The Vikings are so incredibly veteran," said the Los Angeles Rams' incredibly baby-faced Pat Haden. This was a few days before the playoff game with Minnesota, and the awe expressed by the Ram quarterback seemed to be shared by most of his teammates. Over the years the Rams had lost four straight to the Vikings in the playoffs and certainly they were right to be concerned about Fran Tarkenton, the 38-year-old Viking sorcerer who had just finished setting an NFL season record for most passes thrown and completed. True, Tarkenton's passing achievements came about mainly because Minnesota's running game had been the worst in the NFL and the Viking record was a weak 8-7-1. Still, Tarkenton might just dump off enough junk to Rickey Young, Chuck Foreman, Sammy White and Ahmad Rashad to spoil Los Angeles' Super Bowl hopes yet again.
Instead, Tarkenton spent Sunday afternoon running for his life from Jack Youngblood, Fred Dryer, Cody Jones and Larry Brooks. And finally, with the Vikings down 27-10 in the game's waning minutes, Tarkenton threw the last of his 37 passes—perhaps the last of his marvelous career—into the Rams' end zone, where it landed at least 20 yards from anyone on either team.
It was Haden, the 25-year-old Rhodes scholar and part-time law student, who was the hero of the day, reading the Viking defense like one of his dog-eared political science textbooks, completing 15 of 29 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns and slaying the Viking jinx as the Rams won 34-10.
In retrospect it was an easy game, but it didn't become easy until the second half. Until then it appeared that the jinx was still on. Minnesota scored first, on a 42-yard field goal by Rick Danmeier in the first period. On the Rams' second possession Scott Studwell of the Vikings blocked a Glen Walker punt and Minnesota took over at the Rams' 20. Oh, Lord, Los Angeles thought, here we go again. Tarkenton had already passed nine times in the Vikings' first 12 plays; now he aimed one at White cutting right to left across the end zone. But Bill Simpson, the Rams' free safety, flew in front of White to make a touchdown-saving interception.
By the second quarter Haden had "picked up a key," he said, that tipped him off to the Viking defensive plans. He used it—he would not say what it was—to mix up inside trap plays for Cullen Bryant and slashes to the outside by John Cappelletti, along with a couple of passes. One went for 29 yards to Ron Jessie, one for nine yards and a touchdown to Willie Miller. Haden was having a field day picking on rookie Cornerback John Turner, who was filling in for Viking regular Nate Wright, out with a broken arm. Frank Corral's 43-yard field goal made it 10-3, a lead that held almost to the end of the half and seemed safe enough after a Ram blitz stopped a Viking drive at the two-minute warning.
In the Chuck Knox days, with a seven-point lead 1:58 from halftime, the Rams would have run out the clock. But the main reason why Knox left L.A. last year—and why George Allen, the 1978 coach for a minute or two, became a TV commentator—was conservatism. Under new Coach Ray Malavasi the Rams "go for it." Which at this particular moment—that jinx again—turned out to be all wrong.
From his 32, Haden aimed a pass over the middle at Terry Nelson, but Minnesota's Bobby Bryant stepped in to intercept. He lateraled to Wally Hilgenberg, who was thrown out of bounds with unnecessary violence by Miller. With a personal foul penalty tacked on, Tarkenton had the ball at the Rams' 27. From there it was like touch football in the park. A diving catch by Young at the three and a quick look-in to Rashad sent the teams to their dressing rooms tied at 10.
But by this time the Rams had unshakable confidence. Tarkenton had confused their defense early with a series of multiple sets and shifts � la Dallas, but now they had him figured out. "Fran told me they drew the thing up on the bus," said Dryer. "It took us a while to get it, but we did. They can't run, so there was none of that stuff about 'establishing a running game.' Fran's too smart for that. So he says, 'O.K., I'm throwing. It's our six against your six.' But if he stays in the pocket, he gets killed. He knows that."
"No way he could beat us with nickel-and-dime passes," said Middle Linebacker Jack Reynolds.
And the jinx?