Last January, when Hank Stram's Kansas City Chiefs beat the Minnesota Vikings 23-7 in the Super Bowl, the chesty little coach proclaimed the victory as a harbinger of The Football of the Future. Last Sunday, in Bloomington, Minn., The Football of the Future became a thing of the past as the very same Vikings, who had brooded about the defeat for eight months, drubbed the Chiefs 27-10 with some plain old-fashioned football.
In truth, it was probably more a victory of emotion than of strategy or tactics, although Bud Grant, the seemingly unemotional man who coaches the Vikings, tried to deny that implication. The day before the game, sitting in his small office under the stands of the ball park in St. Paul where the Vikings practice, he talked quietly about the Sunday just ahead.
"This isn't a game for vengeance or anything like that," he said. "We approach it like we would any other game. I'm sure Stram will have a few changes for us. For instance, I doubt that he'll use the end-around, because he knows we'll be prepared for it, but he may have some variations off it. The Chiefs are a basic club and their offense and defense aren't that much different. They've won because they have fine people. I think we have good people, too. But I don't think this will be that emotional a game."
Grant was going into the game minus Joe Kapp, the holdout quarterback who took the Vikings to the NFL championship last year, but he appeared unconcerned. "Gary Cuozzo is our quarterback now," he said. "That doesn't hamper our offense at all. If anything, it enlarges it. Gary is a very intelligent man with exceptional retention. Since your offense depends upon your quarterback's retention, we can do more with Gary than we did with Kapp. I'm not trying to derogate Kapp. Joe is a fine quarterback, but he's an intuitive type and Cuozzo is an intellectual. I'm perfectly sure Gary will do well."
He smiled faintly, although his light-blue eyes were cold. "I think all of our players will do well," he said. Then, contradicting his assertion that revenge would play no role, he added, "We've been lying behind a log for eight months waiting for this game."
In extenuation, the game aroused no strong feelings on the Chiefs' part. All during the overlong exhibition season they had been fiat. This wasn't due to a lack of work. They put out before their game with Dallas, which they won easily. And they felt they had prepared for this game, too, which is probably the case. But they were getting ready to play a good game against a respected opponent, and the Vikings were girding themselves for Armageddon.
Mike Garrett, the Chiefs' best all-round back, put the game in perspective beforehand. "It's important we win because it's the first game," he said, "not because it's Minnesota. If you lose your first game playing in our division, it's like cutting your throat."
Stram took the confrontation coolly enough, too, and he was unconcerned about the Chiefs' 4-3 preseason record. "I think we've graduated to the right tempo," he said. "A coach has to have mother instincts, an inner feeling to know when to push and pull and when to lay off. This is a mature team. They know what to do."
After Sunday's debacle, Stram better forget about motherhood and start pushing and pulling.
As for the Vikings, most of them tried to act as if the contest had no special significance for them, either, but as actors they were no better than their coach. Among the things that have rankled them for the eight months was the highlight movie of the Super Bowl, in which Stram was wired for sound. In the course of the game Stram, an extroverted, voluble man, characterized Defensive Back Karl Kassulke's play as being reminiscent of a Chinese fire drill. Whenever a Viking made a mistake in practice in the week before the game, an assistant coach yelled, "Chinese fire drill." The Vikings didn't make many mistakes.
Kassulke, who has played pro football for eight years, professed to be undisturbed by Stram's unflattering assessment of his play. "I'm a pro," he said. "Sure, I was embarrassed, but the people who know me know I give it all I've got. Every defensive back gets beat now and then." He paused, thought a minute and his face grew dark. "But I'd damn sure like to stick that ball right in Stram's ear on Sunday," he concluded.
He did, finally. He was beaten once on a 59-yard Len Dawson-to-Otis Taylor pass, which resulted in the Chiefs' only touchdown, but he made up for that with an odd interception in which he collaborated with Ed Sharockman on a resounding tackle of Gloster Richardson, then caught the ball when it bounced out of Richardson's hands while Kassulke was sitting on the ground.
