It will give little joy to those who groove over touchdowns and even less to their NFL rivals, but the Minnesota Vikings have regained their status as Super Bowl contenders.
That much was evident last Sunday at Bloomington, Minn. where the Vikes, unleashing a concussion-style defense, parlayed a chiropractor's foot with a one-legged rookie and the dance patterns of Fran Tarkenton (see cover) into an 11-3 victory over the Green Bay Packers.
While the Black and Blue Division considers the touchdown on the endangered species list, the hirelings of Bud Grant and Dan Devine seemed bent on extirpation. All the scoring was accounted for by field goals and a safety.
Minnesota's third straight win might have been tougher if Devine had been able to use a quarterback. As it was, the Packer coach held off naming his starting signal caller until half an hour before kickoff, when he refuted Grant's prediction of Scott Hunter by picking Jim Del Gaizo, whom the Pack acquired in a trade with Miami a month ago.
Whether Devine was indulging in gamesmanship or not, it was the wrong decision. Del Gaizo proceeded to throw the ball like a sore-armed Bella Abzug, completing but four of 14 passes before Hunter relieved him in the fourth quarter—and ruined a 44-yard march by tossing an end-zone interception. By that time Fred Cox, who moonlights two days a week as a chiropractor, had kicked his third field goal to extend the Vikes' oddball leads of 5-3 at the half and 8-3 at three quarters, and Minnesota was one of the four unbeaten teams left in the NFL.
Del Gaizo notwithstanding, the Vikings were clearly superior to the Pack, thanks to Chuck Foreman, a 6'2", 216-pound rookie running back from the University of Miami, who may be the best draft choice of 1973. Foreman took a helmet shot on his left thigh on his first carry, and while he shrugged it off, he said later, "I just wasn't myself today. When I got in the open, I couldn't maneuver. I was playing on one leg."
For a back with a bum wheel, Foreman rolled spectacularly, leading all ballcarriers with 89 yards on 16 carries and all pass receivers with 62 yards on five receptions. Foreman has 4.5 speed for the 40 and he jukes would-be tacklers with nifty moves, all of which, to the consternation of Grant, has caused writers and other low types to wax poetic about a new dimension in the Viking offense.
"He hasn't played a lot," Grant said earlier in the week. "You're talking on the come. Let the guy do something first. One game doesn't make a whole season."
Tarkenton disagrees with his boss about Foreman. "I think we're a better team this year for three reasons," he says. "One is we're healthier. Two, we've got Chuck Foreman and three, we've been able to play the second half, and especially the fourth quarter, the way you have to. Foreman is a back with 1,000-yard capability. I've only played with one of them. That was Ron Johnson at New York, and I know what he did for our offense there even when the defense knew what he was going to try."
Indeed, against the Packers Foreman veered off right tackle in the fourth quarter, burst through a hole that might have accommodated Mickey Rooney and fled 37 yards before he was caught. "If my leg hadn't bothered me, we might have opened it up there," he said later. Even so, the play was the biggest one in the drive that positioned Cox for his final 14-yard field goal.
Foreman's impressive pass catching may stem from the fact that he played as a wide receiver in college last season. "When I was younger," he says, "I played tight end and defensive lineman, so my idols weren't running backs but guys like Alex Karras and John Mackey. This will only be my second full year as a running back and I have a lot to learn."
It should also bode well for the Vikings that Tarkenton, who began his career with the club, is now in his second season after five years with the Giants and has learned a lot. Some Minnesota fans blamed Francis for the team's 7-7 record last year, since he had returned to the kind of expectations usually reserved for the Messiah but, in fact, he was very nearly peerless. He passed for 18 touchdowns and 2,651 yards and was the third-ranked quarterback in the league.
"Whoever put the tag 'scrambler' on him did him a disservice because basically he's not a scrambler," says Grant in his defense. "He's got quick feet and he can roll out and move around, but those are designed things to change the pass rush and confuse the coverages. He buys some time by moving. He'll step outside the pocket for a better view, but no sideline-to-sideline stuff anymore."
"I like to think I'm playing differently," Tarkenton says. "I can't say my style has changed that much, but I hope I'm playing better after 12 years in the pros. The game has changed a lot. You see a more mobile quarterback today; 12 years ago, if a team had one great pass rusher, that was all they had. Now everybody's got four. Everybody's got big, mobile, agile people who can run. If you always throw from a seven-yard pocket, it makes their job easier."
"When you face Tarkenton," Green Bay Defensive Tackle Mike McCoy said on Saturday, "you don't get too much sleep the night before the game. He puts a lot of pressure on you with all that dancing and moving. It's especially tough on the defensive ends because they have to rush wide, and if the cornerbacks don't hold their coverages right up to the last second, he can hit the open man. He isn't very tall, you know, and I don't think he could stay in the pocket all the time if he wanted to, but if he gets outside your ends, then you're in real trouble."
Green Bay did a creditable job of containing Tarkenton, although he did run twice for 16 yards. In contrast to the usual formula for winning in the NFC Central, Minnesota mistakes outnumbered those of the Pack. The most horrendous was John Gilliam's drop of a touchdown pass from Tarkenton, who completed 12 of 16 for 109 yards.
"Tarkenton," Devine said, "is like rare wine. He gets better with age."
The same could be said of the Viking defense, which limited John Brockington and MacArthur Lane to 94 yards rushing. In its first two games Minnesota had allowed both Oakland and Chicago 200 yards on the ground.
"Forget how many yards they've yielded," Devine said before the game. "The defense has given up only one touchdown. The statistics don't tell you anything about Minnesota's defense until you try to score from the one-yard line."
Unfortunately for Devine, the Packers never got that close against the awesome line play of Alan Page, who has recovered from the pulled calf muscle that slowed him a year ago. Green Bay's deepest penetration, to the Minnesota 27-yard line, fizzled in one of the two field goals missed by Chester Marcol; he booted a 42-yarder for the Pack's only score.
"There was no artistry in this game," Grant said in the locker room. "It was just a couple of heavyweights slugging it out. I don't even know where the tide turned for us along the way."
One thing is certain: the tide has turned for Minnesota.