Pssst. The Minnesota Vikings have an offense. Pass it on. It is, for identification purposes, one of those quietly efficient, low-mileage models with the slightly square silhouette. It arrives by traveling carefully in the right-hand lane. You can barely hear it because there are no holes in the muffler. It does not fumble, it does not bust plays, it does not travel imprecise pass routes. Because it is inconspicuous it has been more or less lost on the public, like Betty Grable's arms. Nobody calls the Minnesota offense the Purple People Eaters. Nicknames are for the Minnesota defense, which has flashy guys like Jim Marshall who, when he is not eating people, is diving out of airplanes.
The offense, on the other hand, is a collection of cerebral gentlemen like Grady Alderman, the certified public accountant-tackle, and Gary Cuozzo, the licensed dentist-quarterback. "They are disciplined, businesslike people," says Coach Bud Grant. "You almost expect them to show up carrying briefcases."
What they do show up carrying is footballs, often into somebody's end zone. They did it a week ago Monday when they beat what was then presumed to be—and probably still is—their principal rival in the NFL Central, the Detroit Lions. And they did it against a lesser opponent, the Chicago Bears, on a gloomy, unreal afternoon in Minnesota last weekend but, as it turned out, not often enough.
Ah, the Bears! The butt of a thousand one-liners, they are suddenly 2 and 0 and people (purple or otherwise) have to wonder where they came from and where they could possibly think they are going.
For the record, the Bears' coach is named Jim Dooley. He is from Miami, where the sun shines. Now in his fourth year as head coach of the Bears, for whom he once played, Dooley has rarely seen the sun, living as he does in the shadow of George Halas. Nobody knows the trouble Dooley has seen. "I'm 41 years old," he says. "I only look 80." In truth, Dooley is tall, handsome and curly-haired and he does not look his age at all, but he is presently working on the tail end of his contract and. when you examine too closely what he has to work with, you tend to shudder on his behalf.
One preseason assessment of the Bears began something like this: "The worst rushing offense in the NFC last year produced three (count 'em, three) touchdowns and is weaker this year with Gale Sayers still limping. As for the passing, it's as bad as ever. And the secondary is worse...." It got negative after that.
The night before these same Bears arrived at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Dooley sat in front of a prime rib, brandishing a steak knife in the general direction of his dinner partner and telling exactly how his club was going to upset the Vikings. Dooley invariably exudes more enthusiasm than his team does talent, but he was especially excited this time because he had a plan.
First there was that Viking offense. Forget it, he said. It was too sound to worry about. He characterized it as a "17-point offense." He was willing to concede the 17 points. He said he had been telling the Bears all week, "Hold Minnesota to 17 and you can win."
But how was he to, uh, well, you know, get 18 points?
"Field position," he said. "In effect, beat the Vikings at their own game. Run kickoffs and punts back to our 35 at least. Force the Vikings to move from deep in their own territory. Consider a drive to midfield a moral victory. And this is where we tell our guys, if you have to give up the ball there, punt. You're winning, winning! Don't get discouraged and eventually we'll have room to throw. And I know exactly where we can throw and how the Vikings will defend us—when they will revolve, where the seams will be in the zone and where we can beat them. Then it will be just a matter of the quarterback getting the ball to the receiver. He won't even have to think about it. He won't even have to look for anybody else but the primary receiver. Just get the ball there."
Dooley leaned back in his chair and tossed his knife on the table. Cold fat congealed on his untouched prime rib. He sighed. "And that, up to now, has been our problem."
It all seemed outrageous, of course. His plan was not to beat the Viking offense, but to avoid getting eaten alive by the Purple People and then, eventually, to shove the ball down their throats.
Well, heathens, that is exactly what the Bears did.
But first they gave up those 17 points to the Viking offense, and a few words should be said here about its leader.
