Vikings lost trademark toughness in move to Metrodome
Contrary to popular belief, the original frozen tundra of NFL Films lore was not Lambeau Field during the Ice Bowl.
The term instead dates to the Minnesota Vikings' highlight film from the 1969 season, when NFL Films narrator — Pat Summerall, not John Facenda — described the Minnesota Vikings' Metropolitan Stadium as the frozen tundra for the 1969 NFL championship game against the Cleveland Browns.
What a different world that was for the Vikings, who from 1961-81 played their games outdoors in a climate similar to and actually slightly colder than Green Bay. The Vikings played their most dominant stretch of football during that time with a defensive-oriented team whose identity was built around the advantages of playing in its harsh climate.
Moving indoors to the Metrodome changed all that, very likely to the Vikings' detriment.
"I think it did (cost the Vikings their identity) because that's how people got to know us, playing at the old Met and playing outside in the cold," said Carl Eller, the Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive lineman who played for the Vikings from 1964-79. "That was kind of our trademark."
The Vikings have moved back outdoors for this season and next while their new indoor stadium is built on the site of the Metrodome, which was demolished after last season. When the Packers and Vikings meet today at TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus, it will be their first outdoor game in Minnesota since Nov. 29, 1981, when the Packers defeated the Vikings 35-23 on a 33-degree day at the Met.
And what a time the Vikings had at the Met, where for a nine-year stretch in the late 1960s and 1970s they were one of the NFL's premier teams contending for Super Bowls under coach Bud Grant, who banned heaters on his sideline and prohibited players from wearing gloves. It was all part of building a team that was tough, mean and unbothered by playing football outside in December.
A look back at the numbers from those days shows the Vikings' advantage at the Met was huge.
From 1968, when they went 8-6 and turned the corner from a struggling expansion franchise, through their final season at the Met in '81, they had the NFL's third-best home winning percentage (.710), behind Dallas (.838) and Oakland (.784).
From '68-76, which included the heyday of the Purple People Eaters defensive line and four trips to the Super Bowl, their winning percentage at the Met was .802. Only Oakland was better at home (.857) during that stretch.
Those Vikings were dominant defensive teams that thrived in bad conditions, in large part because of that defensive line. The Purple People Eaters consisted of two Hall of Famers (Eller and Alan Page); a near Hall of Famer in Jim Marshall, whose 270 consecutive starts was the NFL record until Brett Favre surpassed him in 2009; and Gary Larsen, the best run stopper of the group.
In those nine seasons from '68-76 the Vikings' defense finished in the top three in the NFL in points allowed seven times and top six in yards allowed seven times.
"We'd be out there with those snow blowers and frozen field, and we'd win the games," Eller said. "We'd do it defensively, it was our moniker. We took pride in that. The warm-weather teams, we would have been embarrassed if they'd beaten us (at the Met)."
Setting the tone was Grant, the Superior native who was one of the state of Wisconsin's all-time great athletes. Grant played in the NFL and NBA — for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1951 and '52, when he finished second in the league in receiver yards, and for the Minneapolis Lakers in the 1949-50 and '50-51 seasons. He also was offered a minor-league baseball contract by the Chicago White Sox.
Grant's experience with football in the cold included playing and coaching in the CFL from 1953-66, and in all those seasons he never had sideline heaters in a league that played in the far north into late November. He continued that practice when the Vikings hired him as coach in '67.
Grant's theory was that if his teams practiced in the cold every day, they'd acclimate. He thought that if the benches were heated, the players would sit down when they weren't playing, but if they were standing they'd be more engaged in the game.
In an interview this week Grant said that if he coached today he'd handle it differently, and he minimized the possible psychological edge of opponents seeing his players seemingly unbothered by the cold, while his team could see them uncomfortably huddled around heaters at their benches. But he saw a practical advantage to living in Minnesota's climate: shorter practices.
"When you had indoor practice fields you could run the full practice, and you're running on artificial turf," Grant said. "It's a long season, and I always kind of felt at the end we were still pretty fresh, and it was partly because we couldn't run on the snow and the ice on the practice field. We saved our legs."
Marshall and Eller said that every season as the weather turned, Grant would give his team a speech about playing in the cold. He'd tell them they could always dress warmer, that he'd never seen a player freeze to death, and that playing in extreme heat was more debilitating. Marshall added that not having heaters on the bench meant that players preferred to be on the field.
Just for the record, according to Weather.com, the average high temperature in Minneapolis in December is 27 degrees, the average low is 12 degrees, and in January they are 24 degrees and 8 degrees. Green Bay's averages are similar but a hair higher: 29 degrees and 14 degrees in December, and 24 degrees and 9 degrees in January.
"You get cold one time, that's when you go out on the field (before the game)," Marshall said. "If you come on the bench and get warm, psychologically you're going to want to sit on that bench. I think he had a very good philosophy about it. He said, 'You're going to be cold when you're out there, but you have to do your job.' You get to the point that the elements didn't influence your play."
Said Eller: "I think it gave us psychologically an advantage. We just felt like we were tougher."
For many of the years at the Met, the Vikings had at least a handful of players who appeared built for the cold, even if Grant said they didn't draft with the weather in mind.
It started with the Purple People Eaters, who included Marshall, one of the all-time durable players in NFL history. It also included Joe Kapp, their quarterback from 1967-70, who barely could throw a spiral but was strong, tough and mean as they come.
And many of their running backs were good bad-weather players. Bill Brown, the crew-cut fullback who went to four Pro Bowls in 13 seasons with the Vikings, was the quintessential rugged, bad-weather runner at 5-11 and 228 pounds. Dave Osborn, who played for the Vikings from 1965-75, still ranks No. 6 in the franchise in rushing.
And Chuck Foreman, who played in college at Miami, was a great athlete who proved to be magnificent in bad weather as a runner and catching short, safe passes out of the backfield.
When the Vikings moved to the Metrodome, they clearly changed the way they drafted and emphasized pure speed to exploit their fast artificial field. Running backs such as Robert Smith and the University of Wisconsin's Michael Bennett were born to run on artificial turf, and even today a receiver such as the explosive Cordarrelle Patterson is ideal for indoor play.
There's also no denying the Vikings' advantages playing in the Metrodome, where they enhanced an already noisy venue by blasting crowd noise via the dome's extensive speaker system. In the 32 years they played at the Metrodome, their .644 winning percentage at home ranks No. 6 in the NFL.
"It definitely leads the away games for taking Advil after it," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of the Metrodome this week. "The crowd noise — real and not so real — I thought really beats you up by the end of the day."
But it's also worth noting that the Vikings haven't been to a Super Bowl while playing there — they hosted the NFC championship game in the 1998 season — after going to four while playing at the Met. And they've had nothing like that stretch in the late '60s and '70s, when they were consistently as good as any franchise in the league.
When it came time to build the Vikings' new stadium, it appears playing outdoors never was an option. The Twin Cities wants to host major events such as the Super Bowl and NCAA basketball Final Fours, so a covered stadium was the only option. The closest they could get to playing outside was a retractable roof, but the cost proved prohibitive.
So instead, the Vikings in 2016 will return to the great indoors and leave dormant their greatest advantage, Minnesota's bone-chilling winters.
"I can't speak for everyone," Marshall said, "but it's the way football to me was meant to be played, outdoors, surviving the elements while playing the game. I enjoyed it to a certain extent. You did get cold. You had to go through an awful lot, especially when you're practicing outdoors to perfect your timing and things like that. I really enjoyed playing the game outside."
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