Ben Leber was standing about 10 yards away from Stefon Diggs, watching the final play of last Sunday’s playoff win from the Vikings’ sideline as the team’s radio analyst.
He remembers Diggs catching Case Keenum’s last-ditch heave. The rest is a blur.
“I sort of remember yelling and screaming,” Leber said on Thursday. “Somebody had sent me a Twitter picture he found, and as Diggs was running by, it caught me in the background jumping up with my arms up in the air. And I don’t even remember jumping. It was just this spontaneous burst of excitement that went through the whole stadium, and it was like a jet engine of noise that just erupted.”
The Vikings’ dramatic 29-24 win over the Saints still seems surreal for most of Minneapolis. The “Minnesota Miracle,” Diggs’s 61-yard touchdown as time expired, put the Vikings in the NFC Championship game for the first time since the 2009 season, and exorcised several decades of demons for their fans. The team that lost four Super Bowls in the 1970s, choked against the Falcons in 1998, were blown out by the Giants (41-0) in 2000, and lost to the Saints in 2009, finally caught a break.
“Their emotions have sort of run out of gas as far as how much they can put up with,” said Leber, who played for the Vikings from 2006-10 as part of a 10-year NFL career. “The people I talked to, ‘It never goes our way, God hates us,’ playing the victim card, and then all of a sudden all those years of pent-up frustration just came out. People were talking about having this half-numb, out-of-body experience when it happened. It was just true exuberance and elation that they couldn’t control.”
Of course, all that exuberance will be swept away Sunday if the Vikings lose to the Eagles. But no matter the outcome, this has still been an impressive season for the Vikings, who opened with low expectations, lost their starting quarterback and running back to injuries early in the season, yet enter Sunday with a 14-3 record and a chance to earn their first Super Bowl appearance since January 1977.
“They have a formula, and it’s not fancy,” said former Vikings quarterback Sage Rosenfels, who now writes about the team for The Athletic and hosts a Vikings podcast. “It’s the old-fashioned, great defense, run the football, high completion percentage, move the pocket, play-action. They play a very old-fashioned brand of football, and they execute at a high level.”
The Vikings’ defense has been their backbone, finishing No. 1 in the NFL in points and yards allowed, and No. 2 in pass and rush defense. They have stars at every level of the defense, from pass rusher Everson Griffen (13 sacks) to tackling machine Eric Kendricks (114 tackles, a sack, and a pick-6), to All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes and All-Pro safety Harrison Smith.
But the Vikings are still alive thanks to a surprisingly efficient offense, and an equally surprising quarterback, Case Keenum. A six-year veteran playing for his third team, Keenum signed in the offseason a modest one-year, $2.25 million deal to be the backup behind Sam Bradford, and maybe even the third-stringer once Teddy Bridgewater came back from his knee injury. But Keenum assumed the starting job in Week 2 when Bradford went down with a knee injury, and never lost his grip on the job. In 14 starts, Keenum threw 22 touchdown passes (against just seven interceptions), averaged 236.5 yards per game, and completed 67.6 percent of his passes, all career highs.
“I call him a poor man’s Drew Brees,” Rosenfels said. “He’s accurate, quick release, he’s good scrambling and moving around the pocket, but for the most part stays away from the bad play. It seems like one time a game he makes a bad play, and sometimes he gets away with it and sometimes he doesn’t.”
Keenum certainly got away with one on Sunday, when his last-second prayer was answered by Diggs.
“His biggest weakness is he doesn’t have a huge arm. That throw was 35 yards, might’ve been his deepest throw of the game,” Rosenfels said. “But look at his college stats, they’re incredible. He was trained to be a gunslinger, his quick release gets him out of a lot of problems and helps him create a lot of plays.”
After starting his season with a 1-2 record, Keenum rolled off eight straight wins, with impressive victories over the Packers, Ravens, Rams, Lions, and Falcons. Yet even as the wins piled up, coach Mike Zimmer refused to name Keenum the long-term starter.
