Ever since he came into the NFL in 1977, and especially since he took over at quarterback for Fran Tarkenton in 1979, Minnesota's Tommy Kramer has been routinely feeding the masses with one fish and one loaf.
He has put miracle points on the board in all kinds of situations, including game-winning passes with 1:38, 0:17 and 0:13 remaining. On three other occasions, Kramer-led two-minute drills have resulted in decisive field goals by Rick Danmeier with 25, four and zero seconds left. And his 46-yard pass, which was tipped several times and finally caught for a touchdown by Wide Receiver Ahmad Rashad as time ran out, not only beat the Browns 28-23 and put the Vikings in the playoffs last season, but also won a place in the annals of Bobble Ball.
Whether Kramer can part the seas and get the Vikings into the Super Bowl this year remains to be seen. But the way he directed last Sunday's easier-than-it-reads 25-10 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Bloomington showed that the Vikings can play the game with anyone when Kramer and his epic cast of receivers are right.
The win put the Vikings a game ahead of the Bucs in the NFC Central Who were you expecting to see in front, already, the Chicago Bears? Since 1970, only Green Bay (1972) and Tampa Bay (1979) have interrupted the Vikings' domination of the Central, and the Bucs, who upset the Eagles in '79, are the only other division team to have gotten past the first round of the playoffs.
Minnesota has always deserved a better fate than to be mired in the wild and not-so-wonderful NFC Central. The name of Viking Coach Bud Grant, the noted duck hunter, will forever be preceded by "taciturn," but that doesn't mean "inflexible." He scrapped his celebrated people-eating 4-3 defense this season in favor of a 3-4 that better utilizes his linebacker strength. And he was wise enough to turn his offense into a circus with ringmasters like Tarkenton and now Kramer.
The Kramer variation resembles a game of "everybody out" in the old schoolyard. It's far from the great bomb-throwing tradition that, for one, got Terry Bradshaw to four Super Bowls, but times have changed. The dizzying number of zone defenses in use today—Tampa Bay tried alignments of 4-1-6 and 3-3-5 on Sunday—are less effective against the dink dink dink rhythm of Kramer's short passes. And the Vikings' offense is also geared to make use of today's more mobile tight ends, like their own Joe Senser, already among the best at his position and getting better.
Perhaps most important, Kramer has kept all of his eager pass catchers happy. "You can't help but walk around here with a smile on your face," says Wide Receiver Sammy White, a smile on his face.
The offense was at its best on Sunday, when it controlled the ball for more than 40 minutes. "Our offense got rigor mortis standing around," said Tampa Bay Coach John McKay, who once again out-quipped Grant but didn't beat him The Vikings had a 23-0 lead three minutes into the second half and could actually start rushing the ball once in a while (Ted Brown carried 31 limes for 129 yards, both career highs) like a normal team.
"I had to do some blocking today, and I've got a headache," said Senser, whose usual role is closer to that of a wide receiver. "I'm going to have to ask somebody about that."
If Senser asks his quarterback, Kramer will probably say, "Joe, I was just taking what the defense gave me." That's how Kramer answers most questions about the complicated attack concocted by Offensive Coach Jerry Burns and overseen by Grant. But Kramer knows more, much more, than he's letting on.
Grant and his scouts knew exactly who was needed to replace Tarkenton when they picked Kramer ahead of Glenn Carano, now a backup at Dallas, and Vince Ferragamo, now a backup in, gulp, Montreal, in the 1977 draft. "Look, we were just lucky with Tommy," says Grant. "We've had some misses, too. Anytime you start thinking you're a genius, you're in trouble."
But one of Kramer's assets was that he did think he was a genius, or at least he had no doubts that he could replace a legend. "Tommy's strong point was that he wasn't in awe of Francis in any way," says Rashad. "He just wanted to take right over." Kramer showed the way he was thinking as a rookie when he sat down at the previously all-veteran preseason card game and said, "Deal me in." The vets did.
He stayed in Tarkenton's shadow for two years without loud complaint, but finally intimated that he might stay away from camp if Tarkenton didn't make up his mind to retire before the 1979 season, which Tarkenton did. Now guys like Linebacker Matt Blair wear T shirts bearing the slogan: TOMMY KRAMER, THE BEST FROM THE WEST.
A smiling, Skoal-chewing, Texas good ol' boy, Kramer has a playboy reputation; Charley McKenna of the Minneapolis Tribune dubbed him 494 Tommy because of his familiarity with the watering holes along that interstate in Minneapolis. Kramer says he has settled down somewhat, thanks in part to his new girl friend, Carrie Baudler.
"I don't go out like I used to," says Kramer, "but it never affected my play anyway. When we're winning, everybody shuts up about it. Hey, my father [who coached football at Texas Lutheran for six years] was strict on me when I was growing up. Maybe I was just making up for lost time."
Which is what Kramer appears to be doing with the Viking offense, to which he contributed 228 yards and one TD passing on Sunday. On one second-quarter possession he completed all nine of his passes, while driving the Vikings 95 yards for a touchdown and keeping the ball for more than nine minutes. The Bucs never recovered from the TD, which gave Minnesota a 13-0 lead.
Kramer, who ranked second among NFC quarterbacks going into Sunday's game, sometimes throws quickly, sometimes off-balance, sometimes on the run, sometimes strangely, but most of all he throws often. One Viking play calls for him to pump-fake a screen to Running Back Rickey Young, look toward Senser who is wildly waving his arms in the right flat as if he's the intended receiver ("I like to do a little acting out there"), and then throw a screen to Brown over the middle. This elaborate gem is called Fake Double Screen 3-Check Middle, if you're scoring.
Such Looney Tunes plays have been mated with the careful selection of players to build a potent offense. The drafting of Kramer was one example, but also remember that Rashad was somewhat of a reclamation project, having been traded twice before the Vikings got him cheap just before the '76 season started. This year has been an eye-opening one for him because he has finally found a custom pair of contacts to fit his huge eyes. "Man, I just started reading scoreboards," he says. "They have all kinds of information out there."
White, the other wide receiver, was passed over by everyone at least once in 1976 before the Vikes got him in the second round. And Terry LeCount, who plays often in three-wide-receiver situations, was picked up on waivers from San Francisco.
Brown, the all-purpose heir apparent to Chuck Foreman, was chiefly a runner at North Carolina State and never heard from the Vikings before the 1979 draft. But Grant and his aides had been quietly studying films "of every pass he ever caught in college" to determine if he could fit into the system. Oh, could he! He's leading the NFC in receptions with 60 and averaging almost four yards per carry.
Senser, a sixth-round 1979 pick from West Chester (Pa.) State, is the real surprise. As the NFC's third-leading receiver, with 49 receptions, he has already lost his no-name status; his wrong-name status should go soon, too. "People are always asking me where we got this Sensator from," says Grant.
Despite their poor postseason performances (9-11, including 0 for 4 in Super Bowls), the Vikes are the class of their not-so-classy division. Who can catch them?
Tampa Bay may have the personnel, but it is startlingly erratic. Detroit has Billy Sims plus an 0-6 record away from the noisy, artificially turfed Silverdome. Chicago, despite a 16-13 win over Kansas City on Sunday, has internal problems, and Walter Payton must be wondering if he can survive the woeful blocking the Bears are giving him. Perhaps the Packers' two-game winning streak—they beat the Giants 26-24 Sunday—signals a new challenge for the Vikings. After all, Green Bay Coach Bart Starr went out and pleaded with the fans for support and now appears to have his own cheering section.
Grant, of course, has so far resisted cheerleading. Otherwise, he would most certainly be shaking his purple pompons for Two-Minute Tommy.