In a win over the New York Giants earlier this year, Minnesota Cornerback Nate Allen caught a blocked punt and ran for a touchdown. In his excitement, though, Allen committed a cardinal sin for a Bud Grant-coached player. He spiked the football.
Allen smiles thinly now when he discusses the—ahem—incident. "All of a sudden everything went hush," he says. "At our next meeting Coach Grant got on my case. He said, 'Everybody has a chance, one chance, to spike the ball. Now we all know Nate's a jubilant fellow, but, Nate, you've had your chance.' " Allen pauses. "Chuck Foreman and some of the other guys," he says, "are waiting to spike their ball in the Super Bowl."
Of course, Minnesota first must reach Pasadena. Luckily, the 1976 Vikings, who play the dogged Washington Redskins Saturday on the Minnesota tundra in a game that likely will be won—or lost—by the special teams, are not closely related to the Vikings who lost the 1970, 1974 and 1975 Super Bowl games. Indeed, Grant has added 25 new players to the Vikings' roster during the last two seasons, retaining only the vital cogs: Quarterback Fran Tarkenton, Running Back Chuck Foreman and such linemen as Alan Page, Jim Marshall, Carl Eller and Ron Yary.
Along the way, the Vikings developed a funny offense that is heretical to NFL doctrine. Most teams establish ball control by running the ball all day. Not the Vikings. Tarkenton maintains ball control by keeping it airborne, mixing short flips to Foreman with bombs to Ahmad Rashad and rookie Sammie White. Minnesota threw more passes this season than any team except Seattle. There is a good reason: despite the fact that Foreman rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the second time, the Vikings don't have a consistent running game. And with Tarkenton, the pass is as safe as the run. He had the lowest interception rate (1.9%) in the NFC this year.
Washington was supposed to have the most bruising running attack in the league this season, but free agents John Riggins and Calvin Hill combined for only 873 yards—about 2,000 yards short of what Coach George Allen expected when he spent more than $1.5 million to sign them. The Redskins' best runner was Mike Thomas, the lowly paid—at least by his teammates' standards—but superb second-year man who gained 1,101 yards. If the Redskins hope to upset Minnesota, they will need strong running from Thomas, Riggins and Hill. The Vikings have a good pass defense and Washington Quarterbacks Billy Kilmer and Joe Theismann lack Tarkenton's accuracy. Minnesota's rushing defense, on the other hand, is just about the worst in the league; Delvin Williams and Wilbur Jackson of the San Francisco 49ers each gained more than 150 yards against it three weeks ago.
For years, Allen's teams have had excellent special units, but the Redskins will meet their match in the Vikings. Blocked extra points preserved Minnesota's one-point victories over Chicago and Detroit, and a blocked field goal saved a 10-10 tie with Los Angeles. In all, the Vikings batted down 13 kicks in 1976.
Nate Allen, acquired from San Francisco in August, blocked the Detroit extra point and the L.A. field goal. A five-year veteran, Allen has been a regular on special teams, but had never blocked a kick until he joined the Vikings.
When Minnesota's opponents line up for a field goal or extra point, the Vikings overload their defense to one side. Allen is the outside man on the overloaded side. This leaves the opposition's outside man, or wingman, with two Vikings to block. Moving from the outside, Allen can get to the ball only if he makes a quick start and encounters no resistance en route. A brush block with an elbow is enough to prevent him from reaching the ball. The wingman, then, has two jobs: he must keep the man inside Allen, Linebacker Wally Hilgenberg, at bay and also get a piece of Allen. Hilgenberg tries to exert enough pressure to the inside to keep the wingman from touching Allen on his outside rush. Hilgenberg succeeded against the Lions and the Rams, and Allen had his blocked kicks.
The Vikings also have great success blocking kicks in the middle of their line. The strategy there is a little different. The big men up front, like Page and Eller, try to force as much penetration as possible, and 6'5" Linebacker Matt Blair, who can leap high enough to touch the top of a basketball backboard, vaults off the ground and tries to bat down the kick, like Bill Walton rejecting a jump shot. Page blocked three conversions and two field goals this year, while Blair stopped two conversions, including the decisive kick in the game against the Bears.
Washington's special teams feature punt-and-kick-returner Eddie Brown, a Cleveland Browns' reject who led the NFL with a 13.5-yard return average for 48 punts, and kick-blocker Bill Malinchak. Malinchak was cut by the Redskins before the 1975 season and went to work as a stockbroker in Washington. Looking for some inspiration, as usual, George Allen re-signed Malinchak in November after the Redskins' 11th game. "He's got at least one more great play left in him," Allen said. Malinchak proved Allen correct last Sunday when he blocked a Danny White punt to give the Redskins the opportunity for an early field goal in their defeat of Dallas.
As most Viking opponents now do, the Redskins no doubt will assign someone with a large body to play opposite the 5'10", 169-pound Nate Allen on kicks. "I get scared sometimes when I see these people." Allen says. "How do you think it feels for a little guy like me, knowing I may get my head knocked off, my legs whipped, my side punched or my chest crunched in." Allen pauses. "Of course, it doesn't hurt when you block a kick," he says. "It feels real good." Just don't spike the ball, Nate.