The man who quarterbacks the Vikings—for the time being at least, because that subject, like Birch Bayh's mouth, seems never closed—is Gary Cuozzo, the dentist. Cuozzo is the archetypal Minnesota offensive player. That is to say, he has become that since the roaring days of Joe Kapp. Two words to describe Kapp were "barroom" and "brawler." "Quietly purposeful" would be two for Cuozzo. "Resolute" would be another. "Unsigned" would be a fourth because Cuozzo knows what Kapp used to make and he thinks the contract offered him by the Vikings this year was demeaning. "I'm a better quarterback than that," he says. And when he says it is not the money but the principle you can believe him because no quarterback living has the long-range earning potential of a practicing orthodontist, which is what Cuozzo will be one day.
Cuozzo, who won a Phi Beta Kappa key, if not fame on the gridiron, at Virginia, signed with Baltimore as a free agent in 1963. Four years later he was on his way to New Orleans, an expansion team. Quarterbacks on expansion teams have to run for their lives, expansion-team lines being what they are. Cuozzo does not run. "I'm more comfortable in the pocket," he says. In New Orleans there was no pocket. The next year he was traded to Minnesota, where he took over for Kapp after the latter went off to Boston in a huff.
In the off season, the Vikings got another quarterback in Norm Snead but it was Cuozzo who opened (wide, of course) the season against the Lions, generated 16 points—one below the quota—and rallied his team in the second half to win. The day before, practically unnoticed, the Bears fumbled around in the rain in Chicago, looking like all their jokes, and then were redeemed when a quarterback named Kent Nix, who couldn't make the Steelers, couldn't make the Packers and couldn't make the Vikings, came off the bench to throw a touchdown pass in the last seconds.
And so the Bears arrived in Minneapolis, undefeated and not to be taken seriously.
The game started sluggishly, but eventually Cuozzo clicked into gear: hooks, curls, sideline passes. No surprises. No explosions. "To explode," he had said, "you have to be designed for an explosion. We're not." In a 73-yard drive that consumed 9½ minutes, he completed six straight passes. The longest was for 14 yards and the last was for four, to Bob Grim for the touchdown: 7-0, Vikings.
In the third quarter the Bears got close enough for a field goal: 7-3. Cuozzo had said before the game that he had tried some gentle persuasion on Grant to get him to open up a little when the time was ripe. Grant was amenable. The time was ripe. Two Cuozzo passes covered 71 yards, the last a 52-yarder to Grim: 14-3, Minnesota. Then a field goal: 17-3.
Now it was the last quarter, going fast, and the Bears were—what? "Not discouraged!" yelled Dooley afterward. "Our field position kept getting better and better. We were winning, don't you see?"
The Bears started on their 44. Jack Concannon was the quarterback and, Dooley said, if the receivers had not dropped so many balls you would have to say he had been having a "great day." Indeed, throwing into the seams, he completed 23 of 37 passes. Concannon moved the Bears to the Viking 36, where another of his passes was dropped, and where Carl Eller dropped Concannon hard. Concannon stumbled off the field. Nix trotted on. "I like coming in this way," he said later. "Watching from the sidelines gives me a chance to see what's going on."
On the first play Nix threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to Dick Gordon. It looked as simple as it sounds. 17-10. Minnesota was unable to move. The Bears took over on the Viking 45 and kicked a 45-yard field goal to make it 17-13. Suddenly there was only a minute plus left. Chicago had the ball again, this time on the Viking 37, and somehow worried it down to the Minnesota 19. Gordon, who caught 13 touchdown passes last year to lead the NFL, lined up left. On the call he broke straight ahead, cut for the inside and, for a split second, froze Viking Safety Paul Krause. Then he turned again to the left and raced for the flag in the corner of the end zone, bare steps ahead of Krause and the other safety, Karl Kassulke. The Purple People were flailing away at the line, trying to get at Nix. As though he had been doing it every day all his life, Nix laid the ball to Gordon a step in front of the back line. Touchdown, Chicago. 20-17.
Pssst. The Purple People can be had. Pass it on.