“He didn’t say ‘Keenum’s our guy’ until late in the year. It was a week-to-week thing, and everyone sort of thought if he has a really bad game, that might be it,” Leber said. “Zimmer sort of figured out a way to keep him hungry and motivated. The mental game is not always pretty, but if that’s what it took to keep Case from looking up and patting himself on the back and getting too far ahead of himself, then I think it worked.”
It wasn’t until around mid-November that Vikings fans started to believe that a trip to the Super Bowl was possible. If the Vikings win on Sunday, they will be the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium.
Now, after the “Minnesota Miracle,” Vikings fans finally believe that this is their time.
“A buddy texted me last night, ‘Is it weird that I’m still buzzing from that catch?’ ” Leber said Thursday. “There’s a lot of people that still replay it and relive it, and they still get pumped up. But I hope that the team internally put that thing to bed by Tuesday or Wednesday morning. And you know Mike Zimmer’s reputation. He’s not going to let these guys feel good about themselves after a big win like that, knowing what type of game they have coming up next.”
McDaniels and Patricia are gone
A few updates on the NFL’s coaching and front-office movement:
■ The league’s worst-kept secrets finally leaked out last week — Josh McDaniels is going to take the Colts’ head coaching job, and Matt Patricia is going to the Lions. McDaniels only seriously pursued the Colts and Giants jobs, and the Indianapolis job is a plum opportunity — McDaniels gets to work with a superstar quarterback in Andrew Luck, gets to remake the roster with a general manager he respects (Chris Ballard, whom McDaniels knows since the two share the same agency), and has the No. 3 overall pick in the draft. The only question is whether McDaniels would be scared off by Luck’s mysterious shoulder injury, and a source close to McDaniels said last week that McDaniels isn’t too concerned about Luck.
McDaniels’s coordinators will reportedly be Cowboys linebackers coach Matt Eberflus on defense and former Raiders quarterbacks coach Jake Peetz on offense. McDaniels’s younger brother, Ben, is an offensive analyst for the Bears, and it would not be surprising to see him join his brother in Indy.
■ The Titans fired Mike Mularkey following their loss to the Patriots, prompting buzz that McDaniels could land in Nashville, not Indianapolis. But our source said the Titans blew their shot at landing McDaniels by waiting to fire Mularkey, and not doing it late in the regular season when the team knew it was probably going to move on from him anyway.
That turned out to be the case, as the Titans announced on Saturday that they hired former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel to be head coach. Vrabel reunites with general manager Jon Robinson, who was a Patriots front office executive during Vrabel’s playing days.
Technically, McDaniels could have interviewed with the Titans if the Patriots lost on Sunday, or for one day next week before the Super Bowl. But McDaniels interviewed with the Colts two weeks ago, and got too far into the process with the Colts to turn back.
“They snoozed, and lost,” the source said of the Titans.
■ As for Patricia, our source said he was never really a finalist for the Giants job that came down to McDaniels and Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. The Lions job seems like a better fit for Patricia, anyway — a smaller market with less pressure, a GM he knows well (Bob Quinn), a more stable quarterback situation, and he doesn’t have to poach Patriots coaches or find a big staff to hire, since the Lions are keeping their offensive staff intact, led by coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. Patricia will also run the defense in addition to his head coaching responsibilities, and it is unclear if he will hire a defensive coordinator.
■ Even though Nick Caserio was blocked from interviewing for the Houston GM job, which went to Brian Gaine, Caserio is no lock to be with the Patriots next season.
One situation to watch is in Carolina, where the Panthers have an interim GM (Marty Hurney) and the team is up for sale.
The Panthers sale could be completed relatively quickly — likely before the start of the next season — and Caserio could still be hired away this summer. The Chiefs fired GM John Dorsey last June, and the Panthers fired GM Dave Gettleman in July. Caserio will certainly listen if the Panthers come calling.
■ The Giants are looking for a do-over on their 2016 coaching search. Their three finalists were Ben McAdoo, Doug Pederson, and Shurmur. Two of them will be coaching in today’s NFC Championship game, while we all know how McAdoo fared in his two seasons as head coach.
