ON SATURDAY A BATTLE, ON SUNDAY A BREEZE
The Minnesota Vikings did it the hard way and the Cleveland Browns had a laugher, but it would be difficult to say which team was the more impressive in the NFL conference championship games last weekend—the Vikings in a hard-bitten, almost brutal 23-20 conquest of the Los Angeles Rams in Bloomington, Minn., or the Browns in a ludicrously easy 38-14 victory over the inept Dallas Cowboys in Dallas. The Western Conference showdown was a tense, exciting game, but in the Eastern playoff the Browns lost little time in establishing their mastery of Dallas. After the first half, the only question in the minds of 69,321 booing fans in the Cotton Bowl was when would Coach Tom Landry give up on Craig Morton and try Roger Staubach? Near the end of the second half the question became can a Cowboy kicker miss the ball twice?
On Saturday, on a snow-bordered field, the Vikings, behind 17-7 after a jittery first half, regained their cool to achieve the biggest win in their nine-year history. The ground for this triumph was plowed a year ago when Minnesota lost the Western Conference title to the Colts in Baltimore 24-14. On the flight back to Minneapolis, Coach Bud Grant told Bill McGrane, the club's publicity director, "They don't realize it yet, but the players learned something today. They found out that they're good enough to win a game like this. It'll take a while to sink in, but if we get this far next year they'll go into this game expecting to win it, not wondering if they can."
Against Los Angeles the Vikings needed all the confidence they could muster. The Rams dominated the first half, moving surely and steadily each time they had the ball and gaining so consistently that never once did they have to punt.
Tackle Alan Page, whose interception of a Roman Gabriel pass with 39 seconds to play snuffed out whatever hopes the Rams had of winning, felt the Vikings were too tight in the beginning. "All week we've been keyed up and tense and we talked about it," he said. "We tried to gear down, but we couldn't. That hurt us in the first half. Especially after I jumped offside and cost us a touchdown."
This mishap occurred on the Rams' first play from scrimmage following the recovery of a Bill Brown fumble on the Minnesota 45-yard line. Page, beating the snap, bowled past the startled blockers and was about to tackle Gabriel when the Ram quarterback tossed a soft pass right into the arms of Viking Carl Eller, who ran 46 yards for what would have been a touchdown had Page not been offside. Of course, Gabriel might not have thrown the interception if Page had not been after him.
"It took us a long time to get over that," said Wally Hilgenberg, one of the Minnesota linebackers. "We were jumpy all through the first half, and Gabriel was calling a great game. We didn't really come out of it until the third period."
The Rams' halftime lead was due mainly to their ability to run against the Vikings' storied defense, a success that came as no surprise to the Rams. Charlie Cowan, who with Bob Brown gives Los Angeles possibly the best pair of offensive tackles in the NFL, said, "Against a line as aggressive as Minnesota's, we figured we could run. And we did."
After Eller's interception had been nullified, the Rams moved for their first score. Larry Smith went through the strong side of the line for five yards behind a trap block, with Bob Brown taking care of Middle Linebacker Lonnie Warwick. Then Gabriel threw a quick pass to Wendell Tucker, one that was to be indicative of the Ram aerial game. It was thrown before the Viking rush could break through. Thirteen of Gabriel's 22 completions were sharp, sudden flips to his running backs.
After Tucker's catch, Smith gained nine more yards on the strong-side run, then added five two plays later. Gabriel got the touchdown from the three by rolling out to his left after faking a handoff and passing to Bob Klein, one of the two tight ends they use when close to the goal.
Minnesota Quarterback Joe Kapp evened the score on the next series, and the two opening thrusts showed the difference in the offensive game plans. The Rams intended to move the ball in bursts of five or six yards, either on the ground or in the air. Minnesota, on the other hand, planned to throw long against the cornerbacks. Two of these big plays animated Kapp's drive. Gene Washington, who is 6'3" and fast, beat Jim Nettles on a crossing pattern for a first down on the Ram 33-yard line. Then, two plays later, Kapp hit Washington on the Ram four on a deep flag pattern. Three plays after that, Dave Osborn did a back dive from the one (see cover) for the score, and the conversion made it 7-7.
