Kramer had been replaced by Wilson, who, throughout his seven-year NFL career, had been Kramer's spear carrier. Going into this season, Wilson had gotten 10 pro starts, all of them the result of Kramer injuries. Kramer knee; Wilson starts. Kramer shoulder; Wilson starts. And so on. Good long-ball thrower, given to occasional streaks of wildness. Terrific scrambler whose feats afoot are often overlooked. That's the book on Wilson.
Kramer came back against the Los Angeles Raiders on Nov. 8, and that began a strange period during which he started five games but failed to finish any of them. The same thing happened against the Saints two weeks ago...now pitching in relief of Kramer, Wilson. Minnesota coach Jerry Burns has always been a solid Kramer man. This season, though, he was one of the few people on the Vikings who didn't believe that Wilson could do a better job than Kramer. Finally, on Friday, he announced that Wilson would start.
Late in the game CBS had a memorable sideline shot of Walsh, his arm around Montana, watching the season slip away. Meanwhile, across the field, a media star was being born. Bald, craggy-faced and raspy-voiced, Floyd Peters, the Vikings' defensive coordinator, will never be called upon to do any deodorant commercials. But after Saturday's game, Peters was the hero of Candlestick Park. The word "genius" was thrown around a lot in referring to him.
"Variety of looks in our coverage," said Peters. "Some man coverage on the big guy [Rice] with a zone underneath [a gridiron version of basketball's box-and-one]. Roll the zone to the strong side, then change up when they catch on. Guess with them, be deep conscious when they run play-action. Montana's great at throwing deep off play-action."
"An excellent scheme," Walsh said. "They didn't take us real tight. They kind of sloughed off along the way." He waved his hand in front of his face, as if trying to wave away a bitter memory. "Our receivers weren't getting clean. It was kind of murky downfield...that and the pressure on Montana...well, it was time to go with a quarterback who was faster than Joe."
When someone asked Walsh to comment on the decision to yank a future Hall of Fame quarterback, he sounded like a general who had just sacrificed his favorite platoon to try to win a battle. "I told him I didn't like doing it," he said. "I have great regard for him as a football player, but I had to change the chemistry, make a move. I couldn't afford sentiment at that time."
During the week Montana had said a strange thing. He had hinted that his playing days might be numbered, that he had been put on a retirement timetable. "I'd even seen it before the back surgery [last season]," he told the San Francisco Chronicle's Lowell Cohn. "Bill was always bringing in someone. It was [Matt] Cavanaugh and Kemper [Jeff Kemp], and now Steve [Young]. I know there's a time when Bill's going to make a move. All I can do is try to keep the clock turning backward."
After the game someone asked Walsh about Montana's status, and for the first time he showed a little annoyance. The actual question was: "Could it be that Montana's no longer quick enough?"
"Joe made All-Pro," replied Walsh. "He led the league in passing. There were some poor game conditions today. The receivers weren't getting free. There was a big push from the pressure. Not quick enough? No. Look, when you're 13-3, you don't want to start taking the parts out of the machine."
Especially when the other team played as well as the Vikings did. In particular, for the second straight week, their front four was outstanding. Millard and end Chris Doleman, an exceptional pair of pass rushers, applied the most pressure. Earlier in the week Doleman had mentioned that his 262 pounds of quickness would be too much for the man he would face, 306-pound Bubba Paris, which is no-no talk before a big game. But Doleman got two sacks, both times beating Paris on inside moves. That was another wrinkle Peters inserted into the game plan.