An asterisk for the record book is about all the Minnesota Vikings seem destined to accomplish in the first year of the Les Steckel regime.
A 31-17 loss to the Washington Redskins tonight left the Vikings with a 3-11 record that rates with their worst seasons of all time. In their inagural season of 1961, with Norm Van Brocklin as coach, the Vikings went 3-11, which they followed with a 2-11-1 performance in 1962. In 1984, the Vikings are likely to set their all-time record for losses in a season, and their only consolation is that it will take a 16-game season to do it. They will play at San Francisco next Saturday before closing out at home against Green Bay eight days later.
Such seasons are nothing new for Vikings quarterback Archie Manning, a veteran of New Orleans and Houston before joining the Vikings last season. Coming off the bench after halftime, Manning completed 11 of 22 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns.
"It was a loose situation when you have nothing to lose," said Manning. "I feel like I've played a lot of football in those situations and I'm not proud of it, but I feel I know how to handle it."
Leo Lewis, a 5-foot-7 wide receiver, made five catches for 117 yards in the second half. But Lewis felt much of the Vikings' second-half success was the result of a Washington letdown. The Vikings, desperate to get back into the game, converted four of five times on fourth down, Lewis catching touchdown passes on two of those plays.
"They didn't change their defense, they just lost some of their competitiveness and we took advantage," said Lewis, whose touchdown catches were from eight and 14 yards. "We gambled on those (fourth-down) plays and won."
Fans in the Metrodome parking lot who were selling paper bags for a quarter before the game started had their expectations confirmed on the first play from scrimmage, when Calvin Muhammad eluded the Vikings' pass coverage and caught Joe Theismann's 68-yard pass for a touchdown.
"We were in a double zone and Muhammad split us right down the middle," said strong safety Tommy Hannon, the nearest defender on the play. "Anytime you get a big play like that on the first play, it picks up the team that makes it and puts the other team down. Muhammad just outran us and Joe threw it as hard as he could."
Washington established a 31-0 advantage with 7:34 remaining in the first half when linebacker Neal Olkewicz forced a fumble by Vikings quarterback Wade Wilson and defensive tackle Darryl Grant recovered, going 22 yards for the touchdown. Vikings tackle Steve Riley had pounced on the ball, but it got away from him.
"It could have been the highlight of my career," Riley said. "But I'm not too good at pouncing on balls when they bounce, and you don't get a chance to do it very often. It could have saved a touchdown, and who knows what could have happened after that."
So outplayed were the Vikings in the first half that Riley said they didn't think they could win -- until near the end of the rally. "We just didn't want to be embarrassed on national television," Riley said.