The romance lingers on in the National Football League that the NFC Central is still the black and blue division, which is what it used to call itself because of defense and blizzards and growling coaches, or something like that. And when a thing occurs like Green Bay upsetting the Minnesota Vikings there in the mobile-home community known as Metropolitan Stadium last Sunday, it helps the myth continue. But the fact is that the Vikings probably could suit up a few interior decorators in these final four weeks of the regular pro football season and still plod into the playoffs again, even if Fran Tarkenton has those occasional days when he can't seem to get himself or his pals untracked, and one hears again the cries that used to come down out of Yankee Stadium, in one of Tarkenton's other lives: "That a way to hold 'em, Fran."
As the loyal Viking rooters trudged back to the hundreds of buses and trailers in the parking lot to complete their elaborate cocktail-cookout dansants last week, shrugging off the 19-7 loss to the Packers, they could gaze down the road and feel no serious cause for concern. Minnesota is still 7-3, Green Bay and Detroit are 5-5, Chicago is simply nowhere, and the future schedule is not that fierce. So why shouldn't Bud Grant's team have itself a letdown? Only a few days earlier the Vikings had been strung out emotionally as they beat St. Louis on the Monday Night Comedy Hour.
Now Minnesota gets Los Angeles, which is also half dozing through a division race, and perhaps that could be trouble. But the Vikings end the season against New Orleans, Atlanta and the antique Kansas City Chiefs, and the odds are that they can reach the playoffs for the sixth time in the past seven years with only two victories in those four games.
When they do, they will have quite an advantage in the playoffs. The way things look now, both the divisional playoff and league championship games will be played on the natural turf—ice, snow or glaciers—of Metropolitan Stadium. The first playoff game will be staged there if the runner-up team does not come from the West, which seems likely. And if the Vikings win the first one, over St. Louis or whoever, then the NFC title game will also be scheduled on the northern snowscape, in the year-by-year rotation that Pete Rozelle has figured out.
The prospect neither excites nor unnerves the Vikings. Whether they are winning or losing, they nonchalant it, acting about as colorful as an International Harvester brochure. Bud Grant tends to say the same things: "Everybody is a professional and any team can beat anybody...I don't look at the standings...I don't evaluate my players for the press...Write what you want to...We have some nagging injuries...."
Equally casual is Tarkenton. In a turtleneck with a black-cherry soda in his hand, he leaned against a locker after the Green Bay game and said ho-hum, so what, he didn't know if Minnesota was as good as last year's Super Bowl team, he didn't know if he was any better a quarterback, he didn't know anything except you win some and you lose some.
Fine, guys. For the next commercial, how about the importance of NoDoz as it applies to the NFC Central?
What actually happened against the Packers, who are not so bad now, with John Brockington healthy and John Hadl at quarterback, is that the Vikings, a hitting team, chose not to hit so often. Green Bay had the football considerably longer throughout the day than Minnesota anticipated. Always, it seemed that Hadl and Brockington were moving toward the Vikings' goal, and frequently close enough for Chester Marcol to try a three-point placement. As the afternoon wore on, Marcol slowly put the Packers up by 12 points on four field goals of six attempted. After three quarters it was slightly astonishing to contemplate that Minnesota had been in Green Bay territory only twice and no farther than the Packers' 29-yard line.
There were times, of course, when the Vikings' defense rose up and became the Purple Packer Eaters. That would be when the Alan Pages and Jim Marshalls and Carl Ellers would stop the Packers and limit them to the field goals. Three times they kept Hadl and Brockington out of the end zone when Dan Devine's team had first downs inside the 10.
This kept the possibility alive that Tarkenton could still win the game, even when the Vikings trailed 12-0 with less than six minutes remaining. Such a result would create a serious problem for poor Devine, a man who certainly has had his problems at Green Bay. Dogs bark at him and fans curse his family because he isn't Vince Lombardi. Rumors circulate that Bart Starr will be the next Packer coach. You could sense that De-vine's hate mail was going to pile up even higher when Tarkenton pitched a nifty touchdown pass to Chuck Foreman and brought the Vikings up to 12-7 with plenty of time still left. Having dominated all day, Green Bay—and that devil De-vine—would blow it for sure.
