This is not supposed to be a particularly good year for the Minnesota Vikings , whose 6-2 record in the second half of last season made them the National Football Conference's Central Division champions. The real Vikings, the experts say, were the ones who were routed 31-16 by the Philadelphia Eagles in the first-round of the playoffs.
Basically Minnesota is a one-way team that likes to throw the ball -- that puts a premium on the passing of quarterback Tommy Kramer and the catching of wide receivers Ahmad Rashad and Sammy White. Defense may be a necessary ingredient to winning, but not all that necessary if you can outscore the opposition.
This is to report that Head Coach Bud Grant doesn't really feel that way. After several years of relying primarily on a 4-3 defense, he is experimenting with three men up front this season, supported by four line-backers, all of whom move well laterally.
"I think you have to give Bud credit for being willing to shift his system to fit his material," explained Assistant Coach Bob Hollway, who works with the defense. "We've got some outstanding linebackers, and when you use them differently on every play it really makes it tough for the opposing quarterback to know from what direction he is going to be pressured.
"But overall it's harder to build a dominating defense today because almost every rule change in the past couple of years has helped the offense," Hollway said. "Receivers have a lot more freedom now, and if you don't have people who anticipate well in your secondary, you can give up five and six yards on every pass play."
This explains why Grant has moved 10-year veteran Jeff Siemon into a linebacking position alongside Matt Blair, Scott Studwell, and Fred McNeill. By blitzing one of them on many plays, the Vikings hope to pressure quarterbacks into getting rid of the ball before their intended receivers have run their patterns.
Asked to explain the kind of football that gave Minnesota a 3-5 record in the first half of 1980 and 6-2 in the second, Grant replied:
"I don't know that we played any better, only that we won more games. When you try to explain what happened last season, the answer lies somewhere in the fact that most teams are so equal now that a game often turns on the result of one or two plays. The fans love this kind of football, but it makes it hard for the coach who has to analyze it.
"People have a tendency to repeat cliches, and one of those I'm tired of hearing is that the NFC's Central Division is weak. Well, in the last four years the competition in our division has been so tough that several times the championship has had to be decided by tie-breakers. And I don't see that competition easing off one bit, because in my opinion every team in our division helped itself in the draft."
Actually Minnesota took some flak from the media this year for the way it conducted its draft. Expected to go heavily for defensive players, Grant went instead for running back Jarvis Redwine of Nebraska and wide receiver Mardye McDole of Mississippi State. Explanation? Always take the best players available, because if they aren't exactly what you want, you can always trade them for the help you need.
Grant, who has never cultivated the news media and is probably tired of hearing himself referred to as the Great Stone Face, is approaching some won-lost figures that should get him into pro football's Hall of Fame.
Counting 122 victories with Winnipeg in the Canadian League (1957-1966) and 140 triumphs with Minnesota, Bud's teams had won a total of 262 regular- and post-season games starting this season. Only George Halas, who coached the Chicago Bears for so many years, won more.
Quiet like Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys, but without Landry's flair for complex defenses, Grant has always seemed to get the maximum from his material. Bud also believes that training camp is drudgery, so he makes his shorter than most.
"There are coaches who spend 18 hours a day coaching the perfect game," Grant once said. "Then they lose because the ball is oval and they can't control the bounce. And because they can't, they torture themselves.
"The way to win is to keep pressure on the other team, force them into errors , turn those mistakes into points for yourself, and then do it all over again," Bud added. "Practice is part of it, of course. But it always helps when you go into a game feeling you're going to win, and that's mental."