The whole Viking team played with the same ferocity. They were thoroughly prepared for Stram's Football of the Future, but they didn't see as much of it as they expected. Most conspicuous by its absence was the renowned Kansas City stack, in which the linebackers are tucked behind the linemen.
"I saw the stack for the first time quite a while back," said Cuozzo on Saturday. A Phi Beta Kappa who will begin practicing as an orthodontist after the season, Cuozzo is introverted and soft-spoken and his habitual expression is one of vague worry. Five days earlier he had asked the Viking publicity man not to schedule him for any public appearances during the week. "I've got all I can do getting ready for this game," he said. "I have a lot of responsibility."
Cuozzo first saw the stack diagrammed nine years ago when he was a junior at the University of Virginia. Don Klosterman, at that time a scout for the Dallas Texans—who subsequently moved to Kansas City and turned into the Chiefs—came to Virginia to look over prospects and ended up talking to Cuozzo. "He drew the stack defense on a blackboard and asked me how I would attack it," Cuozzo said. "I didn't have any ideas."
Since then Cuozzo has come up with a few but he didn't have much need for them on this warm, windy and overcast day. Stram put his defense into the stack perhaps once all afternoon and Cuozzo attacked it with a screen pass to Bill Brown for a 16-yard gain and a first down. Surprisingly, the Chiefs stayed mostly in the standard 4-3 defense, which Stram has called old-fashioned, although they did use their more accustomed—and more unusual—5-2 during the first half.
"We didn't expect the 4-3 so much," said Jim Vellone, one of the guards on a Viking offensive line that dominated the line of scrimmage. "It made it easier for us, because we're used to it."
In preparing for the game, the Vikings, in essence, ignored all the froth and furbelows of the Chief formations, both on offense and defense. As Free Safety Paul Krause, who intercepted one of Dawson's passes late in the game to kill any faint hopes the Chiefs might have had, said, "We didn't have a tendency list for this game. We didn't stop to think every time they shifted into one of their formations, now they're in the I or the cock. I or whatever. We didn't shift with their shift, either. When they went into a certain set, we just tried to ruin it for them with blitzes or by jamming the blocking."
That philosophy turned the formidable Viking front four loose, which is a surefire way to make heads ring. With freedom to gamble and maneuver, they clamped down on the Chief running game and harried Dawson so much that most of his completions were shorties. Indeed, Kansas City got only one first down running all afternoon, and gained a measly 63 yards on the ground. In the Super Bowl the Chiefs had rushed for 151 yards.
After the game, Cuozzo still looked a bit uptight. He had a bruise on his back but was otherwise unmarked; he had been dumped only twice, both times when his receivers were covered and he was vainly searching for a target. Someone asked if he had been scared. He seemed a bit bemused now that the game was over and he had won and had done very well. "Scared?" he said seriously. "No, I wasn't scared. Scared isn't a word for a football player. High, maybe. Up for the game. But not scared."
Cuozzo, who for one of the few times in his career (he was used sparingly at Baltimore and spent a desperate year at New Orleans) played behind a line that gave him time to throw, showed that he is capable of taking the Vikings to the Super Bowl. In fact, by the time the game was over, most of the fans in the stadium had forgotten Joe Kapp.
"Kapp?" Mick Tingelhoff, Minnesota's All-Pro center, had said before the game. "We'd like to have Joe back, sure. But Cuozzo's our quarterback."
After the game, Krause said, "Everybody looks to Cuozzo as the leader now. He's proved it. If Kapp comes back, he'll have to beat Gary out."
Naturally, the Vikings won't have as much going for them in the weeks to come. Their feelings, which were more or less hidden before the game, began to surface after it was over. Vellone, bald as a cue ball at 26, then said it for all of them. "What's the difference between this game and the Super Bowl? Eight months. Eight months of thinking."