THE VIKINGS ON THE MOVE
Entering the third week of the season, the National Football League already has managed to scramble itself into a big variety show in which there is fun for nearly everyone. No team has won two games, 12 teams have won one game and only two teams have not won at all. In that sort of atmosphere anything is possible. It is even possible for the Minnesota Vikings to have as good a record as the Green Bay Packers against common opposition, although a man who said that last month would have been hurried off to analysis.
Two weeks ago in their league opener the Vikings smashed out 313 yards on the ground, beat the Baltimore Colts 34-24 and put on a pass-rush that buried Johnny Unitas in the white shirts and purple pants the Minnesota players call their Easter-egg uniforms. Last Sunday in Minneapolis the Vikings saw their All-NFL Halfback Tommy Mason (see cover) knocked unconscious in the first quarter, but they still rambled for 413 yards and four touchdowns against the formidable defense of the Chicago Bears before losing 34-28 to the 1963 NFL champions. The Packers had clipped the Bears 23-12, but on Sunday the Colts—a team the Vikings had handled easily—sprang back to beat Green Bay 21-20.
Although the Vikings stand only 1-1, they lead the league in total offense and are tied with Philadelphia in scoring with 62 points. Their record to date is an impressive answer to the cynics who tried to laugh away Minnesota's five exhibition victories. Exhibition games are used for experimenting with rookies and earning training-camp expenses; this is the one period during a long and arduous season when the question is not who won or lost but how the game was played. And the opinion was that once the game began to be played toward the championship the Vikings would fade like summer roses.
The Vikings had no such thought themselves. Instead they were remembering 1960, the year a bedraggled and much-abused team called the Green Bay Packers won six straight exhibition games to the same skeptical smiles that greeted Minnesota this season and then kept going into an era of championships. The Vikings, the newest franchise in the NFL, may not be headed toward an immediate championship, but they are not a mirage. They have a fine young quarterback in Fran Tarkenton (six touchdown passes in the first two games), excellent pass receivers including last season's Rookie of the Year, Paul Flatley, and an offensive line that does its work in effective, if unspectacular, fashion. Rookie Carl Eller has added strength and size to the defensive front, the line-backing is adequate, and Corner Back Ed Sharockman is developing into one of the league's best. The Vikings are a team of hitters. Minnesota fans fondly call them "our headhunters." But perhaps the main reason the Vikings are suddenly in contention is that the slashing Tommy Mason is now getting help from stumpy, bowlegged, 221-pound Bill Brown and is free to run with only slightly more than normal attention from the opposition.
Mason spent the previous two seasons being guarded like Willie Sutton, but he frequently escaped anyhow. This year the pressure on Mason has been eased by the emergence of Brown—who was traded by the Bears and was on the brink of being cut by the Vikings—as a runner who breaks tackles and as a receiver who can score on the deep pass. With Brown banging at the ends and ripping at the middle in his rolling, bumping, barging style, the defenses cannot afford to jam up on Mason. In the first two games Brown has rushed for 180 yards in 32 carries, and Mason, despite being groggy for most of the afternoon against the Bears, has run for 153 yards in 27 carries.
Tommy Mason is a 6-foot-1, 196-pound halfback, singer, guitar player, weight lifter, poetry quoter and sugar-plantation owner with the strong, handsome, country-boy face of a young calf-roper. He was not an All-America, because he chose to go to college at Tulane which plays in the tough Southeastern Conference but has a somewhat Ivy League approach to football these days. When the Vikings made Mason their No. 1 draft choice for 1961, Minnesota Coach Norm Van Brocklin said, "We got the best football player in the country." After watching Mason as a pro for three seasons Van Brocklin says, "Nothing has happened to make me change my mind. Mason runs with speed and power. He's the best blocker on our team, and if he played defense he'd be our best defensive back. His only weakness is balance. He's inclined to be a Stumbler. But he's the kind of kid you'd like to claim for your own. He doesn't drink or smoke, but he doesn't make it uncomfortable for those who do."
Fran Tarkenton, a close friend of Mason, says: "Tommy is the best halfback in the league. I don't know how you could expect one man to do any more than Tommy does for us. And with Bill Brown running so well this year, we have great versatility. It's a tremendous advantage to me as a quarterback. It doesn't matter which one of them I Set to which side, which one has to block or run or catch the ball. Nobody can key on Mason anymore."
Brown and Mason complement each other like a pair of well-trained carriage horses. They come out of the huddle and line up in an I formation with Mason behind Brown. Then they split to either side, leaving no one in the usual fullback position. The way they help each other wreck opposing defenses is illustrated in one of the Vikings' most effective plays—the swing-and-up pass.
In the swing-and-up pass Mason sets as a halfback on the strong side, the side on which the flanker back is playing. At the snap, the tight end, who is on the strong side, and the flanker go down-field and break toward the middle to draw the corner back and the safety with them. Mason drifts out as if for a swing pass and then cuts on his 9.8 speed and sprints for the end zone with only the strong-side linebacker to chase him as Tarkenton throws the ball.