Thursday, January 14, 2010

The greatest Vikings torment: Stram, Armen and Drew, Nelson or Gary?

With the Vikings prepared to host the Cowboys this week, there have been several stories written about the playoff history between the two teams.

Before their win over Philadelphia last week, the Cowboys' last playoff victory was against the Vikings, during the 1996 season. Troy and Emmitt and Irvin were still around for the Cowboys. Barry Switzer roamed the sidelines. The Vikings trounced them a few years later behind Jeff George and Randy Moss. But the game everyone still remembers came in 1975, also in a Divisional game. That game goes by several aliases. Sometimes called the Hail Mary game, sometimes called the Drew Pearson game, I prefer to think of it as the Armen Terzian game. No matter the name, the pain remains for Vikings fans. I was only six months old, but my family's screams from that day must have left an impression, as the details from the game are as vivid as they would have been if I'd sat in Met Stadium, tossing a beer bottle at Armen Terzian's head.

But was that the most infuriating moment in team history, which is perhaps a bit different than the most heartbreaking? Vikings fans, your thoughts?

The other nominees:

* I say infuriating because one of the possibilities didn't really involve a last-second heartbreak, just three hours of ineptitude. Super Bowl IV. The Vikings, favored by 13 points against the Kansas City Chiefs, came into the game with one of the strongest teams in franchise history. They had a 12-2 record, led the league in points scored and allowed the fewest points in the league. They lost the first and last games of the season, but won 12 in a row in between. Because Super Bowl III lives on in football history, thanks to Joe Namath's guarantee and the Jets upset over the Colts, the Chiefs' dominance the following year sometimes gets lost, but it was just as shocking as the previous year's game. People thought the AFL's win in 1969 was a fluke or a passing fad. Kansas City showed it wasn't, controlling the game throughout, winning 23-7.

But that was only the beginning of the misery. For fans, the true horror came later, with the NFL Films production of the game. For the first time, a coach wore a wire. The coach was the chatty Hank Stram. Forty years later, Stram's words and that voice - that voice - still play on a loop in the nightmares of Minnesotans.

When talking about legendary Vikings defensive end Jim Marshall, the cocky Stram said "it looks like he's in a Chinese fire drill." Politically incorrect, but also accurate. He laughed as the Chiefs ran the "65 toss power trap. What'd I tell ya boys? 65 toss power trap!" He complimented the officials. He criticized them. Perhaps most famously, he bizarrely implored, "Keep matriculating the ball down the field, boys!" At various times he cackled maniacally, like someone performing a parody of a movie madman. Today, reality TV has taught us that otherwise normal people will debase themselves and play to the camera if there's one within 100 feet. Stram might have been the first sports figure who couldn't resist the allure of the camera, or the microphone. Some of his lines almost sounded scripted. Picture Steve Sabol feeding Stram suggestions through an earpiece, helping him find just the right words to infuriate thousands. And now his words live on in the archives of NFL Films, and the damaged psyches of Vikings fans.

Listen, and watch here, Vikings fans.

* Another Super Bowl, another rout. In fact, the final Super Bowl debacle for the Vikings, who had also lost to Miami and Pittsburgh. In 1977, the Raiders did the honors, trouncing the Vikings 32-14. Again, not much in the way of heartbreak in this one. But thanks again to NFL Films, one moment from that game stands out above all others. No, not Jack Tatum's vicious hit on Sammy White, which decimated the Vikings receiver. The image that lives is Willie Brown's interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Go to the 5:25 mark.

Old Man Willie. The close-up on Brown as he sprints down the field after picking off Tarkenton. The slow-motion. The giddy Raiders announcer, narrating the destruction as he escorts Old Man Willie to the end zone. That shot of Brown became the image that would play on NFL Films recaps for decades to come, the final piece on the soundtrack documenting the Vikings' Super Bowl misery.

* The Vikings plodded along for the next decade, with the only real excitement coming with the hiring of tough guy Les Steckel, followed by his subsequent firing and the return of Bud Grant for one season. But in 1987 a talented team led by Wade Wilson, Keith Millard and Chris Doleman surged at the end of a strike-shortened season. They crushed New Orleans and San Francisco in the playoffs, meeting Washington in the NFC title game. The Redskins dismantled the Broncos in the Super Bowl, but the Vikings played them right to the end.

And in the end it came down to one play, 56 seconds left, fourth down.

