Before departing for Super Bowl XI, pro football writers Dan Jenkins and Robert F. Jones debated the merits of Minnesota and Oakland. Dan gave Bob 15 reasons why, as he put it, "I prefer the Vikings over Don Corleone's godchildren." Bob didn't agree with any of them. "I'm picking the Raiders-over Frosty the Snowman," he said. "And it's obvious why Daniel is so flippant. When you're backing the wrong bulldog, you'd better start grinning as soon as you can. That way it doesn't smart so bad when you get whupped."
Dan: Minneapolis has the best airport in the NFL for renting a car or turning one in. It has clean air, a low crime rate, it rarely ever snows inside the restaurants and bars, a lot of the girls look like they stole their hair from Farrah Fawcett and it's three hours closer to New York.
In general, the National Conference has classier towns. Oakland is across the bridge from room service. I think it's on loan from Cincinnati.
January 10, 1977
Bob: Oakland may not be much for airports and chi-chi beaneries, but it's a tough town—about the only burg left in California where you can actually tell the men from the women. I like the atmosphere, a brawny mix of rust and salt and spiked beer. You can still smell the blood of the dead sea otters when you walk the fog in Jack London Square. In an Oakland bar you talk warily. The guy glowering over his boilermaker might be the illegitimate grandson of Wolf Larsen. Minneapolis, by contrast, is full of androgynes and repertory theaters. I think it even has a symphony orchestra. Some football town.
Dan: The Vikings wear elegant purple, which is infinitely more photographable. Oakland wears pollution. Black and gray.
Bob: That "elegant purple" the Vikings wear isn't all uniform. Most Minnesotans acquire the hue early in November and remain so until the ice goes out on Memorial Day. The Raider black-and-silver suits may not be as pretty, but on their receivers they're the stickiest uniforms in the league. Rumor has it they're woven from flypaper. If Freddy Biletnikoff ever crashes into the end-zone fence, it will take at least half the Raider bench to pluck him off.
Dan: Bud Grant looks cold and mysterious. John Madden looks like everybody you ever saw on Bowling For Dollars.
Bob: Bud Grant is a fine man, one of my favorite people in any sport, but Johnny Madden has a lot going for him, too. Like an 85-22-7 record, a 79.4 winning percentage—the best ever.
Dan: I don't know who owns the Vikings, unless it's Max McGee at The Left Guard in Bloomington or the barmaids at Duffs downtown. It doesn't matter that much anyway. I'm just tired of Howard telling me what a genius Oakland's Al Davis is.
On second thought, I think the guys who officiated the New England game own Oakland now.
Bob: I know who owns the Vikings (Max Winter, a nice old gent), but Al Davis he ain't. Davis may not be a genius, but he's street smart and tough, a Brooklyn kid gone West but uncorrupted by the endemic California softness. In short, a winner.
Dan: I have to root for a guy who never had any receivers until this year, Francis Tarkenton, over a guy the TV people keep telling me is the best "pure passer" they have ever seen. They've forgotten Sam Baugh. And, anyhow, how many of Kenny Stabler's passes would have counted if the zebras had called as many holding penalties on Art Shell as they should have?
It's true that Stabler may mutilate the Vikings if the zebras give him the time he's used to, which is time enough to file his nails and wait for Clifford Branch and Biletnikoff to jog to Sausalito and back.
However, if things are equal, Tarkenton has seen it all and he's more accustomed to situations not being perfect. Also, Francis has a greater variety of receivers who will be in a greater variety of places.
You almost have to think Tarkenton deserves to win a Super Bowl to give broader meaning to all those records he's earned. Meanwhile, what does it prove if Stabler wins one? That a left-handed guy with a beard is acceptable in American society?
Bob: As a southpaw myself, and an amateur herpetologist, I have to go with the Snake. Stabler has matured over his seven years in the pros and is the game's best passer. This year he completed two of every three passes he tried. He can throw the ball any way the situation demands—hard enough to crack ribs at 40 yards, or light as a snowflake at 15. Overhand, sidearm or underhand. Zebras notwithstanding. Stabler has the best offensive line in front of him since Joe Namath's "Mother Hens." Against Pittsburgh, Stabler's line allowed only one sack, and on running plays it slammed the Steel Curtain back two yards on every pop.
Tarkenton is hurting. You can see it in the way he pushes the ball. His long passes take twice as long as Stabler's to reach the mark. Those bruised ribs earlier this year and the knee injured in the Washington game—age and pain are creeping up on Sir Francis. The Vikings may yet leave Pasadena in a zebra-striped hearse, but more likely they'll be bombed out of the Rose Bowl by Snakey aerials.
Dan: No team has ever won the Super Bowl game without a superb—some say great—runner. Minnesota has Chuck Foreman. He should be this game's Franco, Csonka or Duane. Oakland has Mark van Somebody, but at least the Raiders won't have their designated fumbler, Marv Hubbard.
Foreman, who is among the three or four top running backs in the NFL, might be the overall difference. We shall see if Oakland has forgotten how to defend simultaneously against the run and the pass.
Bob: Foreman is great. Mark van Eeghen and Clarence Davis, Pete Banaszak and Carl Garrett are solid journeymen. There are four of them on the Raiders' side, with a total of 2,118 yards among them. Foreman gained 1,155. It's not one of your All-Pro backfields like Miami used to have and Pittsburgh still does, but the Raider running game keeps the other guys honest. With Stabler calling the signals that's enough.
Dan: Everybody knows that Branch, Biletnikoff and Dave Casper all can catch hummingbirds between their thumbs and forefingers. But if I had to pick two men off both squads, I'd take two Vikings—Sammie White, for what he can run under, and Chuck Foreman, for what he can do after he catches the football.