But the Rams, confident now of their ability to control the ball with short advances, scored twice more—on a 20-yard field goal by Bruce Gossett and on a two-yard Gabriel-to-Billy Truax pass—with the longest gain of the drives being only 18 yards.
Neither team made any sweeping changes during halftime. "There was a lot of loud talking in our dressing room," Truax said. "We were talking about the first half. No one mentioned we had another half to play. Then we went out and took things for granted."
The Viking dressing room was quiet and businesslike. The offensive and defensive teams met briefly as units, then Grant addressed the whole squad. "I'm surprised that they're taking the game to us," he said. "If you want to win, you have to take it to them. If you think you played well in that half, think again. You'll have to play much better to win."
The Vikings also decided to blitz more on first down, hoping to cut off the strong-side run, and they permitted the defensive linemen to play with more abandon and stunt on their own.
"The first series after the half is important," Truax said. "Offensively and defensively. We gained 12 yards on our first play, then we had a clipping penalty and we had to punt, and that seemed to fire them up. We never regained our momentum."
As Gabriel explained, "Ours is the type of offense that can't afford setbacks. Five yards at a time only works first and 10, not first and 25."
In the first series after the Rams' punt, Kapp threw a towering 41-yard pass to Washington, who took the ball away from Nettles on the Ram 12, fell, got up, lunged forward and was tackled by Jack Pardee. The officials, who were in no danger of being awarded a game ball by the Rams, ruled that Pardee had piled on, which put the Vikings on the Ram six. "There was no whistle," said the incensed Pardee later. "I was afraid the guy was going to jump up and score. I can't make decisions on whistles. I can just try to prevent touchdowns." Three plays later Osborn again dived over from the one to make it 17-14.
"We thought we could work on their cornerbacks," Kapp said. "The Rams give them a lot of responsibility and they don't get help from the safeties. I should have thrown deep early in the game, but I didn't mix it up enough in the first half."
"Kapp worked it out," John Henderson, the other Viking wide receiver, said. "We thought they might play us loose. Joe threw short passes under them, and when they came up to play us tight we knew we could beat them deep."
Later in the third quarter Eddie Meador intercepted a Kapp pass to stop a drive that had reached the Los Angeles 11-yard line, and the next time the Vikings got the ball Richie Petitbon picked one off on the Minnesota 40.
"I forced the pass Meador intercepted," Kapp said. "I never saw Petitbon." Knocked down as he threw the second interception, Kapp yelled to his defensive team as it streamed by him onto the field, "Get me the seed, defense! Get me the damn seed back."
The Rams got a 27-yard field goal out of the Petitbon interception to lead 20-14 early in the fourth period, but Kapp put the Vikings ahead to stay the first time he got the seed back. He had only one fairly long pass, to Henderson, in the drive and scored himself, rolling around the left side from the two behind strong blocks by Brown and Osborn and leaping over Nettles. It was, all told, a splendid afternoon for Kapp. He completed 12 of 19 passes and, with 42 yards in seven carries, was Minnesota's leading rusher.
As Eller and Tight End John Beasley stood on the sideline watching the next kickoff, Beasley said to the Viking defensive end, "Come on, Carl. Do something." "Watch me on the first play," Eller said. The Rams had the ball on their own 12, and on the first play Eller swept wide around Bob Brown's block to drop Gabriel in the end zone for a safety that made the score 23-20.
The Rams got the ball again with nearly four minutes left, but Gabriel was only able to move the team to the Minnesota 44 before Page's interception.
In the Ram locker room, Deacon Jones thundered, "We've been to the door twice. Bam! We've been denied. It always comes down to one throw of the dice and then you're through. It hurts, man, and it will hurt the whole off season. I still don't believe it. Maybe someone will pinch me and it will be game time again."
"Six months, seven days a week down the drain in one afternoon," said Bob Brown. "You don't know the work, my wife doesn't know the work, that's gone into this. I sacrificed. I never sacrificed until I came here, and then to blow it all. This is the worst day of my life."
It was, of course, the best day of Kapp's life. "He's a hell of a leader," Defensive Back Dale Hackbart said. "He picked us up. There are three kinds of quarterbacks. There's the brain, like Bart Starr, and the arm, like Joe Namath, and the leader, like Joe Kapp."
