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Vikings Would Like to Erase The Results From Last Season

Wednesday, September 8, 2004; Page H12

"I've always found that over the years, wins take care of everything," Vikings owner Red McCombs told the Minneapolis Star Tribune last month. "But we're going to have to win a few before I wash my mouth of all the garbage from that game."

Ah, that game again, in which Arizona's Nate Poole caught a game-winning touchdown to seal Minnesota's free-fall from a 6-0 start to a 9-7 finish and a missed playoff berth. But last season's Vikings hurt themselves at least as much as they were snakebitten, particularly on defense.

Consequently, McCombs and the Vikings disposed of much of that unit.

Ted Cottrell was named the team's fifth defensive coordinator in six years. Cornerback Antoine Winfield signed on as a free agent, improving a longstanding weak spot. Defensive end Kenechi Udeze was drafted in the first round, and two of the team's young linebackers, including former Maryland star E.J. Henderson, likely will graduate to starting roles.

The offense, meantime, remains as talented as any in the NFL, with a solid line and an embarrassment of big-play threats.

Daunte Culpepper still turns the ball over too much (66 fumbles in 57 career starts, including 16 last season), but he has improved and matured each season.

The backfield is so deep that the fact that its top two running backs are not available for the start of the season -- Michael Bennett is hurt again, and backup Onterrio Smith is suspended for the first four games -- is a concern, but not the disaster it would be for most other teams.

So what's the problem? The Vikings are pinning much on youth, a gamble for a team that has been short on veteran leaders in recent years. Minnesota has yet to prove it can win when it has to, and it will be under scrutiny. McCombs is not a laissez-faire owner; if the hangover from last season lingers, expect more Vikings to end up piled on the curb.

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