Bob: Branch, Biletnikoff and Casper. Who could ask for anything more? In a footrace between Branch and White, Clifford would be out of the shower and heading home for a backgammon game with his wife before White hit the finish line. And no one outside of a glue factory can glom the ball like Biletnikoff. When Stabler began the winning drive against New England, the Patriots knew that Biletnikoff would be the key. Still, they were helpless. If the B-Boys are double-zoned, Casper is out there, clear, in the middle. Unstoppable.
Dan: Minnesota's crafty veterans sag and bend but never collapse. They make things happen and have a habit of turning up in the right places. Jeff Siemon and Alan Page are the class defenders of both teams, and they happen to play for Minnesota.
Oakland has George Atkinson. Football's a tough game but one of Atkinson's specialties seems to be hitting a lick when nobody's looking, including the six officials.
But I wouldn't kick him out of the sport. Then we wouldn't have the pleasure of looking forward to the day he gets his right forearm caught in someone's teeth.
Bob: Pat Haden, the Los Angeles rookie who has maybe a tenth of Stabler's skills, gained 161 yards through the air against Minnesota. What will the Snake do? The Purple People Eaters have about worn their teeth down to the gum line over the years. Lovable old geezers, all, but slowing down. It's hard to love the likes of an Atkinson or a Jack Tatum or a Phil Villapiano, but this game isn't played for love. The Raider defense adheres to an old Spartan dictum: the only time stealing is wrong is when you get caught. Violent, fast, and mean, the Raiders have a way of winning. And as the Patriots learned, they rarely get caught in the act.
Dan: I don't think Nate Allen can block a Ray Guy punt unless he rents a helicopter. But Allen will worry the Raiders on all of their punts and placekicks. and Oakland doesn't have anyone who will. Neil Clabo is not as good a punter as Guy, but he's plenty good enough, among the league's best. As for placekickers, I would trade both Fred Cox and Errol Mann for a cup of soup out of a vending machine. There isn't any distance Cox and Mann can't miss from. What it comes down to is, the special teams shouldn't decide this game—unless Nate Allen does.
Bob: Minnesota has blocked 15 kicks so far this season, Oakland only 4. But the Raider special teams are confident that Stabler and the offense can move the ball, so they play a more conservative game. The Vikes won't block any of Guy's punts. Mann is no Cox as a placekicker, I'll admit that, but he gets them through when he has to. And if you think the Raider secondary is mean, well, they're pussycats beside the Oakland kick-coverage unit.
Dan: One of the chokers has to win. Then there will be only one choker left. But there's something extra in it for the Vikings. Bud Grant says he will buy his team hand warmers if they ever win a Super Bowl.
Bob: If the Raiders win. Al Davis has promised to pay all their future bail bonds.
Dan: The Vikings have gone to three previous Super Bowls and crawled into their conservative act. And lost. Grant kept them down, treating the Super Bowl like any other game. It isn't. Now the Vikings say they have spirit. They played what they called "crazy" against the Rams. They intend to be "crazy men" in Pasadena. That's good. At least it will look like they're trying.
Bob: The Raiders don't have to get "crazy" for a big game. In fact, they don't even know what the word means. For them it's the normal condition.
Dan: I'm amused at how each team got to Pasadena. The officials stole the New England game for Oakland, and then the Raiders got to face Pittsburgh without Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, which was like beating Wake Forest. Minnesota's offense and defense ought to be well-rested, too, because the Vikings didn't have to play the Cardinals or the Cowboys, who could have generated enough offense to make Minnesota work for it.
Bob: Like anyone who saw the replays, I, too, felt that the officials handed the Patriots to Oakland on a silver platter. And the absence of Harris and Bleier definitely weakened Pittsburgh a week later. But Oakland erased any doubts about worthiness in the Steeler game. The Raiders would've won, that day at least, even if Harris and Bleier had played. On the other hand, Minnesota must realize that the Rams did themselves in. So far the playoffs have only shored up Raider confidence while introducing a worm of doubt into Viking minds.
Dan: The key to the game is whether the zebras call holding on Oakland. Last year we hear there was a mutual agreement, worked out by either Pittsburgh and Dallas or the NFL and CBS, or all of them, not to have any holding calls—and there weren't any. The idea was to have a good game. If a zebra doesn't decide this game, it will be the first one all season.
Bob: Holding is the name of the line game in the NFL, and whether the officials call it or not is beside the point. It's true that the Raider offensive linemen were all born with four arms—two of them invisible—but then again every Vike lineman has 20 fingers. I must agree, though, that a low-flag game would be refreshing after the horrors of this season. Let's all pray that the insurance salesmen, used-car dealers and dentists who don striped shirts each Sunday will keep their hankies on their hips for a change.
Dan: A Minnesota victory would mean the most to me personally. The Vikings might have their press box enlarged as a result, and I would therefore be able to stand up and turn around without spilling coffee on the Minneapolis Tribune.
Bob: For me an Oakland victory would be the sweetest. Al Davis might cough up enough to put windows on his upper-deck press box and keep out those chilling Jack London ghosts that weasel in once the sun is over the yardarm. And, who knows, he might even spend some money to have the lower press box converted from a gloomy sepulcher into A something remotely cheery.
Dan: If Oakland wins, crime pays.
Bob: If Minnesota wins, Bud Grant will become famous. He won't be the Bad Grunt we all know and respect. He'll smile a lot. And maybe he'll be too famous to invite me to go fly fishing with him again next summer. That was the nicest day I've had all season.