having any fun – we were uptight from all the hype and the way everybody came out and played us like we were some sort of big deal – and when we came back from our bye week [last Monday] I felt we needed to get loose out there. I told the guys then, 'Just go out there and don't worry about anybody outside this locker room. Let's just have some fun.' "
The level of merriment has increased in Minnesota since Frerotte, who was headed for retirement until being signed over the offseason as a veteran backup for Jackson, was named the team's starter by Childress after the Vikes lost their first two games.
On Sunday, his big arm and unflappable demeanor were on full display. He threw just 18 passes, completing 11 for 182 yards, with beautifully delivered touchdown tosses to Sidney Rice (eight yards), Berrian (49) and Visanthe Shiancoe (25). The only low moment came in the first quarter when Berrian mishandled a nicely thrown slant pattern and Reeves caught the deflection in stride, racing 44 yards for a score that tied that game at 7-7.
Given his relative paucity of attempts and the victory that ensued, Frerotte noted that he "had a [Ben] Roethlisberger type of day."
Yet Frerotte, who grew up outside of Pittsburgh, fretted over a missed third-down rollout pass to a wide-open Shiancoe with 2:08 remaining that could've allowed the Vikings to kill the clock – the type of error that Minnesota can't afford if it hopes to make a legitimate playoff run. There are other ominous overtones: With potential suspensions looming for its star defensive tackles, Kevin and Pat (no relation) Williams – each reportedly tested positive for banned diuretics in water pills and could face four-game league bans, though Pat Williams hinted to the St. Paul Pioneer Press that he believes he may escape that harsh of a punishment – the Vikes' defense could take a major hit.
– Vikings coach Brad Childress.
"This [victory] was nice, but it was one game," said Childress, the third-year coach whose job security beyond this season has been questioned in the Twin Cities. "This league is topsy-turvy. The only certain thing about the NFL is uncertainty – especially this year."
Allen, the relentless pass rusher for whom the Vikings sent a first-round draft pick and a pair of third-rounders to Kansas City (and signed to a six-year, $74 million deal that included $31 million in guaranteed cash), also curbed his enthusiasm.
"We could've put this team away in the second half, but we didn't put our foot on their necks and choke 'em out," said Allen, who Childress said suffered a partially separated right shoulder that required a pain-killing injection at halftime. "We played two series where we were kind of methodical, where we acted like, 'We're killing these guys.' The next thing you know, you look at the scoreboard and it's a tight game. But then we regained that tenacity when we had to."
As for Frerotte, Allen had nothing but praise: "He's so comfortable. You're not going to show Gus Frerotte a situation he hasn't seen. He knows what to do with the ball, and he can sling it. I'm a big, big fan of his."
On Sunday night, as he sat on the couch of his apartment, Frerotte basked in the adulation of his four biggest fans. With Annie, Abby (13), Gunnar (11) and Gabe (9) spending a rare Sunday night in Minneapolis – they're usually occupied with the boys' youth-football games in St. Louis – Gus watched the kids devour banana splits while savoring his fourth victory in six starts.
Recalling the game-opening completion to Berrian, Gunnar said, "That was a risky throw, Dad. But it was worth it."
Gus looked at his son and smiled.
"Yeah," he said. "It was worth it."