It's become known locally as The Drop, since it appeared that Darrin Nelson dropped a potential game-tying pass. But it was a hell of a tough catch and the defender was right there. And not only was a defender there, superstar receiver Anthony Carter loitered nearby, clogging up the area. Still, that game lives on in Vikings infamy, partly because it had been a decade since the Vikings had been that good and also because it would be another decade before they returned to the NFC title game. Those years of futility, both before and after the non-drop, simply added to the misery, since it was the one chance the team had to advance to the Super Bowl, where they could have gone for an unprecedented fifth loss. In between came a handful of arrests, the Herschel trade, Burnsie's departure, a new Sheriff in town and a bunch of first-round exits from the playoffs.

* About that game a decade after the 1987 title loss. There's not much need to recite the details from that NFC title game in January of 1999. Between shots of liquor to drown the pain, all Vikings fans can probably recite the key plays from that day off the top of their Viking-horn-adorned heads. From Denny's call for a kneel down to Morten Andersen's game-winning field goal. But one play stands out above - or would it be below? - all the rest. Gary Anderson's missed field. It stands out because it would have all but clinched the game, giving the Vikings a 10-point lead. Fans remember it because after the miss a feeling of dread invaded the stadium and households throughout the state, as it felt like something had been lost, even if the game hadn't yet been surrendered. But mostly it stands out because it was the first and only blemish on an otherwise perfect season, adding a new layer to the agony. Anderson and his ridiculous helmet made every field goal and extra point that year, until the time when he couldn't afford to miss.

A 38-yarder, one he could have normally made with his left foot. I could not find a single video of that kick anywhere online. Such is the power of the NFL's copyright lawyers, and, perhaps, the reach of former owner Red McCombs, who was certain he was going to hee-haw all the way to the Super Bowl that year. Red's ownership ended without a Super Bowl appearance or a new stadium. Anderson's kick would have ensured the former, and perhaps helped bring about the latter.

There is this: A video-game re-enactment, with the audio from Summerall and Madden. The weirdest thing about the video is that the person who took the time to set the stage and to post it, screwed up the most important detail. Instead of booting a 38-yard field goal, the guy has Anderson trying for an 80-yard field goal. No wonder the kid from South Africa missed.

So which was the most infuriating? Probably Anderson's kick, and that loss following the 15-1 season. Pearson's (alleged) push-off in the 1975 game still enrages diehards, but at least that was a play made by the opposition. Also, a win there would have only put Minnesota in the NFC title game. Anderson's kick meant the Super Bowl, where they would have faced the Broncos. All season the Vikings felt like a team of destiny, right up until the moment they fulfilled the franchise's destiny.

This amusing piece, a parody of the NBA Where Amazing Happens commercials, sums up much of the Vikings' tortured existence. The biggest question for Vikings fans is, will a new chapter be added to their book of torment this week?


Mike said...

So did you not go to S. Africa earlier because of this game? Although the Vikings should have won in 1999, I think many people forget that Atlanta was 14-2 that year. The Pearson push-off is my second favorite thing to argue about with you, right behind "illegal boots" during snow football. My prediction of Sunday's game: Cowboys 31-Vikings 24.

Brock said...

I cried over the 99 loss. I probably would have cried over the Super Bowl loses as well, if I had been alive.

Shawn Fury said...

There were a lot of tears that year for you: Martin County West, the Vikings.

Atlanta was good that year, definitely. But the Vikings still were in control the first half until Randall's fumble. I don't know how anyone could think Pearson's pushoff was illegal but those shoes were legal.

Brock said...

I also cried that year when Josh made the falling down long shot at the mankato east tournament, but was in joy. I just watched the video at the end, good and sad. Nice link!

Dad said...

The worst was the first super bowl. We were so much better and I was telling Army buddies that there was no way the Vikes could lose. Afterward I had nowhere to hide. The Pearson game was second worst, although the forth down out of bounds catch before that was terrible as well.

Jerry said...

There is no "alleged" about it - he pushed Wright. In his defense it was a hell of a catch, even if he did push off. But your dad has it right - if the fourth down catch (non-catch) is called properly the Hail Mary never takes place. The first Super Bowl and 99 rank a clsoe second in my book.

Shawn Fury said...

St. John's covered Otis Taylor better in the 1963 title game than the Vikings did in Super Bowl IV. That might have been part of the problem.

Jerry said...

Okay - you got me on Otis Taylor. The entire defense looked like was a Chinese fire drill for the better part of the game. But it is where I did develop my 'dislike' for Hank Stram.