Dysfunction in Pittsburgh clear
Todd Haley had to go. That much was clear when watching the Steelers this season. The relationship between Haley and Ben Roethlisberger grew toxic after six years, and there was no greater example of that than the end of the Steelers-Patriots game in Week 15, when Haley and Roethlisberger literally did not speak with each other about the upcoming sequence of plays during the replay review. Imagine Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels not speaking to each other during the final stretches of a close game. You can’t.
But it’s rather remarkable that Haley, who wasn’t technically fired but whose contract wasn’t renewed, is the only Steeler facing any consequences. For the second straight year, the Steelers were humiliated in the playoffs. Their defense looked clueless in the AFC Championship game loss to the Patriots last January, and sloppy and ill-prepared in last Sunday’s loss to the Jaguars.
The game film is ugly — at least a half-dozen plays of the Steelers playing undisciplined defense and leaving gigantic swaths of the field open for the Jaguars. For the Steelers to come out like that after having two weeks to prepare, and after so publicly looking past the Jaguars and to a rematch with the Patriots, is embarrassing.
Then on Friday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Le’Veon Bell skipped most of last Saturday’s walkthrough, arriving with about five minutes left. Unconscionably, he wasn’t disciplined.
Yet Haley is the only fall guy. Mike Tomlin will be back for a 12th season. The entire defensive staff will be back. Everyone on the offensive staff will be back save for Haley and receivers coach Richard Mann, who retired after 33 seasons.
The Rooney family prides itself on continuity — they have had just three head coaches since 1969 — but it’s actively working against them now. Tomlin’s teams consistently underperform, lack discipline, come up small on the big stage, and are no closer to unseating the Patriots, despite having way more talent on offense.
In any other city, Tomlin would be squarely on the hot seat, if not fired.
Marrone deserves credit
Jaguars coach Doug Marrone refuses to take a victory lap, so we’ll do it for him.
Marrone received all kinds of grief in 2014 when he exercised his opt-out clause to leave the Bills following a promising 9-7 season. His contract gave him three days after the season to decide whether to stay or opt-out and collect $4 million, and after two days Marrone took the money and ran.
He was called a coward, an idiot, and many four-letter words. He’d never get another head coaching job, his critics said.
Of course, those critics didn’t account for the fact that the Pegula family had just bought the team, and that new owners always like to hire their own people. Even if Marrone had remained one more year, he would have been on the shortest of leashes, and he still didn’t have a quarterback.
So he took the $4 million, took a job in 2015 as the Jaguars’ offensive line coach, and here we are two years later, Marrone is a head coach once again, and his team is in the AFC Championship game.
To his credit, Marrone hasn’t spoken once about the Bills decision all season. He doesn’t gloat or even subtly suggest he was right.
But he absolutely was, so we’ll do it for him.
Drew Brees is now a free agent, and says he wants to return to New Orleans and finish his career as a Saint. But it will be interesting to see if he goes the Tom Brady route and takes a little less so the Saints can spread the money elsewhere, or continues to maximize his value. Brees’s cap numbers were so large the last two years (originally $26.4 million and $27.4 million) that the team was forced to renegotiate his contract each time . . . A record 106 underclassmen have declared for the NFL Draft, plus 13 players who graduated but still have a year of eligibility left. The previous record was 98 players in 2014, and the number was just 46 in 2009. But players are increasingly choosing to start their NFL clocks a year early, and they’ll worry about getting their degree later . . . In his everyday life, Super Bowl LII referee Gene Steratore co-owns a janitorial supply company in Western Pennsylvania, along with his brother, Tony, who is working Sunday’s Patriots-Jaguars game as a back judge. Gene Steratore, working his first Super Bowl as a referee, also referees college basketball games in the Big Ten and other conferences . . . If the Vikings make the Super Bowl in their home stadium, the NFL will still control the video boards and game presentation, giving equal attention to both teams. The end zones will still be painted neutrally, too . . . Where’s Roger? Commissioner Roger Goodell is in Philadelphia on Sunday for the Eagles-Vikings game. The league office notes that Goodell made it twice to Foxborough this season — for the preseason game against the Jaguars, and the opener against the Chiefs.