The Minnesota Stoics and the Los Angeles Flakes brought back the Offense of the 1920s and the comedy of the Bedroom Farce last Sunday. The team from Los Angeles, nominally the Rams, made enough mistakes to allow the Stoics, otherwise known as the Vikings, to win by four or five touchdowns, but since the final score was only 14-10 Minnesota, it may have proved something about the National Conference. The Rams contributed to their defeat by losing three fumbles, throwing two interceptions, holding twice, passing illegally, being offside, getting a personal foul, mishandling a punt, dropping at least two passes and letting Quarterback James Harris get dumped twice in succession—for a total minus of 29 yards—by the five-man rush on their last opportunity to pull the game out. There at the finish, with Carl Eller storming at him, Harris had nowhere to throw the ball but at the rolled-up tarpaulin behind him. We must now wonder whether the Vikings are actually good enough to beat the Punt, Pass and Kick winners, let alone the Pittsburgh Steelers. Oh, well, what can mankind do if God wants to keep testing him with dreary Super Bowls?
Up north last week there was considerable pregame talk about the home-field advantage Minnesota would have. This was when everyone expected the contest to unfold on a gridiron that would look like the tundra around the Alaska pipeline. The Vikings like to psych visitors by saying they enjoy the ice and snow, and they don't use heaters and hand-warmers on the sideline. But as Ram Coach Chuck Knox said, "Weather doesn't block and tackle." None of this turned out to be important because, oddly, it was a sunny 30° on Sunday in Bloomington and, as things go in Minnesota, a good day for golf, tennis, street-corner lecturing or even football. In the end, if the home-field advantage showed up anywhere it was in the officiating.
After all of the afternoon's errors and insanity, two calls against the Rams may have turned the game in favor of the Vikings. The first was against Ram Guard Tom Mack for being illegally in motion when it was second down and one inch to go for a Los Angeles touchdown that would have put the Rams ahead in the third quarter. Mack moved his down hand ever so slightly when he was in a three-point stance and Quarterback James Harris was in the process of calling signals. Alan Page charged across the line, and the officials penalized the Rams five yards.
Two plays later, on third and two, Harris rolled out and threw a pass into the end zone that the Vikings' Jackie Wallace deflected and Wally Hilgenberg intercepted for a touchback. The poor Rams had traveled 98 yards in seven plays and had scored no points. The big gain in that drive was a 73-yard pass play from Harris to Harold Jackson, and it was a whole melodrama in itself. It began with Harris sliding around trying to avoid being tackled, escaping first from Roy Winston and then Eller. He finally found Jackson clear at the Ram 43, and hit him. Jackson ran this way and that. Stop, change direction, run again. Everyone was scattered. Harold steamed toward the left corner of the Minnesota goal, the Vikings' Jeff Wright, with a minimal angle, running for Jackson, New Orleans and his job. Wright managed to push Jackson out of bounds just short of the goal line, and Jeff later said, "If he had cut back, he'd have had me. I was praying he wouldn't."
When Minnesota Coach Bud Grant was asked what he was thinking about during the Jackson pass, catch and run—the game's only burst of excitement—Grant looked stoically into nowhere and said, "I was thinking, gee, I hope we can catch the little fellow."
Mack, who had the unenviable job of trying to block Page, and was once caught holding, was basically infuriated about the motion penalty when the Rams were on the one-inch line.
"I didn't move," he said. "Page made a smart play. What did he have to lose, a half-inch penalty? He just charged across the line and pointed at me."
The other killer penalty against the Rams was just as questionable, and in its own way just as damaging. It was against Fred Dryer, the team's lead flake, and one of the game's quickest and best defensive ends. The situation: score 7-3 Minnesota at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Vikings at the Ram 12, third down and four. Obviously, a passing situation for Fran Tarkenton. He appeared to have enough time, but people were covered and here came Dryer to smack Fran down back on the 20. It was the second time Dryer had got him.
Oops. Hold it. Dryer was called for being offside. One of his problems is that he gets out of his blocks so quickly he sometimes looks as if he is offside when he isn't. In any case, the penalty gave Minnesota a first down at the seven instead of the Vikings having to settle for a field goal. A couple of plays later, from the same one-inch line where the Rams had faltered, Dave Osborn leaped over the stack and got his body above the goal line long enough for it to count before he was clobbered back.
There had been no indication before the game that the Rams would play so badly on a day when the Vikings played just about the way they always do, which is steady and plodding. The Rams were loose and joking it up from their Friday night arrival until game time. They are comprised of a lot of free spirits, with people like Dryer, who mimics his coach and used to live in a van; Lance Rentzel, a best-selling author who often acts as Dryer's master of ceremonies; Linebacker Jack Reynolds, who once sawed his Jeep in half because Tennessee lost a game, thereby earning the nickname of "Hacksaw"; Bill Curry, the president of the NFL Players Association; Harris, a black quarterback; Owner Carroll Rosenbloom, who also owns Warner Brothers; and General Manager Don Klosterman, who talks to his old Super Bowl ring (from the Baltimore days) and says, "I'll take it on line two." Joking, Dryer imitated Chuck Knox, saying, "Ah, it's just a football game. The team that's ahead when it's over'll be the winner. We're just gonna put on that Riddell helmet and that Ram jersey and go out there and get it on."
At one point, about halfway through the second quarter, when it looked as if no team would ever get it on, much less score, and when the Rams were already bumbling the game away, most notably a fumble on first down at the Minnesota 20, the scoreboard flashed a message: VIKINGS WISH RAMS OWNER ROSENBLOOM A SPEEDY RECOVERY.
Rosenbloom had not made the trip. He was in a Beverly Hills hospital after a mild heart attack. However, the unknowing in Metropolitan Stadium might have thought the scoreboard operator was talking about the Ram mistakes.
Los Angeles felt it would outhit Minnesota, and Tarkenton agreed afterward that the Ram defense was the best he had ever faced. Rentzel promised, "We may not win but our defense will make 'em bleed." Tarkenton really beat it only once, with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Jim Lash that opened the scoring. "They took almost everything away from us except some inside traps and the tight end," he said.
What the Rams overlooked is that the Minnesota defense, despite its age, is still a grand one. Eller and Jim Marshall and Winston and Page do not come on the way they once did, not regularly, not throughout the 14-game season. But they can still get up and produce a strong game now and then, and last Sunday's was one of them. The defense did break down in the fourth quarter when Harris hit Jackson with a 44-yard touchdown pass on a picture-book play, bringing the Rams up to 14-10. It had concluded a sudden drive—five plays, 65 yards—and the team that should have been losing by about 35 to 3 was miraculously back in the game with plenty of time left.
But two things kept the Rams out of it in the final nine minutes. When they took over the football in splendid field position, at the Minnesota 45, that was when those old Vikings came after James Harris. In a game of goofs and inches, defense tells, and in this instance Eller and Marshall—assisted by Bob Lurtsema and Doug Southerland—were younger and more relentless than ever and the Rams had to give up the ball.
With 5:37 left in the game Los Angeles was never to see it again. Minnesota kept it, though not necessarily on account of superior capability. The Rams had a few blunders left. Viking Running Back Chuck Foreman, for example, fumbled the ball forward about a mile and a half, and while several Rams should have had it, it wound up underneath Viking Lineman Charles Goodrum for a 21-yard gain. Typical of the day. Typical of the two teams. And, typically, the way to lose the Super Bowl.