By Joe Zagorski
In 1976, the Minnesota Vikings earned a spot in the National Football Conference’s Title Game. No big deal, if you measure that achievement by those of previous years during the decade of the 1970s. Head coach Bud Grant’s team had been to a total of three different NFC Championship Games from 1973 to 1976. But this one in 1976, however, was different. It would turn out to be the final year that the Vikings would be successful in earning a berth in the Super Bowl. It would also be the last time that veteran quarterback Fran Tarkenton would participate in a title game. And it would be achieved with the help from several key rookies on the Minnesota roster.
Diehard Vikings fans would certainly support their team no matter what, but even they would have to admit that age was creeping up on their players, especially on defense. Three of their defensive linemen, Alan Page, Jim Marshall, and Carl Eller, each had at least 10 years of service in the Minnesota trenches. Other veteran players were also showing their age. Paul Krause was a veteran of 13 years, and outside linebacker Roy Winston had 14 seasons under his belt. Several players on the Vikings offense were also getting a little old in the tooth. Two of Coach Grant’s quarterbacks (Tarkenton and Bob Berry) were 36 and 34 years old, respectively.
Wide receiver Bob Grim was 31, and center Mick Tinglehoff was 36. Teams of that era put quite a bit of premium on the overall experience, which the Vikings had in abundance. Moreover, the adage of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” fits in nicely with Grant. He knew that his team was successful enough to win several NFC title games with a skilled and knowledgeable roster, and outside of tweaking it just a little bit, nothing else was really needed, except maybe obtaining a little bit of luck.
Minnesota entered the 1976 NFC Divisional Playoffs without any need of good luck. You could say that they made their own good luck. They built a 35-6 lead over the NFC’s Wildcard entry, the Washington Redskins, throughout the first three quarters of that contest. They then coasted to an easy 35-20 triumph. Their opponent in the 1976 NFC Championship Game, however, would not be so simple to beat. The Los Angeles Rams were making another seemingly annual appearance in the playoffs, and ironically, that had a lot of similarities to the Vikings.
The Rams had a lot of veteran leadership and several All-Pros in their lineup. Moreover, they were having one of their best years during the 1970s. The 1976 Rams took a 10-3-1 record into their divisional playoff tilt against the defending NFC Champion Dallas Cowboys.
Three hours later, Los Angeles emerged from Texas Stadium with a convincing 14-12 upset. Like the Vikings, the Rams had also been to participate in several NFC Title Games throughout the 1970s. In fact, 1976 would mark the third straight year that Los Angeles had been to the conference championship game. They had lost the previous two. Would the third time be the charm for them?
The 1976 NFC Championship Game would be held at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota. It was brilliantly sunny of December 26, but the temperature was what one might expect from Minnesota in late December…19 degrees and a wind chill factor that made the temperature feel like seven degrees. It was indeed the Vikings who felt most at home in those climates.
Nevertheless, it was the Rams who began the game by surging down the field. Furthermore, the Los Angeles offense outgained the Minnesota offense by 69 total yards (336 to 267). The second Rams drive took them all the way down to within six inches of the Vikings goal line, but they were unable to obtain seven more inches.
On fourth and goal, Rams placekicker Tom Dempsey attempted what could easily be called a chip shot field goal. The snap from center was a bit high, however. The holder had to reach up for it, then place it down as quickly as possible. That high snap would cost Los Angeles one vital second…and six important points.
Minnesota cornerback Nate Allen was also a special teams player, and his role on opponents’ attempted field goals and extra point conversions was to rush from the outside and dive to block the kick, as close to the holder and kicker as possible. On this play, Allen performed his role to perfection. That extra second delay really helped, and once Wright stuck his chest out and blocked Dempsey’s kick, the Vikings got a green light to the Rams end zone 90 yards away. Minnesota’s other cornerback, Bobby Bryant, fielded the ball on one bounce and sprinted those 90 yards untouched for the game’s first score.
“To get to the Super Bowl, you’ve got to cash in on big plays like that,” said Rams defensive end Jack Youngblood. “Championship teams do that.”