In Nelsen, a onetime 10th draft choice from USC, the Cleveland Browns have come up with a quarterback in the Kapp mold. He is a seven-year veteran who spent five rather undistinguished seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers before being traded to Cleveland in 1968. Surprisingly, Coach Blanton Collier benched Frank Ryan in favor of Nelsen early that season and he led the club to the Eastern Conference championship, beating Dallas 31-20 in the playoff game. Like Kapp, Nelsen throws the ball with more effect than beauty; sometimes his passes flutter like sick butterflies, but more often than not they are on target.
The difference between the Browns and the Cowboys last Sunday was, in the end, the difference between Nelsen and Craig Morton, and it was very big. On a field dampened by rain but still firm underfoot, Nelsen completed 18 of 27 passes for 219 yards and a touchdown before leaving the game in the fourth period. For the most part he threw into the shockingly wide gaps in the Dallas secondary, frequently going to Paul Warfield, a fleet wide receiver-with the moves of a water bug. Warfield, who was often guarded by rookie, Cornerback Otto Brown, had a pleasant afternoon out by himself in the fresh air as he ran a variety of patterns and caught eight passes for 99 yards.
Craig Morton had a lousy afternoon. He completed but eight of 24 for 92 yards and had two passes intercepted, one of which was returned 88 yards for a touchdown by Walt Sumner, another rookie defensive back. But ill fortune came early and stayed late for all the Cowboys. One of the few times in their dreary afternoon that they contained Cleveland was on the Browns' first series after the opening kickoff. The Browns punted from their 32. The ball was poorly kicked and caromed off the leg of Cowboy Tight End Rayfield Wright, enabling Cleveland's Bob Matheson to pounce on it at the Dallas 34.
Nelsen tried a few running plays, then set up the first touchdown with short passes, first to Warfield, then to Tight End Milt Morin, before Bo Scott ran in for the score from the two. On the next Cleveland series, Cornell Green intercepted a Nelsen pass and returned it to the Cleveland 32, but Otto Brown was called for pass interference and Cleveland had a first down on its 48. It was bad luck, but the Dallas defeat was not due to bad luck. Credit it instead to a cohesive, alert Cleveland secondary, given good help by mobile linebackers, and a line that put much more pressure on Morton than the Cowboys' touted front four put on Nelsen. In the first half this defense was so strong that Dallas had the ball for only 17 plays, which gained a total of 39 yards.
Cleveland added a six-yard touchdown pass from Nelsen to Morin and a 29-yard Don Cockroft field goal to lead 17-0 at the half. It hardly seemed possible, but the worst was yet to come for Dallas. In the opening moments of the second half Cleveland Linebacker Jim Houston intercepted a poorly thrown Morton pass and returned it 35 yards to the Dallas 19. It took Nelsen three plays to cash in, the big one being a 16-yard screen pass to Leroy Kelly. Scott scored again from the two.
The interception prompted the fans to chant "We want Roger," but they didn't get Staubach until six minutes into the fourth period, by which time the game was a farce. Morton had thrown the 88-yard interception to Sumner, the Browns had run the score to 38-7 and Landry was looking to the distant future as he put in his rookie quarterback and two fresh setbacks. Staubach got a touchdown on a five-yard pass to Lance Rentzel and thus became the only bright spot for Dallas in a day of rain, gloom and bloopers—the most comical of which was Mike Clark's whiff of an attempted onside kick.
By game's end the Cowboys were in a state of shock. "I don't understand it at all," a grim Landry said, "but if they play as well against the Vikings as they did against us, they'll win. Everything they did worked."
Mel Renfro, who covered Warfield when he was split to the wide side, said, "That first bad break on the punt foreshadowed it all. This was a day of bad luck and despair. We were confused on their sets sometimes and there was a lot of noise out there, too. Against the Vikings? The Browns have it all. Two good running backs, three great receivers. Nelsen was hitting them in the eye. If they can bring themselves up to the challenge, they can beat the Vikings."
Morton simply said, "I apologize for the way I played today." But at least one Dallas disc jockey wasn't accepting any apologies. An hour after the game he told his listeners, "I understand the Cowboys felt that they were well prepared for this game. Jeez, just think of what would have happened if they hadn't been ready."
