Saturday, August 14, 2004

Cards, Vikes downplaying preseason game subplots

By Andres Ybarra
The Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS - Dennis Green already has rubbed off on his star rookie, Larry Fitzgerald.

When asked this week about today's exhibition game at Minnesota, the Arizona receiver said: "It's just a business trip."

Just a business trip? He's playing his first NFL game against the team he worked for as a ball boy. He'll be on the sideline across from one of his role models, Randy Moss. He'll be playing in the town where he was a high school star.

"A lot of guys go back home and play, but it's no big deal," Fitzgerald said.

He sounds just like his coach, a master at downplaying storylines.

"I'm one of 32 coaches," Green said when asked about coaching his first game with the Cardinals against the team he led for 10 years.

Yes, this preseason game has plenty of subplots.

There are the homecomings for Green and Fitzgerald. There are the Vikings wanting to avenge a loss to the Cardinals that knocked them out of the playoffs last year. And, of course, there are all those players fighting for roster spots.

Both sides dismiss the drama.

"Denny's a great friend and a great mentor," said Vikings coach Mike Tice, who took over when Green was fired in 2001. "He taught me a lot about coaching, but it's about the players this week. ... It's not about Denny Green and I."

Green guided the Vikings to eight playoff appearances, four division titles and two NFC championship games. And he drafted the three biggest names on Minnesota's current roster: Moss, quarterback Daunte Culpepper and running back Michael Bennett.

But Green was heavily criticized when the Vikings twice failed to make it to the Super Bowl. Many felt he overlooked his defense, which gained a reputation as one of the NFL's worst. He was seen as a power-hungry tyrant, and his stormy relationship with the media didn't help.

Green spent two years as an ESPN football analyst before taking the Arizona job.

"I think when Denny left, everybody knew he would coach again," Vikings center Matt Birk said. "It's not shocking or anything. It'll probably be stranger for him standing on the other sideline in the Metrodome coaching another team."

Not that he would admit it.

"Fourteen guys have had other jobs in the National Football League. So I'm just one of those other 14 guys, and most of them probably have played at the place where they coached after many, many years," he said.

"I've moved on, and I'm very happy now and looking forward to trying to be a playoff team."

Ironically, the Vikings would've been a playoff team last year if it hadn't been for the Cardinals. On the final play of the regular season, Josh McCown threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to Nathan Poole to give Arizona an 18-17 win and knock the stunned Vikings out of the playoffs.

"I'm sure their fans will be pretty excited about us coming in, and have some choice words to say," McCown said.

The Vikings haven't said too much about that game, but some of the sting remains.

"I think we have a little bit of that back in our mind," Tice said.

Poole might be in Arizona's starting lineup because two of Green's top three receivers - Bryant Johnson (foot) and Anquan Boldin (knee) - are injured.

Fitzgerald, a standout at Academy of Holy Angels in the southern suburb of Richfield, will probably get a warmer reception.

But to him, it's all business.

"I didn't get anybody any tickets," he said.

The Green file

Dennis Green, 55, coached the Minnesota Vikings for 10 seasons (1992-2001), compiling a 101-70 record. He led the Vikings to the NFC Championship game twice and four NFC Central Division titles.

In 1998, Green was named NFL Coach of the Year by Sports Illustrated.

Green worked the past two seasons as an NFL analyst for the ESPN network.

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