and so the Icemen Cometh again. For the second straight year and the third time in all, the Minnesota Vikings are in the Super Bowl, scene of their greatest disasters. With two defeats the Vikings are the losingest team in the big game's brief history. But take heart, Minnesota fans, in Super Bowl IX your Vikes are fairly matched. The Pittsburgh Steelers are the NFL's losingest team over the last 40 years.
Football players, like parrots, are taught by rote. They spend hours during the week walking through what they will run through on Sunday. They are creatures of habit. Destroy their routine and you destroy them. Since there is no routine to prepare a player for the experience of Super Bowl week, it is not a coincidence that teams playing in the game for the first time have always lost to opponents who have been there before. When the Vikings lost for the second time last year, they had the misfortune to be playing Miami, which was appearing for the third time.
This matchup of Super Bowl experience vs. inexperience could hurt Pittsburgh. Moreover, the Viking starters average almost three years' more professional playing time per man than the Steelers. And Viking Coach Bud Grant has an edge in that he has been through the ordeal of Super Week twice. Last year, when he expressed outrage at the training facilities provided for his ball club, Grant apparently was trying to divert the insistent attention of 1,500 press, radio and TV people from his players to himself. This year he quietly informed the NFL that he would be more than pleased if practice conditions in New Orleans were as good as they had been in Houston.
The Vikings will need every advantage they can find because—on paper at least—Pittsburgh is clearly superior. The Steelers, like the Vikings a few years ago, have the league's best defensive front four. Minnesota's famed Purple People Eaters are not as voracious as they once were, nor is it likely they ever were as awesome as Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain: Mean Joe Greene, Dwight White, L.C. Greenwood and Ernie Holmes. The Steelers led the league in sacking opposing quarterbacks, although they may find their hands full (or empty) when the Steel Curtain tries to close down on the Vikings' elusive Fran Tarkenton, the best scrambler in pro football (his total yards rushing, much of it unpremeditated, is 11th best among active NFC players). A more telling gauge of the front four's effectiveness is the Steelers' pass defense. Pittsburgh's defensive backs are not generally thought of as Pro Bowl caliber, yet the pressure of the line on quarterbacks is such that the Steelers intercepted 11 more passes than any other team in 1973 and in 1974 led the league in pass defense. The Vikings will have to mount an effective ground game to curtail an all-out pass rush, yet in the playoffs the aggressive Steelers all but bankrupted opposing runners, allowing Buffalo's glittering O.J. Simpson only 49 yards and the entire Oakland Raider backfield just 29.
The Pittsburgh offense, not quite so impressive as its defense, is nonetheless strong. The Steelers were the AFC's best rushing team, with powerful Franco Harris gaining more than 1,000 yards. The engaging Rocky Bleier was highly effective as Harris' running mate in the playoffs. And 26-year-old Terry Bradshaw, the 6'3", 215-pound quarterback, is a far bigger threat to run with the ball than the older (34), shorter (6'), lighter (190) Tarkenton now is.
The 1974 season was critical and almost disastrous for Bradshaw. He was benched for six weeks while critics wondered if he had the intelligence to quarterback a pro team. When Pittsburgh Coach Chuck Noll finally eased him into the starting lineup again, he was not particularly impressive, but in the Steelers' last four games, season-ending victories over New England and Cincinnati and playoff triumphs over Buffalo and Oakland, he was magnificent. He completed over 60%, of his passes and developed the ability to run his club with confidence, even changing plays at the line of scrimmage. This is important because Minnesota's use of the 14-man defensive huddle means that a quarterback does not know until then which 11 defensive players will be on the field when play begins.
Such poise under pressure is old hat to Tarkenton. After 14 seasons he is second only to John Unitas in career completions, passing yardage and touchdown passes and will probably end up on top in all three. He uses his runners—Chuck Foreman and Dave Osborn—skillfully, and often passes to Foreman, who led NFC runners in receptions. He also has a superb deep threat in John Gilliam, which is significant, considering Tarkenton's penchant for the bomb.
Minnesota is opportunistic, an apparently slipshod team that rises to the occasion. This year it allowed more yardage than nine other teams but fewer touchdowns than anybody. That, too, reflects experience. When Bradshaw was a rookie he pledged, "I'm going to take the Steelers to the Super Bowl." Tarkenton has already taken his team to the Super Bowl. He knows that is not enough.