Unfortunately for Los Angeles, their kicking woes did not end there. Rams punter Rusty Jackson dropped a snap near his end zone in the second quarter. He immediately fielded the ball, but his punt was just a little more than a second later than it should have been had he fielded the snap cleanly. Minnesota linebacker Matt Blair stormed into Jackson’s face and blocked the punt, which rolled out of bounds deep in Los Angeles territory. This miscue led directly to a 25-yard field goal from Vikings placekicker Fred Cox. Minnesota had built a 10-0 lead, without doing virtually anything on offense.
|Blair blocks Jackson's punt Credit: NFL Films|
“We weren’t supposed to block it,” admitted Blair. “We were playing for a return, but I had the feeling that I should go in. Luckily, Jackson dropped the ball, and that gave me the extra time.”
The time in the first half must have given the Rams both equally miserable and fortunate at feelings halftime. Here they were, trailing the NFC Title Game by only 10 points, and those points were not surrendered by their defense. Their offense had moved up and down the field but were unable to score any points.
The resulting pessimism was offset by the fact that 10 points could easily be overcome by many teams in 30 minutes, hence a feeling of confidence reigned. As the third quarter began, however, the Minnesota offense finally woke up. Their halfback Chuck Foreman did the honors. He took a handoff from Tarkenton and sprinted for 62 yards, all the way down to the shadow of Los Angeles’ goal line. A couple of plays later, Foreman completed the drive with a 1-yard run untouched into the end zone. The Vikings now owned a seemingly insurmountable 17-0 lead.
To their credit, however, the Rams did not give up. They continued to make mistakes and commit turnovers, but they also kept moving the ball. They finally reached paydirt in the third quarter when halfback Lawrence McCutcheon plowed into the Minnesota end zone from 10 yards out to score Los Angeles’ first touchdown. Tom Dempsey missed the extra point, however. That miss put an exclamation point to Dempsey’s rough afternoon.
But a good sign for the Rams showed itself later in the third quarter. The Vikings were also committing turnovers as well. One noteworthy miscue occurred when Los Angeles defensive end Fred Dryer steam into the Minnesota pass pocket and drilled Tarkenton, causing a fumble which fellow defensive end Jack Youngblood recovered for the Rams.
|Youngblood running with fumble caused by Dryer|
A few plays later from the 5-yard line, rookie Rams quarterback Pat Haden found wide receiver Harold Jackson open in the deep corner of the end zone. Jackson’s catch pulled Los Angeles to within four points at 17-13, with more than a full quarter left to play. The game at this point could go either way, as the fourth quarter waned into a series of punts and turnovers.
Perhaps Haden’s most costly interception of the year happened with just under three minutes remaining in the game. He threw deep for his fastest wide receiver, Ron Jessie, on fourth down no less. The call for a bomb surprised the Minnesota defense, and Jessie appeared to be free and clear of coverage. But Vikings cornerback Bobby Bryant made another big play, as he left his intended area of concern and broke in front of Jessie to snare the ball. It would be Bryant’s second interception of the game and combined with his blocked field goal return in the first quarter, Bryant would have the game of his life.
“I didn’t play worth a damn,” said a sullen Haden after the game. “I had receivers wide open and I couldn’t get them the ball.”
The Vikings offense followed up Haden’s final interception (he had two of them in this game) with another big play. Chuck Foreman caught a short pass from Tarkenton over the middle, evaded a couple of Rams defenders, then sprinted down the near sideline for 57 yards.
“I’ve never made a play in a game like this,” admitted Foreman. “But I’m supposed to do that.”
With but 30 seconds remaining in the game, Minnesota fullback Sammie Johnson ran 12 yards off tackle and surged past the goal line. The Vikings had prevailed, 24-13. It would mark the second time in three years that Minnesota had defeated Los Angeles in the NFC Championship Game, having done so previously in 1974.
Sadly for the Vikings, this victory certainly marked their last great win. They would go on to lose to the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XI two weeks later. And 44 years later, Minnesota is still in search of winning another NFC Title Game. That is quite a long drought. Thus the 1976 NFC Championship Game can rightfully be labeled as the Vikings Last Hurrah.
Joe Zagorski is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America, and the Pro Football Researchers Association. He has written three books about players and events of the NFL, including The NFL in the 1970s: Pro Football’s Most Important Decade; The Year the Packers Came Back: Green Bay’s 1972 Resurgence; and America’s Trailblazing Middle Linebacker: The Story of NFL Hall of Famer Willie Lanier.