"I know that if I played quarterback, I'd want to call the plays," says Ron Jessie, the Rams' acrobatic wide receiver. "Figuring out a defense, pulling something off, that's leadership. And that's important to a quarterback. Stepping into that huddle with authority and emotion, making crucial decisions in the heat of battle, doing something unusual, being the master of your own strategy. Take all that away from a quarterback and you put him at a mental disadvantage."
Until last Saturday, Haden had not been free to call his own game since his brief experience with the World Football League's Southern California Sun two years ago. The third quarterback, rookie Vince Ferragamo, had never called his own plays—not in high school, not at the University of California, where he first played college football, and not at Nebraska, where he finished his undergraduate career. Namath, meanwhile, had pretty much run his own show in his 12 years with the Jets.
But a preseason game, particularly an opener, is not a proper showcase for tactical genius. Against the Vikings, Namath was instructed to give the ball whenever feasible to his untested running backs, rookie Wendell Tyler from UCLA and second-year man Jim Jodat. Both responded with fine games, Jodat leading all rushers with 65 yards, but the premeditated strategy robbed Namath of much of his initiative. Ferragamo, playing in only the fourth quarter, called every play but one, Rod Phillips' seven-yard touchdown run off tackle, a play sent in by messenger. But because Ferragamo was unaccustomed to the freedom he had been granted, he was not offended by this minor usurpation of authority.
Haden had the most freedom of choice, but he was operating with only a few plays and finished his half calling a fairly conservative game. He was also disappointed with himself. "I gave them an easy seven points with a bad handoff [which resulted in a John Cappelletti fumble and a quick Viking score] and I threw a bad pass for an interception." But Haden also led all passers, completing six of 12 for 104 yards.
For Minnesota, Fran Tarkenton, that other aging quarterback, played only the first quarter but led the Vikings to a 16-0 lead. The Rams rallied to go ahead 17-16, but just when they seemed to have the game won, the Vikings went to the kick-blocking tactics that had destroyed Los Angeles in last season's NFC title game. With only 1:27 to play, Nate Allen cruised in and blocked Gerald Vaught's punt, scooped up the ball and ran it back 23 yards for a touchdown, giving Minnesota its 22-17 win.
After the game Namath was humble in a wry sort of way. He rolled his eyes when he caught sight of the newsmen swarming about his locker, but he endured the questioning with mostly good humor. When an especially friendly reporter asked him if he had found a place to live yet in the Los Angeles area, Namath, hurrying toward the showers, replied, "No." Then, smiling, he added, "I've gotta make the team first."
That, of course, is precisely what Ram fans expect of him—to make their team first. First in all of the NFL.