Chris Doleman: A legendary player gone far too soon

The Minnesota Vikings and their fans lost a true legend with the passing of Chris Doleman.

This week the Minnesota Vikings said goodbye to Hall of Fame defensive end Chris Doleman, who died following a battle with cancer, at the far-too-young age of 58.

A first-round draft pick of the Vikings in 1985, Doleman’s career spanned 15 seasons, with 10 of those in Minnesota. An eight-time Pro Bowler and three-time First-team All-Pro, Doleman ranks second all time in Vikings’ franchise history with 96.5 sacks. In 2012 he was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

A first-round draft pick in 1985, Doleman was part of an impressive draft class that included fellow Hall of Fame inductees Bruce Smith, Jerry Rice, Andre Reed, and Kevin Greene.

Scanning the Vikings’ franchise history on Pro Football Reference, Doleman was twice considered the team’s top player in 1989 and 1992 according to the approximate value assigned. In six of the 10 seasons he played in Minnesota the team made the playoffs. An extremely durable player, he only missed four games in 15 seasons.

Doleman had a significant impact on the Vikings franchise. His career in Minnesota helped to stem the decline in defensive line play and restore the glory that had faded since the end of the Purple People Eaters—Carl Eller, Alan Page, Jim Marshall, and Doug Sutherland—last played together in 1977. Once the hallmark of the Super Bowl teams of the 70s, the Vikings’ defense failed to rank in the top 10 for yards or points allowed for eight seasons.

The franchise hit rock bottom in 1984 under head coach Les Steckel when the team finished 3-13.

Out of that disaster there were several positives. Steckel’s reign lasted only a season. Bud Grant returned to coach the team in 1985, and the poor record allowed the Vikings to select Doleman with fourth pick in the draft. Originally drafted as an outside linebacker, the Vikings used him in a 3-4 scheme his first two seasons—a system that failed to utilize Doleman’s size and speed. Over those two seasons, Doleman started 21 of 32 games and recorded only 3.5 sacks—the lowest two-year total in his career.

In 1987 the Vikings switched back to a traditional 4-3 scheme and moved Doleman to the more traditional defensive end position. At this point, Doleman’s career really took off. That season the NFL employed replacement players for three games and canceled a fourth. In the remaining 12 games Doleman led the team with 11 sacks and led the NFL with six forced fumbles. His dominance was recognized by being named to the first of three straight Pro Bowls.

With the move to defensive end in 1987, Doleman played alongside Keith Millard for four seasons. This duo is without question the most dominating pair for sacks since the stat was first recorded in 1982. Over those four seasons, Doleman led the team in sack each year, usually with Millard right behind him. In 1989 they combined for 39 sacks—the most by any duo in franchise history. Coming in at a distant second is Jared Allen and Brian Robison who combined for 30 sacks in 2011 when Allen set the franchise single-season record with 22 sacks.

Unfortunately, a knee injury in 1990 started the end of Millard’s career and the most dominating defensive line duo since Page and Eller was cut short. That opened the door for another devastating duo to be formed when John Randle joined the team in 1990 and cracked the starting lineup a year later. For three years from 1991 to 1993 Doleman led the Vikings twice and Randle once in sacks. Averaging 22.5 sacks per season, this duo owns the third and fourth most sacks in a season.

Doleman and the Vikings parted ways in 1994. Doleman played two seasons in Atlanta and three in San Francisco.  Doleman faced his former team twice in 1997. Week 15 in San Francisco he led the 49ers defense with 2.5 sacks of Vikings’ quarterback Randall Cunningham in a 28 to 17 victory. The teams met again in the playoffs with the 49ers again winning the game.

Doleman returned to the Minnesota Vikings in 1999 for his 15th and final season in the NFL. Once again he played alongside Randle as the two combined for 18 sacks. Had Doleman played his entire career with the Vikings, his 150.5 sacks, fourth all-time in the NFL, would far and away lead the Vikings’ franchise.

A great player in Minnesota Vikings history, Chris Doleman left this world too soon.

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