I’m Sorry, Darrin Nelson

A couple weeks back I saw a brief clip on Vikings Weekly where former Vikings running back Darrin Nelson was asked how he thought fans remembered him.

Nelson said he thought fans remembered him as a fast back with good hands. I, of course, snorted “Nooooo, fans will remember you for The Drop.”

The Drop being the pass thrown to him (that went into and out of Nelson’s arms) at the goal line by quarterback Wade Wilson on January 17, 1988, of against the Washington Redskins. Had Nelson scored and the Vikings converted the extra point, the game almost certainly would have gone into overtime, with the Vikings having a chance to return to the Super Bowl for the fifth time.

It would take another decade for the Vikings to get so close to the big game.

For 20 years, one month and sixteen days I have laid the blame of that loss solely at the feet of Darrin Nelson. I am not alone. Most Vikings fans I know who watched that game blame Nelson as well.

But now I know I owe Darrin Nelson an apology. I’m sorry. I was wrong and I apologize.

I recently watched an NFL Films piece on the NFL Network about the Washington Redskins’ historic season that clearly demonstrated that I was wrong.

First a little context.

The 1987 NFL Season

In 1987, the NFL players went on strike after the second week of the season. The league scheduled games and arranged for replacement players to play them. , a backup for the Kansas City Chiefs for four seasons nearly a decade before, came out of retirement to play as a scab for the Vikings. The Replacement Vikings were miserable.

The real Vikings won the first two games of the season and The Replacements promptly lost three divisional games in a row to the Replacement Packers, the Replacement Bears, and the Replacement Buccaneers.

The real Vikings returned to work after three games boasting a roster loaded with talent:

The defensive line was manned by ends Chris Doleman and Keith Millard and rookie defensive tackle Hank Thomas; the linebacking corps included Walker Lee Ashley and Scott Studwell; and the defensive backfield featured cornerbacks Carl Lee and Issiac Holt and was anchored by safety Joey Browner.

In addition to Darrin Nelson, the offense was lead by veteran quarterbacks Tommy Kramer and Wade Wilson and a rookie quarterback named Rich Gannon. They threw to wide receivers Anthony Carter and Hassan Jones, and tight end Steve Jordan, and were protected by center Kirk Lowdermilk, guard David Huffman, tackles Tim Irwin and Gary Zimmerman,

The special teams units included punter Greg Coleman a small wide receiver/punt returner Leo Lewis.

That roster was able to overcome the devastating three divisional losses served up by The Replacements to gain a Wild Card berth and blow away both the Saints (44-10) in the Wild Card game and the dynastic San Francisco 49ers (36-24) in the divisional playoffs.

The Redskins’ season began with coach Joe Gibbs nearly trading castoff quarterback Doug Williams but having a last minute change of heart because he had a gut feeling that somewhere down the line, Williams would help them get to the Super Bowl that year.

Unlike the Vikings, the Redskins scabs won all three games they played, so Washington was well positioned for a playoff run.

Williams was protected by an outstanding offensive line that included Jeff Bostic, Russ Grimm and Joe Jacoby and among his trio of receivers, “the posse,” was Art Monk. On the defense, the Skins boasted the fastest man in the NFL in defensive back Darrell Green, and defensive ends Dexter Manley and Charles Mann.

Doug Williams was selected by the pathetic Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the 17th overall pick of the 1978 draft led the team to the playoffs the following year. Williams lead the Bucs to the playoffs twice more before an acrimonious contract dispute prompted him to leave the NFL for the newly-formed United States Football League. The experience left him feeling disrespected.

Tampa Bay would go to become a perennial loser and laughing stock and it would take 14 years before the team returned to the playoffs.

After the USFL folded, Williams returned to the NFL as a backup for Washington quarterback Jay Schroeder. Schroeder was a prima donna whose position as starting quarterback nearly caused a mutiny within the team.

Schroeder eventually suffered an injury and Williams stepped in to lead the team for the final five games of the season.

Williams lead his team to a 21-17 victory over the NFC Central Division champions Chicago Bears in the NFC Divisional Playoff game. That victory set up the Conference Championship game against the Vikings.

The two teams had recent familiarity with one another by playing each other on the final week of the ’87 season, a game in which Skins eeked out an overtime victory. That was a close game so the Conference Championship figured to be no different.

The game was tied 10-10 into the fourth quarter but the Redskins pulled ahead 17-10 on the strength of a seven yard touchdown pass from Williams to Gary Clark.

Here is where we return to my original topic: Darrin Nelson.

The 1987 NFC Conference Championship Game

The Vikings drove down the field and were down to their last chance on a fourth-down play in the red zone with 56 seconds remaining in the game. If they could score seven points, they could send the game into overtime with momentum on their side.

Washington defensive back Darrell Green figured you go to your playmaker when you absolutely must have a play, so he was going to cover Vikings wide receiver Anthony Carter with an eye toward him getting the ball.

The play Vikings quarterback Wade Wilson ran was designed to use Carter to clear the way for Darrin Nelson to score. The play unfolded on the left side of the end zone with Nelson running a crossing route at the goal line and Carter clearing the way by running Green off to the deep corner of the end zone.

The problem was that Carter ran a comeback route directly into Nelson’s route. Nelson had his defender beat, but Carter’s broken route brought Darrell Green into the play. All Green needed to do was play the ball, which he did, knocking it from Darrin Nelson’s arms.

Nelson did not drop the ball; it was knocked out of his hands. It’s on the tape. UPDATED 01/31/11: You have to watch closely, and the play is at the very beginning of this clip but there’s no replay, but you can clearly see Anthony Carter right next to the play, having pulled his defender into Nelson’s route:

Here’s another view:

So, again, I apologize Darrin Nelson.

