Just when it appeared that sanity, sweet reason and the natural order of things would be excluded from the National Football League this season, the Minnesota Vikings returned to the role of contender last Sunday with the kind of performance that bodes well for the mental health of the guy who sets the point spreads. The Vikings managed this feat by beating their favorite old patsies, the Detroit Lions, 16-14 when, on the last play of the game, a Lion field-goal attempt crunched off the frenzied countenance of Cornerback Bobby Bryant.
The Vikings, of course, were expected to clinch the rough, tough old Contusion Division title long before the home folks had to start wearing their mackinaws to the games. The way it has worked though is that the Vikings have been saved from an early autumn disaster only because the league is kind enough to give them Detroit to kick around twice each year. After Bryant slipped around the Lions' line to meet Errol Mann's 33-yard field-goal attempt with his kisser, it meant 10 straight times that the Vikings have whipped Detroit. It also meant that Minnesota has now won three straight games and caught the Lions at 5-4 in the division race, just a game behind Green Bay.
Of course, nothing, not even Detroit, seems to come easy to the Vikings this year. Oscar Reed, who ran for 124 yards, fumbled once on the Lions' four-yard line, rookie Ed Marinaro topped that by twice losing the ball, and Gene Washington outdid that by dropping two touchdown passes. Still, the Vikings would have had a comfortable lead well into the third quarter if their schizoid defense had not suddenly yielded two touchdown passes from Greg Landry to Larry Walton to make it 14-10.
Later, down 14-13, what finally happened was a couple of the kind of enemy mistakes that Minnesota made its NFL living on for the past three seasons. First, Charlie Sanders fumbled, Roy Winston recovered and Fred Cox, who is a newly licensed chiropractor, kicked a 23-yard field goal, his third of the day. Then, in the final frenetic seconds, Bryant was able to block the field goal and Minnesota had been written back into the script of this particular championship season.
"This really does throw us back in it," exclaimed Fran Tarkenton, whose 121 passing yards pushed him over the 30,000-yard career mark, statistical territory earlier invaded by only three other quarterbacks.
"Ah," smiled John Gilliam, Tarkenton's fine new wide receiver, "it's more fun like this, instead of just being out in front all the way, like everyone figured we would be."
In fact, if the Vikings had lost to the Lions they would have been out of it more surely than Clemson. For all the nasty things that have happened to them this year though, perhaps they had one coming. While the everyday incredible upset has been part of pro football longer than Pete Rozelle or the TV commercial bathroom break, Minnesota fans were loath to accept the Vikings' early-season performance as anything rational, even with the proverbial given team of any given Sunday again giving fits to any other.
The Vikings, after all, possessed the league's finest defense and they became the consensus Super Bowl choice as soon as Tarkenton returned from his five-year sabbatical in New York, guaranteed to juice up the attack. In the preceding three years, when Minnesota went 35-7, winning a division title every season, the niggling flaw had become the offense, which scored points more after the fashion of field hockey than football. Last year, for example, the Vikes' highest single-game total was 29 points (against the Lions, of course), and they exceeded 20 points only five times in 15 games. From Joe Kapp & Co. in 1969 (which lost the Super Bowl), Minnesota's season scoring total had diminished from 379 to 245 last year—a trend that Tarkenton and narrower hash marks have indeed reversed. Coming into Sunday's game, Minnesota was 58 points ahead of its 1971 eight-game total, and had even broken 30 in two games.
So with the super, non-resilient defense and with Tarkenton's task eased by the astute trade that brought Gilliam and draft choices to the club for Gary Cuozzo, the fans' great expectations seemed nothing more than logical. They also were nothing less than outraged when the Vikings proceeded to lose four of their first six games by a total of 10 points. To make things all the more galling, Minnesota lost in the same vexing ways that its rivals used to. Where once the Vikings had muscled, cowed and manhandled their opposition into critical mistakes, Minnesota this time was too often the bumbling victim.
