Remember Steve Dils? He was the unknown Minnesota Viking quarterback who came into RFK Stadium midway through the season and, despite hardly any pro experience, performed like an all-star against the Redskins.
Minnesota entered the game with a 3-5 record, had an injured No. 1 quarterback (Tommy Kramer, who had been struggling, too) and had little thought of doing anything this season but continuing its rebuilding program. But the November day, Dils, the little-known prospect from Stanford, got the Vikings started on a run to the NFC Central championship.
Barring an unforeseen incident, Steve Dils won't be very visible Saturday, when the Vikings (9-7) travel to Philadelphia to play the Eagles (11-5) in an NFC playoff game. Yet he might have done as much as any Minnesota player to accelerate the club's return to championship caliber.
The big reason the Vikings improved the second half of the season is Kramer, the former No. 1 pick who took over for the retired Fran Tarkenton in 1979, just in time for Minnesota to suffer its first losing record in 11 years.
Kramer didn't start playing well until after the Washington game. At the outset of that period, many thought Dils should continue to start. Coach Bud Grant, whose stability is the cornerstone of the franchise, thought otherwise.
He admitted Kramer could do better. He acknowledged he had heard reports that Kramer's active social life could be detracting from his on-field performances. He also thanked Dils for his effort against the Redskins and stuck with Kramer.
"Dils" performance shook up Tommy," said one Minnesota source. "He got going after that Washington game. He suddenly realized he could be replaced. Things had been really whirling around him, but when Bud stuck with him, it helped Tommy's confidence."
Kramer admits he was upset when his personal life was criticized. "I'm a bachelor, but that doesn't mean I go crazy," he said. "I enjoy myself, but I also realize my position. But I just don't know if this is anyone's business but my own. Don't people have something better to do than pry into other people's lives?"
Grant's faith in his quarterback has been rewarded amply. In the first eight games, Kramer was terrible: 17 interceptions, only seven touchdown passes, and he was very inconsistent. Minnesota had committed 20 turnovers, its running game was virtually nonexistent and injuries hindered its best players.
In his last seven games, Kramer did a flip-flop, with 1,916 passing yards, 12 touchdowns, just six interceptions, and a 61 percent completion average. He threw four of those interceptions in the last game; otherwise, he was a major reason why the Vikings committed just 26 turnovers this season, compared to forcing 38 (the plus-12 difference was third best in the league). Over the second half of the schedule, Minnesota did not lose a fumble and gave up only three in its 16 games this season.
Of course, it took a miracle catch -- Ahmad Rashad's scoring grab of a deflected pass on the final playa against Cleveland -- to push the Vikings into the playoffs.But Kramer already was enjoying a miraculous afternoon that day. He was 38 for 49 and 456 yards. He also threw for 395 yards against Atlanta and 324 against Tampa Bay.
As Kramer matured, his receivers benefited. Rashad ended the season with 69 catches. Halfback Rickey Young had 64, including 41 in the last nine games. Halfback Ted Brown had 62 (along with 912 rushing yards), receiver Sam White had 53 catches and tight end Joe Sensor, who was on injured reserve last year, grabbed 42.
The Vikings always expected Kramer to become a star. That was one reason they surprised many NFL experts by picking him so high in the draft. But like the team, his growing process was supposed to take much, much longer.
Mike Lynn, the Viking general manager, admits that he felt the team would be of playoff caliber again by the time the Vikings move into their new domed stadium in 1982.
"We felt the 1981 draft would give us the players we need to contend with anyone in the league," he said. "We wer hoping this season to win a couple more than last year."
Minnesota certainly profited by playing in the league's worst division, where a .500 record almost was good enough for first place. This is no powerhouse, although Grant and Lynn have loaded it with young, highly regarded players who are easing the transition from the Tarkenton-Page-Eller days.
Grant alone remains the link between the old and the new Vikings. He has been with the team 14 years, and it has won 11 Central Division titles. He still is one of the league's most unique characters: a low-key, witty, solid maverick who doens't always follow the accepted trends, whether it means forgetting hand warmers on the sidelines or cutting training camp by two weeks.
The image many have of Grant is taht of a conservative iceman. But long before teams were passing so much in the NFL, Grant had Tarkenton tossing 40 passes a game.And it wouldn't be surprising to see this conservative coach allow Kramer to put up 50 passes against Philadelphia Saturday -- then hope for another miracle.