The Los Angeles Rams found a new way to stay out of the Super Bowl last Sunday: they committed suicide on the Minnesota tundra. Early in the NFC championship game the Rams allowed the Vikings to score 10 points despite gaining zero yards, and the Rams never recovered. The result was a 24-13 Minnesota victory without any appreciable heroics from Fran Tarkenton and none at all from Sammie White, the rookie receiver who usually wins games for the Vikings by gathering in bushels of Tarkenton passes. Actually, the Vikings won it with their finely developed art of kick blocking. One might even say, "Led by the Rams' Tom Dempsey and Rusty Jackson, the Minnesota Vikings traveled 1,600 miles to Pasadena last week." But Nate Allen's name ought to be in there somewhere, too.
Allen is the Viking gnat who habitually flutters into the way of opposing placekickers and makes the football ricochet someplace other than between the goalposts. He did it two or three times during the regular season (depending on whether you accept the official or the unofficial statistics). And he did it again out there Sunday in front of 47,191 delirious sleeping bags in 12° Metropolitan Stadium. This one was the biggest kick block of his life.
The scoring in pro football games generally features spiraling passes from quarterbacks like Tarkenton to smooth-gaited receivers like White, but Allen won the game over the Rams as surely as Bud Grant is a duck hunter. He did it just when the Vikings were reeling back on their own one-inch line in the first quarter, shoved up against their funny old end-zone bleachers by the Rams. After a 54-yard drive, the visitors were lined up and ready to get at least three points for their efforts.
Suddenly, it wasn't a Los Angeles field goal at all, it was a 7-0 Minnesota lead. The center's snap to the Ram holder, Steve Preece, was true enough, and Tom Dempsey's leg did reach the ball. The thing was, Dempsey's leg got there at the same time as a purple-shirted blaze wearing No. 25.
From the Rams' point of view, it wasn't so terrible that Allen blocked Dempsey's attempt. The Cowboys had blocked a couple of boots against Los Angeles the week before and no absolute catastrophes occurred. It was what happened to the ball after Allen blocked it that was so terrible. What happened was that Allen deflected a bounce pass over to Bobby Bryant on a fast break. Bryant, who lived near the football throughout the afternoon, was fortunate enough to have the ball careen directly into his hands at the 10-yard line, whereupon he set out on a 90-yard journey for the Viking touchdown that changed the whole day.
"It's my job not to rush the kicker but head off to the side and wait for just that kind of a bounce in case it's blocked," Bryant said. "It had never worked quite that well before."
Enter now the old study of game films, which is what assistant coaches do in their spare time. The Viking staff had noticed something in poring over Ram films. In the language of pro football, a "wing man" is a blocker who is supposed to protect a placekicker against the rush from the outside. The Rams' wing man in this case was Jim Youngblood, who normally is paid to be a linebacker.
Listen to Nate Allen. "We noticed in the films that Youngblood was setting up too deep to the inside, almost behind his end," he said. "In that position, it seemed to us that he couldn't protect against both Wally Hilgenberg and me. Hilgenberg got good penetration to the inside and I was never touched."
Dempsey's kick struck Allen in the chest and bounded over to where Bryant had been waiting for perhaps all of the eight years he has played for the Vikings. After that, the next 90 yards were a breeze. To complete Bryant's joyous afternoon, he intercepted two of Ram Quarterback Pat Haden's passes.
Allen's very presence no doubt also had something to do with further misfortune that befell the Rams in the second quarter. This time L.A.'s rookie punter, Rusty Jackson, handled a good snap near his goal line as if it were a steaming platter of cookies, his mind almost certainly being more than a little concerned with whether one of his teammates was going to remember to get in Allen's way. Jackson dropped the ball, then picked it up just in time to boot it into the hip of the Vikings' Matt Blair. The blocked punt gave Minnesota the football at the Los Angeles eight. That the Vikings could get only three points—on a Fred Cox field goal—was the first real indication that this wasn't going to be one of Tarkenton's better days. Then again, it didn't have to be.
Although Minnesota still led 10-0 at halftime, the Rams had proved they could move the ball, mainly on the running of Lawrence McCutcheon and John Cappelletti, while the Vikings had pretty much proved they couldn't—except when they were blocking kicks. So the Rams had a right to think they might still get to the Super Bowl if the breaks ever started coming their way. Trouble was, before they had much of a chance to try out their theory, Minnesota got a brilliant 62-yard run out of Chuck Foreman—his longest of the season—on the second play of the third period.
It seemed to be a harmless situation: second down and seven for Minnesota on its 36. Run formation. Handoff to Foreman, who hadn't gained enough yardage in the first half to make the Rams nervous. But when Foreman suddenly stepped through the L.A. line, there was no one there. Maybe he slid past one guy. And now he was running like Bryant. Rod Perry got Foreman with a driving swipe at the two-yard line, but two plays later he went over for the touchdown.
Foreman's long-distance run was set up by another one of those intricacies of pro football—the audible. Everybody knows what an audible is: the quarterback changes the play at the line of scrimmage. In this situation, though, Tarkenton not only changed the play, he did something far more sophisticated. He audibilized different blocking assignments. The Rams had overshifted and the wily Tarkenton had caught the shift in time to order cross-blocking. When Foreman cut between his right guard and tackle, not outside tackle as originally planned, the blocks sprung him for the 62 yards and left the Rams dangling in their self-constructed noose.
It was to the credit of the Rams that they came back. Haden, the Rhodes scholar rookie, did a bit of scurrying around until he could find open receivers, and he drove his team 80 yards to a touchdown that narrowed the score to 17-6. Naturally, Dempsey missed the extra point, his ninth miss of the year. Then a big play by the L.A. defense quieted the stadium. Fred Dryer and Jack Youngblood, the Ram defensive ends, combined on their own style of fast break to get the football away from Tarkenton and set up an L.A. touchdown. Dryer hit Fran as he was back to pass, jolting the ball loose, and Youngblood grabbed the fumble and ran it 10 yards to the Minnesota eight. Haden lobbed a pass to Harold Jackson for the six points, and Dempsey converted, for a change. It was 17-13 with about 16 minutes left to play.
The Rams never came any closer. They got the football three more times, and Haden filled the cold air with desperate passes, but the closest they could get was the Minnesota 33. Once, on a fourth down, Haden unloaded a long one to Ron Jessie, who appeared to be open. But Bryant drifted over to jump up in front of Jessie and intercept the pass on his eight.
Near the end the Vikings got another big play from Foreman, who took a short wobbler from Tarkenton and ran past a squadron of L.A. defenders for a gain of 57 yards to the L.A. 12. This set up Sammy Johnson's 12-yard touchdown run with 33 seconds to play. Later, Tarkenton confessed that Foreman was his fourth receiver on the play. Foreman's darting and dancing were wondrous to behold, but had little to do with the outcome. Minnesota—zero for three in the Super Bowl—was already en route to Pasadena. Against Oakland, the Vikings will have to be better than they were against the self-destructive Rams—or at least as lucky.