Ever since he came into the NFL in 1977, and especially since he took over at quarterback for Fran Tarkenton in 1979, Minnesota's Tommy Kramer has been routinely feeding the masses with one fish and one loaf.
He has put miracle points on the board in all kinds of situations, including game-winning passes with 1:38, 0:17 and 0:13 remaining. On three other occasions, Kramer-led two-minute drills have resulted in decisive field goals by Rick Danmeier with 25, four and zero seconds left. And his 46-yard pass, which was tipped several times and finally caught for a touchdown by Wide Receiver Ahmad Rashad as time ran out, not only beat the Browns 28-23 and put the Vikings in the playoffs last season, but also won a place in the annals of Bobble Ball.
Whether Kramer can part the seas and get the Vikings into the Super Bowl this year remains to be seen. But the way he directed last Sunday's easier-than-it-reads 25-10 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Bloomington showed that the Vikings can play the game with anyone when Kramer and his epic cast of receivers are right.
The win put the Vikings a game ahead of the Bucs in the NFC Central Who were you expecting to see in front, already, the Chicago Bears? Since 1970, only Green Bay (1972) and Tampa Bay (1979) have interrupted the Vikings' domination of the Central, and the Bucs, who upset the Eagles in '79, are the only other division team to have gotten past the first round of the playoffs.
Minnesota has always deserved a better fate than to be mired in the wild and not-so-wonderful NFC Central. The name of Viking Coach Bud Grant, the noted duck hunter, will forever be preceded by "taciturn," but that doesn't mean "inflexible." He scrapped his celebrated people-eating 4-3 defense this season in favor of a 3-4 that better utilizes his linebacker strength. And he was wise enough to turn his offense into a circus with ringmasters like Tarkenton and now Kramer.
The Kramer variation resembles a game of "everybody out" in the old schoolyard. It's far from the great bomb-throwing tradition that, for one, got Terry Bradshaw to four Super Bowls, but times have changed. The dizzying number of zone defenses in use today—Tampa Bay tried alignments of 4-1-6 and 3-3-5 on Sunday—are less effective against the dink dink dink rhythm of Kramer's short passes. And the Vikings' offense is also geared to make use of today's more mobile tight ends, like their own Joe Senser, already among the best at his position and getting better.
Perhaps most important, Kramer has kept all of his eager pass catchers happy. "You can't help but walk around here with a smile on your face," says Wide Receiver Sammy White, a smile on his face.
The offense was at its best on Sunday, when it controlled the ball for more than 40 minutes. "Our offense got rigor mortis standing around," said Tampa Bay Coach John McKay, who once again out-quipped Grant but didn't beat him The Vikings had a 23-0 lead three minutes into the second half and could actually start rushing the ball once in a while (Ted Brown carried 31 limes for 129 yards, both career highs) like a normal team.
"I had to do some blocking today, and I've got a headache," said Senser, whose usual role is closer to that of a wide receiver. "I'm going to have to ask somebody about that."
If Senser asks his quarterback, Kramer will probably say, "Joe, I was just taking what the defense gave me." That's how Kramer answers most questions about the complicated attack concocted by Offensive Coach Jerry Burns and overseen by Grant. But Kramer knows more, much more, than he's letting on.