EDEN PRAIRIE -- The Minnesota Vikings' best offseason move was signing Jeff George as an economical insurance policy, which they collected on big-time after their season began to teeter.
Now it's the quarterback's turn to cash in big.
George was the NFL's second-biggest bargain -- behind only MVP Kurt Warner of St. Louis -- in 1999, when he signed for a paltry $400,000 for the chance to resuscitate his checkered career.
George, 37-74 in Indianapolis, Atlanta and Oakland, went 9-3 after he was beckoned from the Vikings' bench to replace Randall Cunningham, who was demoted just 5 1/2 games into his new $28 million contract.
But Minnesota, the consensus preseason favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, fell short again when it was thumped 49-37 at St. Louis on Sunday.
''To go from 2-4 and make it into the playoffs and win a game in the playoffs, that's a positive,'' George said. ''But it still leaves a bad taste in your mouth because we still feel we're a championship caliber team.''
George will make a mint off his resurrection, which included the first playoff victory of his checkered 10-year NFL career last week against Dallas.
That windfall may or may not come in Minnesota, where the Vikings (11-7) are strapped with the colossal contracts of Cunningham and Daunte Culpepper, whose five-year deal is worth up to $19 million.
''If it was my choice, I'd keep him,'' Randy Moss said of George.
Cris Carter, who caught half of George's 28 touchdown passes, also is lobbing hard for George.
''When you have Jeff on the field and Randy and myself, you really have something special,'' Carter said. ''Now, can they do it? I don't really know.''
George deflected inquiries Monday.
''I can't even answer questions about that now,'' George said before cleaning out his locker. ''I'm still thinking about the loss. I'll be thinking about the loss for a while. All I can say is I hope this will work out.''
Cunningham said he won't retire, so the Vikings may have to release him June 1, lopping $2.5 million from his $3,333,000 salary cap figure for 2000.
They also have to decide whether to keep free agents Jeff Christy, Jake Reed and Jimmy Hitchcock and they might have to replace Randall McDaniel, who will make his 11th Pro Bowl appearance next month, and Chris Doleman, both of whom are mulling retirement.
Christy, Reed and Hitchcock all want to return, but that will be difficult, especially if the Vikings' top priority, George, breaks the bank. And Moss is expected to seek a megadeal this winter.
After flopping in the conference championship last year, the Vikings decided not to draft Jevon Kearse, who became the Defensive Rookie of the Year in Tennessee. The Vikings opted instead for Culpepper, who didn't play, and Dimitrius Underwood, who disappeared after one practice in August.
They spent the whole season paying for that mistake and their pass defense was the second-worst in the league while their offense and special teams combined for a league-high 40 turnovers.
Still, George guided them to the second round of the playoffs.
''We've been close two years in a row here,'' Robert Griffith said. ''I don't think it was a step back. We battled through a lot of stuff. We were 2-4 and we wound up playing really well at the end and got into the playoffs and we beat Dallas. There's a lot of bright spots.''
But way too many dim ones.
''We finished strong,'' Christy said. ''We just came up a little short.''
Dennis Green has been to the playoffs seven times in his eight-year tenure, but he's won just three of 10 postseason games. Still, owner Red McCombs said he has faith in Green and any and all personnel decisions would be made by the coach.
The Vikings never played up to their expectations.
''It's difficult to capture the chemistry and the magic to take it all the way,'' Carter said. ''I felt like we were just a little off.''
Still, they didn't seem as disconsolate as last year.
''I think I've got used to losing,'' Moss said.
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