All of this accounted for considerable antsyness among the baffled Minnesota folk who planned to leave their native tundra for Los Angeles in mid-January, and suddenly for every Super Bowl reservation there was now a what's-really-wrong reason. Coach Bud Grant, however, buys no suggestion that the Vikings of '72 are playing any worse or without the stellar fire of happier seasons.
"Nothing's been the matter," he said in his office last week. "It's only a problem if you lose by three or four touchdowns, not by 10 total points. Over the years we've been involved in a lot of close games and we've won most of them—so much so that they call us a bunch of lucky S.O.B.s. Detroit has done that especially. This year we've been in five extremely close games and lost four of them. If you're going to win you have to have good fortune along with everything else."
Outside critics have found more substantial deficiencies, however. The most common rap is that age has caught up with the vaunted defensive line of Carl Eller, Gary Larsen, Alan Page and Jim Marshall—the notorious "purple people eaters." Evidence for this charge is that Minnesota had nailed opposing quarterbacks but seven times and that the team had allowed 121 points through its first eight games this season as compared to 72 points a year ago. Someone also said, presumably seriously, that the Vikings were plagued by "over-experience."
"Everyone looks for a reason," Grant sighed, "a profound reason, and there is none. I think if you took all the statistics, we may even be playing better defense this season than we ever have before. We're No. 1 in defense in the conference so I don't know how we could be any better.
"We're also playing teams with very mobile quarterbacks," he said. "We play Landry twice, Douglass twice, Hunter—who can be a runner if he has to—twice and we've played Manning. We get Bradshaw in a couple more weeks. You go in on these active quarterbacks and they're going to get out of the pocket and move around. People wonder why we don't get to the quarterback more. In our division, the quarterback would just as soon run as throw anyhow; consequently, you're not going to catch them as often."
For the record, the famous front four now ages in at a 31-year average and Marshall, the granddaddy of the bunch at 34, denies that the group has lost any of the old lust for burying quarterbacks. "I never thought we lost anything," he said after a defensive team meeting Friday. "It's just that we haven't won the close ones. Back when we were winning the close ones, it was a tight situation but nobody thought we were in trouble."
If the Viking losses demand simple explanation, the best one would seem to be the balance of mediocrity which now prevails throughout the NFL. The effects of six common drafts have worked to bring almost every team down to a lower level and make consistency a sometime thing. It is quite possible that the Vikings' NFC Central Division, along with one or two others, may crown a champion with an 8-6 record.
Even with a difficult schedule still ahead—Los Angeles and Pittsburgh on the road next—that kind of limited success remained in view for the Vikings, so that they could stay in jovial spirits last week despite their record and weather even more wretched. The Twin Cities' sky, unblessed by sunshine for two weeks, seemed to be drizzling the remnants of a frozen daiquiri on everyone, including a murder suspect who escaped from the Minneapolis police earlier in the week, but the Vikes, as is their traditional wont, performed their chores impervious to the elements.
Their non-plussed behavior included one 15-second fistfight between Linebacker Carl Gersbach and Offensive Guard Ed White, a no-decision draw that drew respective cheering from members of the offense and defense. Hope still blooms at .500 now in the NFL.
"I think we're coming around real good," said Running Back Bill Brown. "It just took us a while. I guess it's better to build up toward the end of the season rather than hitting it right away and then tailing off."