What then occurred was typical of what can happen to a team that is not there mentally, and had not been the whole of Sunday. The Vikings kicked off and after two plays the old defense held Brockington to three yards. It was third and seven on the Packer 32. The Vikings would hold Green Bay, get good field position after the punt, and with four minutes left Tarkenton would pass for his 36,000,000th yard and his 3,000th touchdown, and even on a bad day Minnesota would send everyone back to the mobile homes with a 14-12 victory.
Not quite. John Hadl dropped back and stung the Vikings harshly. He flipped a pass over the middle to MacArthur Lane, who had found the Vikings' Paul Krause looking somewhere else. Suddenly Lane was behind everybody and he wasn't about to be caught. He ran the rest of the 68 yards in a happy gallop. Crossing the goal line, he provided the grandest excitement of the day. He pitched the ball into the air, stumbled, went crashing into the centerfield fence and, momentarily, looked dead. He wasn't. Minnesota was. For the day, at least.
While this is the same Viking team as last year's in personality, it is not the same team physically. In his quiet way Grant has sought to make it younger. For instance, Jim Lash has replaced Carroll Dale at wide receiver, Charles Goodrum is in there ahead of Grady Alderman at offensive left tackle, Ed White has moved to right guard for Frank Gallagher, Andy Maurer has come from the Falcons to take over for Milt Sunde at left guard, Doug Sutherland is in the front offensive four ahead of Gary Larsen, and injuries have created three other changes. Jeff Wright moved to the right corner for Bobby Bryant, which put Terry Brown at strong safety for Jeff Wright, and Matt Blair, a rookie, is playing left linebacker for Roy Winston. And whether Dave Os-born or Oscar Reed is the fullback does not much matter because Minnesota's offense largely consists of Tarkenton tossing to John Gilliam, and Chuck Foreman wiggling to get outside.
As you try to evaluate the Vikings in terms of how strong—or weak—they really are, you find first of all that the black and blue division is more the color of pink champagne. Grant has dominated it since Lombardi retired at Green Bay. The Vikings' record over Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago since the beginning of 1968 is an imposing 34-8. Coaches have come and gone at those other places while Grant has continued to win, go duck hunting and, according to Public Relations Director Merrill Swanson, display his hidden sense of humor around the office by doing such wildly hilarious things as putting a salamander in his secretary's desk drawer, and on April Fool's Day removing all the chairs from the office in the dead of night so no one would have a place to sit when they came to work.
For all of the obvious weakness of the NFC Central, however, Minnesota has lost this year to Green Bay and Detroit, and was also beaten by New England. Only the win over St. Louis shows the Vikings to be a good football team. Their other victories were over the disappointing and underdeveloped. So once again, how good are they, exactly?
"Oh, I don't know," said Tarkenton. "How good you are, or how good you have to be, depends on who you're playing that day."
If that translates into no answer at all, it fits in with the overall temperament of the Minnesota team. It is the way Grant wants it to be.
"You have to keep a team going along evenly each week," he says. "We don't want ourselves to go leaping out of the stadium one week, and then falling flat on our face the next. We want our people to be professionals, get their paychecks and do their jobs."
The Vikings' job is to win several more times than they lose, certainly enough to muddle through their division. In today's pro game, Grant believes, no team should ever be better than 11-3 after the regular season. Statistically, Grant has determined that 11-3 is the closest thing to excellence there is. That's why the loss to Green Bay did not disturb him. And did not disturb any other Viking, not noticeably.
Grant once described himself as "no different from the guy who runs a McDonald's hamburger stand." He said it with sly humor and pride. Last week the Vikings played like hamburgermen. But those weren't the real Vikings. Except with their one-liners.