The Redskins, of course, went on to win . And Doug Williams made history by becoming the first black quarterback to not just play in a Super Bowl but win it and win it impressively in a 42-10 route over John Elway‘s Denver Broncos.

For his performance, Doug Williams won the game’s MVP honors.

It would take 12 years for another black quarterback to play in the Super Bowl when Steve McNair’s Tennessee Titans came within a yard of tying up the score on the last play of the game against the St. Louis Rams during in what to date has been the most exciting Super Bowl ever played.

Were it not for Darrell Green’s play, Steve McNair may have been the trailblazer.

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21 Replies to “I’m Sorry, Darrin Nelson”

  1. Not only did the Vikings beat the Saints and the 49ers in the playoffs to get to the NFC championship game, they beat those teams on the road. The victory against a superb 49ers team was maybe the Vikings greatest road playoff win ever (tied maybe with 1973 defeat of Dallas). And it almost cost Bill Walsh his job.

  2. Not only that, but Darrin Nelson was a tremendous running back and contributor to the Vikings success for many years. Anthony Carter was also great. The team just didn’t have enough to beat the Redskins that day. Even if the Vikings made a touchdown on that play and kicked the point after, they would still have had to beat the Redskins in sudden death. Darrin Nelson was a big part of the Vikings success, not the cause of them losing the game.

  3. Great points- I was at the game in this end zone and couldn’t tell whether DG broke up the pass or it was just dropped. Regardless the fact that Carter/ Green were anywhere near the play is the real issue. Can’t put a HOF defender is a position to make that play….

  4. Darrin Nelson was at fault. If you watch the slo-mo replay on the 1 hour special about the 1987 Redskins, the ball clearly bounces off Darrin Nelsons hands BEFORE Darrell Green hits him.

    1. This guy wrote a whole article and didn’t even watch the play. Green was a yard behind Nelson. I’ve watched it 50 times. He missed the catch. Wilson threw a beautiful pass. Hit Nelson right in the hands. He dropped it. Green had nothing to do with the drop.

  5. Funny how rumors and inuendo remake history. AC was supposed to run a fade stop. In other words, Darrel Green was supposed to run right by him, and AC would be open. Darren Nelson ran an option route, which put the two near each other. I’m putting this on the coach. You have to call a play, and make sure everybody knows where they are going. They should have thrown the ball to AC – the best player in the league at that time.

  6. YES, It WAS a drop way back then, IT IS STILL a drop now, Just like Gary Anderson missed the ONLY fieldgoal of the season a decade latter. AND like Brett Favre threw a TERRIBLE pass another Decade latter still. ALL final plays to go to a Super Bowl. THIS is the Viking Fate!!!!!!!!! all around 10 years apart, and all ONE play away from a Super Bowl. AND all there own fault, We cant keep blaming the other teams for our shortfalls. Sad part of it, if history repeats itself, we have 9 more years to wait to even get CLOSE again.

  7. it’s true, Darrin dropped that ball on his own, it was lost before Green arrived. that doesn’t take away from the fact that Darrin was a good running back and partly responsible for the Vikings getting as far as they did, it was a fun year though, one I will never forget.

  8. what the hel were u looking at darrel green had nothing to do with the play he dropped he ball so take ur opolagy back fool

  9. This one’s on Darrin, not Darrel. Great wins to get there but another Vikings heartbreaker. Will remember this along with Bobby Bryant FG block/TD against the Rams, Page sacking Roman Gabriel, beating Dallas in ’73. Super Bowls aside, the losses to Brodie and the Niners in 1970, and Falcons in ’98 hurt alot, but the ’75 Drew Pearson pass interference on Nate Wright always, always hurts the most..

  10. Darrin’s lucky Green was in on the play. The drop would have looked even worse in the open field. I always called Nelson “Tippy-Toe”, because he would take the hand off and tippie-toe around until he got hammered.

    Drafting Tippie over Marcus Allen in the ’82 draft was the worse thing that ever happened to the Vikings.. let me explain.

    Simply replace Nelson with Allen on the roster from ’82-’97 and come up with your own conclusion. But one has to think Allen would have caught this pass against Washington. Also, the Vikings would not have “needed” Herschel Walker. Thus persuading me to believe the dynasty the Vikings put together in Dallas would never have happened. I also have to believe the Viking teams of the ’80s and early ’90s would have seen 1-3 Super Bowl appearances with that kind of running game.

    Worse thing ever.. worse than Brett Favre.

  11. Totally agree with you drew, but let’s remember hindsight is 20/20. Darrin was the more sought after back in that year’s draft. Coulda, woulda, shoulda.

  12. I never understood the outrage on Darrin Nelson for the play. I was only 10 but I watched it live and remember being upset with everyone’s new hero Suede Wade throwing a very low ball. then later on having seen the first video replay, I thought “cleary it was a tough catch and Green broke it up with a hit.” Now seeing that much better replay, there is no doubt Nelson drops the ball before the hit, but again, a bit of a low pass, making it a difficult catch for a RB, and if he does catch it, he’s going nowhere but backwards when Green hits him and it’s probably ruled short. Especially knowing our history, even if he was on the chalk, they’d have given the Skins the benefit.

  13. Darrin Nelson should have caught that ball. But he shouldmn’t be forever judged by that one play, running backs drop perfect passes every day, he just picked a really bad day to muff it

  14. Ever since the Vikes went indoors, they have become soft. Their defense does not travel. They put themselve in a position where they must have home field throughout to have a shot. Bring back Bud!

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