Chris Doleman had never played defensive end in his life when Minnesota moved him there toward the end of his second NFL season.
That position switch couldn't have worked out better for him or the Vikings.
He was 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, taken with the fourth overall draft pick out of Pittsburgh, when he came to Minnesota. In college, he was a stand-up outside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive scheme, but the Vikings used a 4-3 alignment and asked him to frequently drop back in coverages he wasn't comfortable with. Plus, he didn't rush the passer all that much.
"It's like buying a Ferrari," Doleman said, "and just driving it to the grocery store around the corner."
So when an injury to Mark Mullaney in 1986 created a spot at defensive end, Doleman was moved to the line. He used a unique blend of speed, technique and strength to amass 150½ sacks over 15 seasons in the league, 10 of those seasons with the Vikings. Doleman will enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame during the ceremony in Canton, Ohio, this weekend.
"I'm glad they moved him, to be honest with you, because I didn't like practicing with him, a guy that big, doing drills with you every day," said Scott Studwell, currently the college scouting director for Minnesota who played middle linebacker for the Vikings at the time.
"It felt like home. It really did," Doleman said.
Evidence of Doleman's dominant skills was even apparent in the best-selling book "The Blind Side." Author Michael Lewis referred to San Francisco head coach Bill Walsh's relent that, yes, sturdy, strong and sleek left tackles were more important to an offense's success than he originally believed. Walsh's realization came after Doleman disrupted the 49ers all afternoon during a playoff-game upset by the Vikings after the 1987 season.
"I always envisioned myself as if I was a wide receiver running a route, and I had to get that tackle off the line," Doleman said in a phone interview this week. "I was very athletic. I never thought that a tackle could backpedal quicker than I could move forward."
In 1989, the Vikings had a franchise-record 71 sacks, and Doleman led the NFL with 21, the fourth-most in a single season in league history. He wasn't just productive in bringing down the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage, either. He totaled 45 forced fumbles, recovering 24 of them, over his career. The sack-strip play that's become such a momentum-changer in the game these days was perfected by Doleman during time of redefinition of his position. Doleman also played two years for the Atlanta Falcons and three for the San Francisco 49ers before returning to the Vikings in 1999, his last season. He had eight interceptions, too, and was picked for eight Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams.
"He had such great body lean and balance, for a guy his height," said former Vikings defensive line coach Paul Wiggin, who had a big hand in Doleman's position transition. Added Wiggin: "I learned a lot of things in coaching and in coaching Chris, and one of them was if you've got a goose that lays golden eggs, you don't mess with the goose."
Doleman was on 10 playoff teams and endured only three losing seasons in his career. He played in 232 of a possible 237 games, building a reputation as a durable, hard-working, clutch performer. Wiggin recalled the 1989 season opener against Houston, when he reminded Doleman and defensive tackle Keith Millard of the danger that Oilers quarterback Warren Moon, already in the Hall of Fame himself, posed.
"I told them, ‘If we don't put a calling card on him early in the game, he's going to feel comfortable in the pocket and he's going to throw for over 300 yards and we're going to lose the football game,'" Wiggin said. "With those two guys it was like pouring a bucket of blood in front of a shark."
Moon finished 8 for 20 for 69 yards and an interception, and Doleman had two of the Vikings' seven sacks. Minnesota won 38-7.
"You had to choose who you were going to block and how you were going to block him," Doleman said. "You might've been able to block one of us one on one, but not the other three."
Doleman is the fourth former Vikings player in the last five years to enter the Hall, following defensive tackle John Randle, guard Randall McDaniel and tackle Gary Zimmerman, who faced off against Doleman in practice many times.
Born in Indianapolis and raised in Pennsylvania, Doleman currently lives in Atlanta. His 22-year-old son, Evan, will present him at the induction ceremony.
"Guys like him, they just don't come around very often," Studwell said. "There are guys who have some similar traits size-wise or speed-wise, but they give up something else. Chris had the combination of everything: size, speed, strength."
Doleman helped redefine the DE position
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