The Vikings' collective worth? That has yet to be determined.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Of all the weird surprises we've seen in the '08 season, how crazy is the tightening of the AFC East? Last year, the disparity between the division's first- and last-place teams was an unprecedented 15 games, as New England went undefeated and Miami won its first and only game in its 14th try. This year, at the halfway point, we have a three-way tie at 5-3 between the Pats, Bills and Jets, with the Dolphins (4-4) lurking. On Sunday, Miami beat the Broncos in Denver, 26-17, holding the Broncos to 14 rushing yards and scoring a defensive touchdown on Will Allen's 32-yard interception return. In Buffalo, the Jets showed their mettle on both sides of the ball while defeating the Bills by the same score. Though Buffalo controlled the ball for a 15-minute, eight-second stretch in the first half, the Bills went from a 7-6 lead to a 13-7 deficit, as Abram Elam returned a Trent Edwards interception 92 yards for a score and Kris Jenkins stuffed Fred Jackson on a fourth-and-1 carry from the Jets' 8. Brett Favre wasn't perfect, but he wasn't sacked, either, which tells you all you need to know about New York's offensive line. With the Pats losing to the Colts Sunday night, this race is wide open – and it'll be fun to watch over the next two months. Oh, and by the way, the Dolphins have the Seahawks and Raiders at home over the next two weeks before hosting the Patriots, while the Jets host the Rams before their rematch with the Pats in Foxborough. The Bills and Pats play Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
• Give Jon Gruden and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers credit: It's tough to be an unlikely contender two years in a row, but the Bucs are pulling it off with a 6-3 record heading into their bye week, the latest victory coming in highly dramatic fashion. Trailing the Chiefs 24-3 in the second quarter at Arrowhead Stadium, Tampa Bay pulled off the biggest comeback in franchise history, scoring 10 points in the final 2:13 of the first half and finally tying the game on Jeff Garcia's two-point-conversion pass to tight end Alex Smith with 25 seconds remaining in regulation. Then the Bucs won it in the first overtime possession on Matt Bryant's 34-yard field goal, moving within a half game of the Panthers in the NFC South. Bottom line: It's not always pretty, but this team is gritty. "Huge W!" veteran cornerback Ronde Barber said via text message after returning home Sunday night. "Our O made some huge plays in the 2nd half!" If they keep making huge plays in the second half of the season, the Bucs might make some noise come playoff time, something they couldn't accomplish after winning the division last year.
• Last winter, the Falcons and Ravens each hoped to fill their coaching vacancies with Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, who ultimately elected to stay in Dallas. Both teams went with coaches not known for their offensive expertise – Atlanta hired former Jags defensive coordinator Mike Smith, while Baltimore went with Eagles secondary coach John Harbaugh, a longtime special teams assistant in Philly. So, what happened? Naturally, each team is winning behind a rookie quarterback. On Sunday, the Falcons (5-3) exceeded their victory total from last season and moved within a game of Carolina in the NFC South by throttling the Raiders, 24-0, as No. 3 overall pick Matt Ryan (17 of 22, 220 yards, two TDs) continued to show remarkable poise and accuracy. The Ravens (5-3) crept to within half a game of AFC South-leading Pittsburgh (pending Monday night's game at Washington) by running off 24 consecutive points in the final 16 minutes of a 37-27 comeback triumph over the Browns, with No. 18 overall pick Joe Flacco (17 of 29, 248 yards, two TDs) looking like a semi-seasoned pro. And how was Garrett's Sunday at Giants Stadium? Five words: Brad Johnson and Brooks Bollinger.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Yo, Lions: Feeling a bit cold and lonely out there in the dark? Thanks to the Bengals' 21-19 upset of the Jags, a game Cincinnati (1-8) did its best to blow until cornerback Johnathan Joseph knocked away a two-point conversion pass for Jacksonville wideout Jerry Porter with 1:17 remaining, Detroit (0-8) is now the NFL's lone winless team following its 27-23 defeat to the Bears. Given that the Lions squandered a 10-point lead against backup quarterback Rex Grossman and missed an early extra point that deprived them of the chance to play for a game-tying field goal at game's end, this was a particularly galling outcome for whatever is left of this franchise's fan base. I don't think it's realistic that Detroit could join the '76 Buccaneers as the only NFL team to lose every game for an entire season, but a look at the schedule at least makes me contemplate the possibility. The Lions host the shamed and (theoretically) grumpy Jags next Sunday; after that, none of their remaining seven opponents currently has a losing record. Now imagine that Detroit is 0-15 heading into its season finale at Lambeau Field on Dec. 28 – that's a chilling possibility on more than one level. Brrrrrrr.
• That the Patriots lost a close game on the road without Tom Brady, especially against a desperate rival, was no surprise. But the way New England's 18-15 defeat to the Colts played out Sunday night was shocking. Teams coached by Bill Belichick normally aren't characterized by a lack of focus or discipline, yet there was Jabar Gaffney dropping an easy touchdown pass from Matt Cassel late in the third quarter … and, even worse, there was tight end David Thomas taking New England out of field goal range with 4:45 to go by tossing Indy's Robert Mathis to the turf after the whistle for a personal foul. Why do I have the feeling that when they watch the film back in Foxborough, the Pats will be eating something worse than their patented "humble pie"?