The Browns took their victory calmly, as though they had been sure of it all along. They had planned to use short passes to negate the Dallas rush and to run straight at All-Pro Tackle Bob Lilly from time to time to inhibit his charge, and they executed this plan perfectly. The Brown defense, which rarely depends on the blitz, covered the Cowboy receivers closely and got a lot of help from Morton, who couldn't hit Hayes or Rentzel even when they were open. As an indication of Cleveland's preparation for the game, the team notebooks on the Dallas offense were the thickest of any all season, with some 200 pages on passing plays to 65 on running plays.
The Brown defenders came into the game worked up by an early-season Tom Landry quote. He had said the Brown defense was like a rubber band, giving but never breaking, and he meant it as a compliment. The Browns took it as an insult. On the blackboard in the Cleveland locker room someone wrote, "Rubber band? How about steel band?" A poster in the practice field locker room had a rubber band dangling from each Cleveland defensive position, but the day after it was put up it was gone, presumably on orders from Coach Collier, a businesslike man who doesn't like that kind of preparation. Indeed, Clevelanders call their team "the businessman team" because of this attitude.
Jack Gregory, a fine end in the almost anonymous Cleveland front four, said, "With all their talent, if you come out and stick it to Dallas early, something happens. If you come out fired up and attack them, it seems like they don't want to get hit. We play as a team and we don't lose our poise. Minnesota plays the same way. They're a team and they depend on one another."
The Browns lost to the Vikings 51-3 during the season, a game in which Joe Kapp peppered the Cleveland secondary with long passes and threw for three touchdowns, all to Gene Washington. The defeat came on the heels of the Browns' 42-10 win over Dallas, and Cleveland wasn't up; Collier dismissed the game and the club didn't watch the films the following Tuesday. The Browns may take a look at them this week as they prepare for the championship game in Bloomington on Sunday.
The two teams are not very similar, except perhaps for the personalities of their quarterbacks. Although the Cleveland front four probably does just about as good a job against running and rushing the passer as the Four Norsemen or the Fearsome Foursome, no one has called them anything cute—just very good. The Brown linebackers don't blitz, so they are not as noticeable as a Nobis or a Butkus. The secondary covers well; the closest any defensive back came to showboating against Dallas was when Ernie Kellermann walked past Bob Hayes after a play, saw Hayes complaining about interference to an official and went through the motions of playing a violin. "Gosh," Kellermann said later when someone mentioned his act, "did everyone see that? It was just for Hayes, not the fans."
The Browns' Leroy Kelly, Bo Scott and Ron Johnson are more explosive runners than the Vikings' Bill Brown, Dave Osborn and Oscar Reed. Their wide receivers—Warfield and Collins—are more experienced and as fast as Henderson and Washington, and in Milt Morin they have one of the three best tight ends in the business. So they probably have more firepower and can score more easily from farther out than the Vikings. But the difference is minor and both clubs could have their powders damped if the temperature drops into the sub-zero range and the field freezes. If that happens, the game will probably go to the team with more guts, and both have plenty.
The Browns, though, may have a little more incentive. Monte Clark, an offensive tackle, compared his team's lack of celebrity to the unsung state of an offensive lineman. Added Warfield, "We figure we just go out and do our job. If we win enough games, there won't be any left to play. Maybe then we'll get the recognition we deserve." Off their performance against the Cowboys, it is likely that Warfield and his teammates will need one more win after next Sunday. The one in New Orleans.
Viking Quarterback Joe Kapp hurdles Jim Nettles as he scores Minnesota's winning touchdown on a two-yard run.
Wide Receiver Gene Washington eludes Eddie Meador on the catch that set up Minnesota's first score.
Carl Eller glares down at Roman Gabriel after flattening him for a safety. Minutes later the crowd streamed onto the field (inset) to touch such heroes as Tackle Gary Larsen.
Hapless Dallas couldn't do anything right. Here a mortified Craig Morton inexplicably drops the ball as Jack Gregory barrels in.
Cleveland could do no wrong as Bill Nelsen and his receivers, among them Gary Collins (86) and Paul Warfield (42), had a field day.