The Vikings are so incredibly veteran," said the Los Angeles Rams' incredibly baby-faced Pat Haden. This was a few days before the playoff game with Minnesota, and the awe expressed by the Ram quarterback seemed to be shared by most of his teammates. Over the years the Rams had lost four straight to the Vikings in the playoffs and certainly they were right to be concerned about Fran Tarkenton, the 38-year-old Viking sorcerer who had just finished setting an NFL season record for most passes thrown and completed. True, Tarkenton's passing achievements came about mainly because Minnesota's running game had been the worst in the NFL and the Viking record was a weak 8-7-1. Still, Tarkenton might just dump off enough junk to Rickey Young, Chuck Foreman, Sammy White and Ahmad Rashad to spoil Los Angeles' Super Bowl hopes yet again.
Instead, Tarkenton spent Sunday afternoon running for his life from Jack Youngblood, Fred Dryer, Cody Jones and Larry Brooks. And finally, with the Vikings down 27-10 in the game's waning minutes, Tarkenton threw the last of his 37 passes—perhaps the last of his marvelous career—into the Rams' end zone, where it landed at least 20 yards from anyone on either team.
It was Haden, the 25-year-old Rhodes scholar and part-time law student, who was the hero of the day, reading the Viking defense like one of his dog-eared political science textbooks, completing 15 of 29 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns and slaying the Viking jinx as the Rams won 34-10.
In retrospect it was an easy game, but it didn't become easy until the second half. Until then it appeared that the jinx was still on. Minnesota scored first, on a 42-yard field goal by Rick Danmeier in the first period. On the Rams' second possession Scott Studwell of the Vikings blocked a Glen Walker punt and Minnesota took over at the Rams' 20. Oh, Lord, Los Angeles thought, here we go again. Tarkenton had already passed nine times in the Vikings' first 12 plays; now he aimed one at White cutting right to left across the end zone. But Bill Simpson, the Rams' free safety, flew in front of White to make a touchdown-saving interception.
January 8, 1979
By the second quarter Haden had "picked up a key," he said, that tipped him off to the Viking defensive plans. He used it—he would not say what it was—to mix up inside trap plays for Cullen Bryant and slashes to the outside by John Cappelletti, along with a couple of passes. One went for 29 yards to Ron Jessie, one for nine yards and a touchdown to Willie Miller. Haden was having a field day picking on rookie Cornerback John Turner, who was filling in for Viking regular Nate Wright, out with a broken arm. Frank Corral's 43-yard field goal made it 10-3, a lead that held almost to the end of the half and seemed safe enough after a Ram blitz stopped a Viking drive at the two-minute warning.
In the Chuck Knox days, with a seven-point lead 1:58 from halftime, the Rams would have run out the clock. But the main reason why Knox left L.A. last year—and why George Allen, the 1978 coach for a minute or two, became a TV commentator—was conservatism. Under new Coach Ray Malavasi the Rams "go for it." Which at this particular moment—that jinx again—turned out to be all wrong.
From his 32, Haden aimed a pass over the middle at Terry Nelson, but Minnesota's Bobby Bryant stepped in to intercept. He lateraled to Wally Hilgenberg, who was thrown out of bounds with unnecessary violence by Miller. With a personal foul penalty tacked on, Tarkenton had the ball at the Rams' 27. From there it was like touch football in the park. A diving catch by Young at the three and a quick look-in to Rashad sent the teams to their dressing rooms tied at 10.
But by this time the Rams had unshakable confidence. Tarkenton had confused their defense early with a series of multiple sets and shifts à la Dallas, but now they had him figured out. "Fran told me they drew the thing up on the bus," said Dryer. "It took us a while to get it, but we did. They can't run, so there was none of that stuff about 'establishing a running game.' Fran's too smart for that. So he says, 'O.K., I'm throwing. It's our six against your six.' But if he stays in the pocket, he gets killed. He knows that."
"No way he could beat us with nickel-and-dime passes," said Middle Linebacker Jack Reynolds.
And the jinx?
"The only chance they had to put the whammy on us again was when they blocked the punt in the first quarter," said Guard Tom Mack. "When they didn't get anything out of that, I knew there wasn't any voodoo left."
The second half was all Los Angeles. By the time Minnesota made another first down the game was three minutes into the fourth quarter and the Rams were leading 27-10. Early in the third quarter Haden took his team 44 yards on eight plays, with the 235-pound Bryant, who had a 100-yard game, thundering for the last three yards and a touchdown behind blocks by Mack, Rich Saul and Dennis Harrah.
Four minutes later, after a 16-yard pass to Jessie and a nine-yard romp by Cappelletti, Haden hit Jessie on a quick out-cut, again working the rookie Turner, and Jessie raced 27 yards down the right sideline for another touchdown. Two minutes into the fourth quarter Corral kicked a 28-yard field goal for a 27-10 lead. By now the normally placid Los Angeles crowd, which totaled 69,631, was hot, the fans briskly shaking blue-and-gold pompons that the Rams had handed out at the gates. Owner Carroll Rosenbloom said later, "The pompons gave us the edge of victory."
If the pompons were the edge, Haden was surely the center. After the Vikings finished their longest drive of the second half—36 yards, including their only two first downs and Tarkenton's pitiful final pass to no one—Haden went to work again. This time his masterful drive culminated in a three-yard touchdown plunge by Jim Jodat; it had covered 78 yards in 15 plays and consumed almost eight minutes.
Haden's play-calling—he says he is one of only seven NFL quarterbacks who call their own plays—was sharp, and the Ram offense executed as well as it has all season. "The way we were getting off the ball had to demoralize them," said Mack. "When they know they're going to get pounded before they can react, that's when an offense is super."
"We were on the attack the whole second half, and that was the difference," said Haden. "We got a touchdown lead, then a two-touchdown lead, and we didn't go into a shell. We kept attacking. We executed our passing game today as well as we have all season, but I only play as well as the people around me play. I know that sounds like a clichè, but it's so true. I sat back in the pocket and had time to pick out receivers, and they made good catches."
"In all the years I've played," said Mack, the 13-year veteran who calls himself a dinosaur, "Pat's as good as any quarterback I've played with, and counting Pro Bowls, I've played with an awful lot. He's taken a lot of raps, but you show me a third-year quarterback with the total capabilities he has. I really believe in him. And he's so young. Hell, I gave him an award when he was in high school seven or eight years ago. It's nice to see him grown up."
In the center of the dressing room the 5'11", 180-pound Haden was all but out of sight, and some reporters hoisted him onto a bench so all could see and hear him. Haden protested. "I'm not that much of a showman," he said. "But I do have much more confidence. I've tuned out criticism about myself. I'd always been the golden boy here in California. I was never criticized before, and it was bothering me too much. The last months I've tuned it out. I've heard them boo Tarkenton in Minnesota, Staubach in Dallas. I know now not to let it get to me."
Off in a corner Fred Dryer was musing about his teammates, who had beaten one jinx only to confront another: they've been in the playoffs seven times without ever getting to the Super Bowl.
"The Super Bowl put Denver on the map," Dryer said. "It perpetuated Green Bay and Dallas. It gives a team credibility. What's frustrating is that the Rams have everything all the great teams have, except Super Bowl experience. That's the maturing experience we need."
Still up on the pulpit was Haden.
"Hey Pat, stand up!" yelled a voice.
"I am standing. This is all of me there is," he said.
Maybe. Then again, maybe not.