Green sounds off on former team

Updated: October 31, 2003, 10:15 AM ET
ESPN

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Vikings are a much different team from when ex-coach Dennis Green took -- what he termed -- "the high road" out of Minnesota.

Green, who is now an ESPN analyst, left with one game left in the tumultuous 2001 season. Almost two years later, the atmosphere at Winter Park is looser, information is less guarded and the Vikings are winning again.

On Thursday, Green -- during an ESPN conference call with fellow analysts Ron Jaworski and Joe Theismann -- took questions about his final season as Vikings head coach, but he didn't reveal much.

He also praised the current team, which is off to a 6-1 start and hosts rival Green Bay this weekend in a crucial NFC North matchup.

Green said the Vikings' defense has shown the most improvement over the last couple of years, picking Minnesota as a favorite against Green Bay. The Vikings enter Sunday night's game with an NFL-high 17 interceptions and are second in the league with a plus-12 turnover ratio.

"They're really making a good run in the NFC North just because they have a better team on paper and on the board than the Green Bay Packers," Green said.

Green led the Vikings to four division titles and two NFC championship games during his 10-year tenure. He finished at 101-70 -- 4-8 in playoff games.

But his final year on the Vikings' sideline was horrific.

The Vikings ended the 2000 season with a 41-0 loss to the New York Giants in the NFC title game. Then 2001 started with the heatstroke death of Pro Bowl offensive tackle Korey Stringer in training camp. The team went 5-10 before owner Red McCombs forced Green out with one game left in the season and anointed Mike Tice the interim coach.

The Vikings failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1995.

Asked about his relationship with McCombs while he was coach, Green said: "Red and I had some great times. I don't think anyone has fun if you don't win.

"Any time that you don't win, that's when your challenges come into play."

It was widely reported that Green and McCombs often clashed over control of the team, and talk of McCombs moving the franchise to Los Angeles surfaced -- all of which Green insisted wasn't a distraction.

"Hopefully the Minnesota Vikings stay in Minnesota," Green said. "They've got some great fans."

He shied away when asked if he would coach again.

"My father told me to always just focus on the job you have and not worry too much about anything in the future," he said.

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^RETURN WOES:@ Tice will give rookie running back Onterrio Smith a chance to return kickoffs on Sunday against the Packers for the first time this season.

Smith will replace Doug Chapman, who averaged 12.8 yards on four returns in the Vikings' loss to the New York Giants. The coaches hope Smith can provide the missed spark since Green Bay leads the NFL in kickoff coverage, giving up only 18.4 yards per return.

The Vikings rank 30th in kickoff returns, averaging 19.5 yards.

Tice said Thursday that he's so far been pleased with Smith's performances in practice.

"Onterrio did a nice job of accepting the challenge of returning kicks. He really showed a lot more enthusiasm toward the job than I thought he would," Tice said.

In college, Smith averaged 26.7 yards with one touchdown at Oregon.

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^EXTRA POINTS:@ Thursday's practice went about 30 minutes longer than usual. Tice said the players got in some extra individual and special teams work. ... LB Raonall Smith (hamstring) remained the only player listed on the injury report. He's doubtful for Sunday's game.

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Andres Ybarra can be reached at aybarra(at)ap.org.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index