Against Washington, Minnesota suffered a blocked punt and lost a fumble inside the 20-yard line—two gaffes that accounted for two Redskin touchdowns and a 24-21 defeat. Against Miami, Tarkenton uncustomarily threw three interceptions (he has but six for the season) and the defense leaked a touchdown pass in the last 90 seconds to let Miami win 16-14. One week later Cuozzo socked it to his old mates in the same way, with a late touchdown pass that gave St. Louis, of all teams, a 19-17 upset. Cox personally bore the onus for two of the defeats when he missed easy field goals in the closing seconds.
All of this accounted for considerable antsyness among the baffled Minnesota folk who planned to leave their native tundra for Los Angeles in mid-January, and suddenly for every Super Bowl reservation there was now a what's-really-wrong reason. Coach Bud Grant, however, buys no suggestion that the Vikings of '72 are playing any worse or without the stellar fire of happier seasons.
"Nothing's been the matter," he said in his office last week. "It's only a problem if you lose by three or four touchdowns, not by 10 total points. Over the years we've been involved in a lot of close games and we've won most of them—so much so that they call us a bunch of lucky S.O.B.s. Detroit has done that especially. This year we've been in five extremely close games and lost four of them. If you're going to win you have to have good fortune along with everything else."
Outside critics have found more substantial deficiencies, however. The most common rap is that age has caught up with the vaunted defensive line of Carl Eller, Gary Larsen, Alan Page and Jim Marshall—the notorious "purple people eaters." Evidence for this charge is that Minnesota had nailed opposing quarterbacks but seven times and that the team had allowed 121 points through its first eight games this season as compared to 72 points a year ago. Someone also said, presumably seriously, that the Vikings were plagued by "over-experience."
"Everyone looks for a reason," Grant sighed, "a profound reason, and there is none. I think if you took all the statistics, we may even be playing better defense this season than we ever have before. We're No. 1 in defense in the conference so I don't know how we could be any better.
"We're also playing teams with very mobile quarterbacks," he said. "We play Landry twice, Douglass twice, Hunter—who can be a runner if he has to—twice and we've played Manning. We get Bradshaw in a couple more weeks. You go in on these active quarterbacks and they're going to get out of the pocket and move around. People wonder why we don't get to the quarterback more. In our division, the quarterback would just as soon run as throw anyhow; consequently, you're not going to catch them as often."
For the record, the famous front four now ages in at a 31-year average and Marshall, the granddaddy of the bunch at 34, denies that the group has lost any of the old lust for burying quarterbacks. "I never thought we lost anything," he said after a defensive team meeting Friday. "It's just that we haven't won the close ones. Back when we were winning the close ones, it was a tight situation but nobody thought we were in trouble."
If the Viking losses demand simple explanation, the best one would seem to be the balance of mediocrity which now prevails throughout the NFL. The effects of six common drafts have worked to bring almost every team down to a lower level and make consistency a sometime thing. It is quite possible that the Vikings' NFC Central Division, along with one or two others, may crown a champion with an 8-6 record.
Even with a difficult schedule still ahead—Los Angeles and Pittsburgh on the road next—that kind of limited success remained in view for the Vikings, so that they could stay in jovial spirits last week despite their record and weather even more wretched. The Twin Cities' sky, unblessed by sunshine for two weeks, seemed to be drizzling the remnants of a frozen daiquiri on everyone, including a murder suspect who escaped from the Minneapolis police earlier in the week, but the Vikes, as is their traditional wont, performed their chores impervious to the elements.
Their non-plussed behavior included one 15-second fistfight between Linebacker Carl Gersbach and Offensive Guard Ed White, a no-decision draw that drew respective cheering from members of the offense and defense. Hope still blooms at .500 now in the NFL.
"I think we're coming around real good," said Running Back Bill Brown. "It just took us a while. I guess it's better to build up toward the end of the season rather than hitting it right away and then tailing off."