The touchdown that made the score 17-6 was a 31-yard pass from Tarkenton to John Gilliam. The Vikings had tested the San Francisco pass defense severely throughout the game. Tarkenton threw 18 times—often long—and while he completed 11, several of those were short passes that the 49ers allowed him when he needed considerable yardage. Two of his passes were intercepted, and four times he was dumped, for a total of 48 yards in losses. By contrast, Spurrier was only dropped twice, and Brodie not at all.
For the last three years the 49ers have been adept at keeping tacklers away from their passer, although this is partly because the passer for most of this time was Brodie. He has a quick set-up, a quick release and the ability to unload the ball into wide-open spaces when his receivers are covered. Spurrier, though he shows promise, cannot yet do all of those things with aplomb.
The San Francisco offensive line set a league record in 1970 when it kept Brodie on his feet and throwing all but eight times during the season. In 1971 it led the league in protecting the passer by saving Brodie all but 11 times. This year pass rushers have gotten to the San Francisco quarterbacks 22 times, but this is not due to any massive breakdown in the line. The difficulty is that Spurrier is a freer soul than Brodie.
As Cas Banaszek, the five-year pro who plays right offensive tackle, says, "Blocking for Brodie is easier than blocking for Spurrier. John is very consistent. He'll drop back nine yards, then step up two and throw the ball. Always. So I know where he's going to be and where I have to keep my man away from. Steve may move around a bit. If he drops deep and stays deep, the defensive end opposite me may take an outside rush and get around me, and Steve may be there and get tackled. John, though, would have moved up inside and could still have gotten the ball away."
Normally, corporate nicknames are fashionable only for defensive lines (Fearsome Foursome, Purple People Eaters), but in San Francisco it is the offensive line which enjoys that affectionate recognition: The Protectors. The 49er interior line has played together as a unit for three years. It is anchored by Forrest Blue, the incumbent All-Pro center. The guards are Randy Beisler and Woody Peoples, and the tackles are Banaszek and Len Rohde, who is in his 13th season and has now played in 180 straight games. Tight End Ted Kwalick, another All-Pro, is an associate member of The Protectors.
Coach Dick Nolan was a defensive back as a player, and then studied as an assistant coach under the Cowboys' Tom Landry, a renowned defensive scholar. Not surprisingly, Nolan devotes most of his time to the defense, leaving the prime offensive responsibility to an assistant, Jim Shofner. When Spurrier is the quarterback, Shofner sends in the plays (using messenger running backs, Larry Schreiber, Ken Willard and Jimmy Thomas). It is noteworthy that some other playoff teams do the same this season. Of the eight postseason qualifiers, three have starting quarterbacks who get their orders from the bench. Besides Spurrier, Craig Morton at Dallas and Scott Hunter at Green Bay always get their calls from the sidelines, and Cleveland's Mike Phipps has often suffered that assistance.
Brodie, who has been around for 16 years, has the honor of calling his own plays. But no matter who is making the 49er decisions, the crunch comes down to The Protectors. To win the championship, they had to perform with some distinction against the Vikings' famous front four. The Minnesota defense was ranked tops in the conference, having allowed an average of only 255.2 yards per game. San Francisco gained 383 yards overall, including 154 on the ground, which is impressive since the 'Niners have no gang-busting runner and the Vikings have held other opponents with better backs to an average of 142.2 yards per game rushing.
Ultimately, it was the ability of The Protectors to keep Brodie safe down the stretch that made San Francisco a winner. To cite one case, although Carl Eller beat Banaszek on several occasions during the game, Banaszek handled him on the big plays that turned the contest around. "I'm glad I had to block Claude Humphrey last week," Banaszek said afterward, speaking of the All-Pro defensive end of the Atlanta Falcons. "I thought I did pretty well against Humphrey, and since he plays a lot like Eller that meant that I had a good rehearsal for this game."
The sternest test for what may be the best offensive line in the NFL came late in the day. A Viking punt had been batted out of bounds on the San Francisco one-yard line. The 'Niners were still down 17-6, and there were only nine minutes left in the season. Brodie had to get two touchdowns in the brief time remaining.
Coolly, from his own end zone, he started out by throwing a difficult 12-yard sideline pass to John Isenbarger, a second-string wide receiver. The offensive line gave Brodie the time, and he purchased some operating room with the gain. He then called for Schreiber to go off tackle, but Alan Page rolled off a block by Beisler to stop Schreiber after two yards.