• Delving further into the realm of the disgusting, how weak is the fact the NFC West title has basically been decided before election day – and that the future champion Arizona Cardinals (5-3) didn't have to win a single road game against a legitimate opponent to establish what looks to be an insurmountable lead? Oh, sure, the Cards could still get caught by the Rams, 49ers or Seahawks (all 2-6) mathematically. But what we saw on Sunday convinced me that concession speeches are warranted. First there was 49ers interim coach Mike Singletary, in an interview with the NFL Network's Jamie Dukes, saying he "will tone it down a bit" after a debut performance in which he dropped his pants while upbraiding his players during a halftime speech. Uh, right – it's either that or go full-frontal. Then there were the Rams, after a stirring goal-line stand and an 80-yard touchdown pass from Marc Bulger to Derek Stanley, giving up 31 consecutive points to the Cardinals and getting outgained 229-18 in the second quarter of a 34-13 defeat. Booed off the Edward Jones Dome field at halftime, St. Louis has reverted to ill form after scoring upset victories over the Redskins and Cowboys in its first two games under interim coach Jim Haslett. It now appears as though the "bounce" the Rams received after Haslett replaced Scott Linehan was akin to what the McCain campaign got in the wake of running mate Sarah Palin's convention speech – appreciable but ultimately short-lived. Coming off a thrashing of the 49ers the previous week, the Seahawks felt like they could contend for a sixth consecutive NFC West title. But after taking a 7-0 lead over the Eagles Sunday, Seattle reverted to flat-line status, punting on 11 consecutive possessions (including seven three-and-outs) in a 26-7 home defeat. The Seahawks have been outscored 61-13 in the third quarter, further proof that Mike Holmgren is doing a stellar job in his lame-duck season.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How a couple of Montreal DJs pulled this off.
2. How the San Diego Chargers could leave home on Friday, Oct. 17, lose consecutive games to the Bills and Saints (the latter in London) to drop to 3-5, return home for a bye week and emerge as the team to beat in the AFC West. You heard me. With the Broncos (4-4) losing for the fourth time in five games Sunday and reeling from star cornerback Champ Bailey's severe groin injury – and let's not even bring up the 2-6 Raiders (77 total yards and three first downs in a miserable defeat to the Falcons) or 1-7 Chiefs (blew a 21-point lead to the Bucs) – the Chargers are still in good shape to defend their division title. If last week's decision to fire defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell and replace him with Ron Rivera leads to any discernible improvement (and I think it will), San Diego should be able to outperform the Broncos over the second half of the season. Beginning next Sunday with a home game against the Chiefs, the Chargers have five games at Qualcomm Stadium, only one of which (Nov. 30 vs. the Falcons) comes against a team that currently has a winning record. Denver, meanwhile, plays five of its final eight games on the road, including Thursday at Cleveland, and three of those opponents (Falcons, Jets, Panthers) have winning records. And unless Ed Hochuli is working San Diego's Dec. 28 regular-season finale against the Broncos at Qualcomm, you have to like the Chargers' chances if it comes down to that game.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Brandon Marshall, I knew you were an immature player with a troubling record of off-the-field misbehavior. What I didn't realize, until Sunday, is that you were all about Brandon Marshall. After being held to two catches for 27 yards in the Broncos' defeat to the Dolphins – and having a 77-yard TD reception called back because of offensive pass interference – you took shots at your quarterback (Jay Cutler), your defense, the officials … basically, everyone but yourself. "When the quarterback sees 1-high or cover-1 (coverage), he's got to be on the same page as me and get the ball to me," you told reporters after the game. "But it's a team game, and oh, well." Right, it's a team game. So make sure to call out your defensive teammates for allowing Miami's Greg Camarillo to catch 11 passes for 111 yards. "I mean, I don't even know that (Miami) receiver's name who caught all those balls," you said. "It's simple. Tighten up the coverage and just play ball. It's simple. It's real simple. They don't need to be 10 yards off. Tighten it up. You see they don't do that against us. The reason why is because a receiver will kill them. I don't even know the name of that receiver. Don't know it." Yo, Brandon, I've got a real simple idea – since you're obviously so knowledgeable about how to shut down a no-name receiver like Camarillo, why don't you play defensive back, beginning Thursday in Cleveland? I'm sure Braylon Edwards, for one, would enjoy that. In the meantime, might I suggest you take some advice from Dianne Wiest's Helen Sinclair in "Bullets over Broadway." DON'T SPEAK!
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Thanks for weathering the storm! Have a good one!"
– Text Saturday evening from Lord Jeff Tedford after I arrived at Sacramento Airport following a wet and wonderful afternoon at Memorial Stadium. (Immediately after sending the text, Tedford began gameplanning for Saturday's showdown at USC. Or so I assume.)
- Gus Frerotte