What then occurred was typical of what can happen to a team that is not there mentally, and had not been the whole of Sunday. The Vikings kicked off and after two plays the old defense held Brockington to three yards. It was third and seven on the Packer 32. The Vikings would hold Green Bay, get good field position after the punt, and with four minutes left Tarkenton would pass for his 36,000,000th yard and his 3,000th touchdown, and even on a bad day Minnesota would send everyone back to the mobile homes with a 14-12 victory.
Not quite. John Hadl dropped back and stung the Vikings harshly. He flipped a pass over the middle to MacArthur Lane, who had found the Vikings' Paul Krause looking somewhere else. Suddenly Lane was behind everybody and he wasn't about to be caught. He ran the rest of the 68 yards in a happy gallop. Crossing the goal line, he provided the grandest excitement of the day. He pitched the ball into the air, stumbled, went crashing into the centerfield fence and, momentarily, looked dead. He wasn't. Minnesota was. For the day, at least.
While this is the same Viking team as last year's in personality, it is not the same team physically. In his quiet way Grant has sought to make it younger. For instance, Jim Lash has replaced Carroll Dale at wide receiver, Charles Goodrum is in there ahead of Grady Alderman at offensive left tackle, Ed White has moved to right guard for Frank Gallagher, Andy Maurer has come from the Falcons to take over for Milt Sunde at left guard, Doug Sutherland is in the front offensive four ahead of Gary Larsen, and injuries have created three other changes. Jeff Wright moved to the right corner for Bobby Bryant, which put Terry Brown at strong safety for Jeff Wright, and Matt Blair, a rookie, is playing left linebacker for Roy Winston. And whether Dave Os-born or Oscar Reed is the fullback does not much matter because Minnesota's offense largely consists of Tarkenton tossing to John Gilliam, and Chuck Foreman wiggling to get outside.
As you try to evaluate the Vikings in terms of how strong—or weak—they really are, you find first of all that the black and blue division is more the color of pink champagne. Grant has dominated it since Lombardi retired at Green Bay. The Vikings' record over Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago since the beginning of 1968 is an imposing 34-8. Coaches have come and gone at those other places while Grant has continued to win, go duck hunting and, according to Public Relations Director Merrill Swanson, display his hidden sense of humor around the office by doing such wildly hilarious things as putting a salamander in his secretary's desk drawer, and on April Fool's Day removing all the chairs from the office in the dead of night so no one would have a place to sit when they came to work.
For all of the obvious weakness of the NFC Central, however, Minnesota has lost this year to Green Bay and Detroit, and was also beaten by New England. Only the win over St. Louis shows the Vikings to be a good football team. Their other victories were over the disappointing and underdeveloped. So once again, how good are they, exactly?
"Oh, I don't know," said Tarkenton. "How good you are, or how good you have to be, depends on who you're playing that day."
If that translates into no answer at all, it fits in with the overall temperament of the Minnesota team. It is the way Grant wants it to be.
"You have to keep a team going along evenly each week," he says. "We don't want ourselves to go leaping out of the stadium one week, and then falling flat on our face the next. We want our people to be professionals, get their paychecks and do their jobs."
The Vikings' job is to win several more times than they lose, certainly enough to muddle through their division. In today's pro game, Grant believes, no team should ever be better than 11-3 after the regular season. Statistically, Grant has determined that 11-3 is the closest thing to excellence there is. That's why the loss to Green Bay did not disturb him. And did not disturb any other Viking, not noticeably.
Grant once described himself as "no different from the guy who runs a McDonald's hamburger stand." He said it with sly humor and pride. Last week the Vikings played like hamburgermen. But those weren't the real Vikings. Except with their one-liners.