December 27, 2010

1969: Kapp Brings Vikings From Behind to Beat Rams in Western Playoff

The Minnesota Vikings had made it to the postseason for the first time in 1968 and were stronger in ’69. On December 27, 1969 they hosted the Los Angeles Rams at Metropolitan Stadium for the NFL Western Conference title.

The Vikings had topped the Central Division with a league-best 12-2 record. Under Head Coach Bud Grant, they featured a strong defense, in particular the line of ends Jim Marshall and Carl Eller and tackles Alan Page and Gary Larsen. The offense was conservative and directed by QB Joe Kapp (pictured above) - like Grant, a product of the Canadian Football League. Kapp had his critics, for his technique (especially when passing the ball) was unpolished, but he was a tough and fiery leader who found ways to win, which included running the ball himself (and not shying from contact when doing so).

As was typical of teams coached by George Allen, Los Angeles relied heavily on veteran players, was conservative and run-oriented offensively, and defensively solid. QB Roman Gabriel was the consensus league MVP and kept the turnovers low (he tossed 24 TD passes and only 7 interceptions). The excellent offensive line allowed just 17 sacks. The Rams had won their first 11 games, but lost the last three to finish atop the Coastal Division with an 11-3 record.

There were 47,900 fans present on a 25 degree day in Minnesota. The Rams got the first couple of breaks. After Kapp passed to WR John Henderson for a 12-yard gain, FB Bill Brown fumbled and safety Richie Petitbon recovered for the Rams at the Minnesota 45. On LA’s first play, Gabriel was hit by LB Roy Winston while passing and Eller grabbed the pass for an apparent interception and return for a touchdown, but an offside penalty nullified the play. The Rams, benefiting from the reprieve, drove to a score. RB Larry Smith ran three times up the middle for 19 yards, Gabriel passed to WR Wendell Tucker for eight yards, and FB Les Josephson added five yards on three runs. On a third-and-three play, Gabriel rolled out and passed to TE Bob Klein for a touchdown.

The Vikings came back with a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive of their own. Kapp completed four straight passes, including three to WR Gene Washington that totaled 49 yards; the last was for 27 yards to the LA four yard line. HB Dave Osborn leaped over Petitbon and into the end zone for a TD with 3:29 remaining in the first quarter.

The Rams put together another drive, but failed to score when Bruce Gossett was wide on a 38-yard field goal attempt. However, they were more successful on their next possession that consumed 12 minutes of the second quarter. The drive featured screen passes as well as good ground-gaining by the backs, and Gabriel kept it going with a 13-yard run to the Minnesota 47 on a third-down play. This time Gossett was successful on a 20-yard field goal to break the tie with 4:30 left in the half.

Following another punt by the Vikings, Gabriel completed passes of 16 and 18 yards to TE Billy Truax (pictured at left), the second putting the Rams at the Minnesota 22 yard line. Smith and Josephson then ran the ball down to the two. The 13-play, 65-yard possession ended with a Gabriel pass to Truax for a two-yard touchdown. Los Angeles had scored on three of four first half possessions and led at halftime by 17-7.

Minnesota came out fired up for the second half. Still, the Rams looked strong as they took the second half kickoff and Smith ran 12 yards to near midfield, but the drive stalled and they had to punt for the first time.

Kapp completed a 41-yard pass to Washington that put the ball on the LA 12, and a piling-on penalty moved the ball to the six. Kapp scrambled to the one and Osborn dove in for a touchdown that cut the Rams’ lead to 17-14.

The Minnesota defense was playing more aggressively and was stopping the LA attack that had been so effective in the first half. However, the Rams then got a couple of breaks on defense.

First, on a drive deep into Los Angeles territory, FS Ed Meador intercepted a Kapp pass at the four yard line. He returned it to the 19 and fumbled, but the Rams maintained possession. However, LA couldn’t move and had to punt again. But Kapp was intercepted a second time, by Petitbon, to give the Rams excellent field position at the Minnesota 36.

It seemed as though Los Angeles might be able to add another touchdown, but a pass to Truax at the five fell incomplete, thus forcing the Rams to go for three rather than adding a crucial seven points. Gossett was good from 27 yards to make the score 20-14 in the fourth quarter.

The Vikings put together a 65-yard drive as Kapp completed three straight passes for 40 yards to the LA 19, two of them to Brown out of the backfield, and eventually scoring a touchdown himself on a two-yard bootleg with 8:24 left to play.

Now with a one-point lead at 21-20, the fired-up Vikings stopped CB Ron Smith on the 12 yard line on the ensuing kickoff return. On the next play, Eller (pictured at right) went around All-Pro OT Bob Brown to hit Gabriel, fading back from his 12 yard line. Catching him at the two, Eller drove him into the end zone and tackled him for a safety. Minnesota’s lead was now three points.

The Rams got one more possession after the safety and, starting at their 15, advanced to the Minnesota 44 before Page intercepted a Gabriel pass to nail down the 23-20 win with 31 seconds remaining.

The statistics indicated the closeness of the contest as the Vikings outgained the Rams by just 275 yards to 255 while LA had the edge in first downs by just 19 to 18.

Joe Kapp completed 12 of 19 passes for 196 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions, and ran for 42 yards (all in the second half). He had set up all three Minnesota touchdowns with outstanding passing and, beyond the statistics, displayed outstanding leadership in bringing the Vikings from behind. Gene Washington caught four passes for 90 yards and John Henderson also caught four, adding another 68 yards. While Kapp was the team’s leading rusher, Dave Osborn had 30 yards on 13 attempts to top the running backs.

In defeat, Roman Gabriel (pictured at left) completed 22 of 32 passes for 150 yards with two TDs and one interception. Larry Smith, playing with a broken nose for much of the game, led the running attack with 60 yards on 11 carries and caught 6 passes for an additional 36 yards. Les Josephson had 7 receptions for 41 yards while Billy Truax gained a team-leading 47 yards on 5 catches that included a touchdown.

“We lost because the Vikings were better than we were in the second half,” a disappointed Coach George Allen said. “I have never seen a team come so ready to play as we were and lose. It's hard to believe.”

The Vikings went on to easily beat the Browns for the NFL Championship, but they were upset in the last pre-merger Super Bowl by the AFL-champion Kansas City Chiefs. In the next 13 seasons under Bud Grant, Minnesota made it to the postseason 10 times. By the time the Rams next appeared in the playoffs, in 1973, both Allen and Gabriel had moved on.