Joey Browner has had a big year, despite being retired for more than a decade. Last month, he was selected to join the Vikings Ring of Honor, and earlier this month he was selected to the All-Metrodome team honored at the Dec. 15 game against the Eagles.
Browner was a modern-era player with a throwback player mentality. He was as tough as they came and was as violent a hitter as there has been in Vikings history. While many of the old-school Vikings from the Met Stadium era weren’t fans of the move into the climate-controlled Metrodome, Browner enjoyed it because it was all he knew.
“I loved it because this is where we were playing when I got drafted,” Browner said. “I was drafted the second year we played in the Dome, so that was our home. For me, it brings back a lot of great memories because I played my entire career here and was the first Pro Bowl player from here. It was an experience to bring the Vikings game from outside to indoors because, at first, some of the players and the fans felt we were losing a big advantage coming indoors. It was like one chapter in the team history was ending and another was beginning.”
The timing of the move to the Metrodome coincided with the end of the careers of so many Vikings that made a decade-long run of dominance in the NFC as the feared Purple People Eaters. By the time the Vikings moved indoors, it was time for a new generation of players to start the legacy of the Vikings 2.0 and Browner was front and center in that regard.
“I felt like I was a part of the second version of the Purple People Eaters defense,” Browner said. “All of those guys who had been around for years during the 1970s when the Vikings made a name for themselves defensively were gone. We felt like pioneers of sorts because we weren’t those guys. We had to make our own mark and I think if you look back at the history of the Metrodome, we had some outstanding defensive players throughout that second run of the Vikings franchise.”
While the Vikings were morphing into an indoors team, there were other changes afoot in the NFL. The first major change pertained to how offensive blockers could engage defenders. Browner was proud of his ability to adapt to those changes and excel under both the old and new sets of rules.
“When I came into the league, offensive blockers still had to hold their hands inside,” Browner said. “In the middle of my career, they started allowing them to put their hands out to block. Defensive players had to make significant adjustments to their game. I was proud that I was a Pro Bowl player in the old-school way of playing football and also after they started making the changes we take for granted as rules of the game today.”
A more significant change came when the NFL outlawed contact beyond a 5-yard buffer zone. When Browner came into the league defensive backs were able to maul and jostle receivers all the way through their routes. A martial arts expert skilled in using his body as a weapon, he thrived in such situations. But when the league changed the rules and allowed receivers to run free once they got past the first 5 yards of their routes, it changed things for defensive backs in a profound way. Again, Browner was able to adjust and make the most of the new rules, which transformed the game from a run-first approach to the pass-happy league we see today.
“When I came into the league, you could beat up a receiver all the way down the field,” Browner said. “Everything changed when they instituted the 5-yard cushion that you couldn’t jam receivers after that point. A lot of things have changed, but you had to adapt and I think the proudest achievement I had was being an old-school All-Pro and a new-school All-Pro. That’s my blessing from playing here over the years.”
As Browner reflects on the game and the changes that have taken place, one of his crowning achievements was perfecting the horse-collar tackle. It was a staple of Browner’s game and he was one of the reasons the move was outlawed.
“I’ve had some people kid that they should have called it the Browner Rule,” he said. “My job was to bring the player with the ball down to the ground and I figured out early on that if you could get your hand into his shoulder pads, he wasn’t going anywhere. There were some other guys who did that often, but I got associated with it and, when it was banned, some people blamed me for being one of the main reasons. I guess I just did it too well.”
As the Metrodome closes Sunday, many of the lasting memories that took place in that building were provided by Browner, who was one of the first superstar talents from the new-look Vikings. While he didn’t play at Met Stadium, Browner would have fit in nicely with the blood-and-guts mentality that permeated back then.
“I think one of the greatest compliments I ever got was from Jim Marshall,” Browner said. “Back then, the old-time players from the ’60s and ’70s didn’t think players from the modern era could survive in the style of game they played. Jim told me he wished I had been born 10 years earlier because he would have loved to play with me and that I would have fit in perfectly with the teams from that era. That meant the world to me because it was a sign of respect from a player from a proud era of the NFL.”
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.