It's Never Worse Than He Expected

I always thought that when Don Coryell got out of coaching, the last of the great doom-sayers got out of the game.

You remember Don Coryell. He was the guy who used to stand on the sidelines with his hands on his knees and stare out at the line of scrimmage like a guy who just got a peek at his own coffin. Guys have gone to the electric chair happier than Coryell went to Charger games. He looked like a guy who knows the warden isn't going to call.

When he left, I thought the breed had died out.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Jerry Burns.

Jerry is the coach of the Minnesota Vikings, which is enough to give anybody a worried look, but Jerry would have to cheer up merely to be considered lugubrious. His expression is not so much disdain or disgust as that of a man who wants to have nothing to do with the terrible things going on around him. He's like a guy who pulls the shades when he hears screams in the alley. He doesn't want to get involved.

You know how other coaches are? They stand on the sidelines and cup their hands and shout till the cords come out in their necks. They clap, cuss, pace, groan. Sometimes they grab a player coming off the field and yell in his ear or pat him on the back. They shriek at the officials, plead with the linesmen. Vince Lombardi used to look like a guy having a nervous breakdown.

Jerry Burns just distances himself from the whole mess. Look at him now on the sideline. He avoids all personal contact. He shuns the players. Ushers look more interested. His staff runs the game. Jerry acts as if he has better things to do. Or he can't wait for the game to be over so he can set about doing them. If he talks to a player, you get the impression he's asking him how the wife is.

He doesn't wear a headset. He never appears to be drawing a play on a slate. You'd figure the game was only mildly interesting to him. Plus, he expects the worst. Actually, he makes Coryell look like an optimist.

Burns just knows those guys are going to screw up. You draw all these lovely can't-miss schemes on the blackboard and then somebody forgets the ball. When that happens, Burns never changes expression. It's as if he expected it all along. He knows the next card will be a trey, the next dice craps.

You'd think a guy named Jerome Monahan Burns would have a sunnier outlook on life, but Jerry Burns is not your music hall Irish, wisecracking and butter-tongued. Pat O'Brien would never get the part.

It's not that Jerry Burns doesn't care. It's just that he knows what he's up against. People fumble. They drop passes, miss signals. Looking on the dark side of things is an occupational hazard with football coaches. They go down in lore as Gloomy Gil and Sad Sam. There has never been a football coach known as Lucky, or Horseshoes.

Burns is widely conceded to be the nearest thing to an offensive genius the game has, now that Bill Walsh has left. He draws these beautiful diagrams on the board. He doesn't really expect them to work. It's like giving Rolls-Royces to a tribe of savages. His blueprints are like the Austrian cavalry. They look pretty but they're no good in a war.

Not that Coach Burns is resigned. No matter how used to his team's blunders he gets, it just plunges him into more gloom. He expects them but he's not tolerant of them. He lost an exhibition game to the Rams here a couple of Saturdays ago and, in the locker room later, he drew a portrait of his team that was revealing, if unflattering.

"We stunk the joint out tonight," he growled. "I would say the defense played lousy 50% of the time, the special teams 75% and the offense 100% of the time. We didn't do anything but block a punt. That epitomizes our game.

"We get two touchdowns called back on the same series and then miss a field goal from the two-yard line. It was a sick operation all the way. You'd think we got our game plan out of a Cracker Jack box."

Onlookers were surprised he noticed. Coach Burns does not seem to be that much in a game once it has kicked off. He mopes along the side, hands in pockets, occasionally glancing out onto the field, as if to confirm his worst fears. The rest of the time, he looks like a guy trying to remember what he did with his keys or whether he locked the front door and put the cat out. He smiles twice a year but not during football season.

"Once the game starts, your preparation is over with," he says, shrugging. "It's too late to make over. The decision-making is up to others."

So, Coach Burns doesn't keep a low profile so much as he keeps no profile. But his brow darkens when they turn his melodramatic plans into comedy.

"We better take stock of our team," he warns. "We may not be the team we're cracked up to be. We're recognized as a heralded team. They're even talking of us as a Super Bowl team. We've got some good players. That doesn't always mean you have a good team."

If the Vikings do get in and win the Super Bowl, you'll have no trouble recognizing the coach. He'll be the one who looks as if he just lost his wallet--or heard the IRS called. If the team loses? Well, he'll be the one who doesn't look all surprised.

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