They call him "Two-Minute Tommy" and the last two weeks Minnesota quarterback Tommy Kramer has shown the football world why, engineering late drives that defeated Dallas in the regular-season finale and Atlanta in the first round of the Super Bowl tournament.
Eleven times since he joined the Vikings in 1977, and nine times since he became the No. 1 quarterback in 1979, Kramer has pulled out a victory for Minnesota either within the last two minutes or in overtime.
Ten of those games have been played in front of home crowds, however, and Saturday's playoff contest against the Washington Redskins will be watched by an unfriendly gathering at RFK Stadium. Until a 34-31 success at Detroit in its last road game, Minnesota had lost eight in a row away from home.
"I don't know why we play better at home," Kramer said today, spitting tobacco juice into a paper cup while he relaxed on a lounge after a postpractice session in the weight room. "I guess you perform better in more comfortable surroundings, but, regardless, I don't think that should have much effect in the playoffs. Everybody knows it's the last shot. The effort will be there."
Kramer acknowledged that noisy, antagonistic fans could make it more difficult to execute his patented two-minute drill, particularly when it is necessary to call audibles. Coach Bud Grant sends in all the plays, but Kramer uses audibles "about 20 percent of the time." Twice in a row down the stretch against Atlanta, he switched the plays to utilize Ted Brown's running against a misplaced linebacker.
"With the crowd screaming, it can be hard for people to hear you," Kramer said. "You can't hear the snap counts, or the linemen can't hear it in the shotgun. It makes it tougher, but with the stakes this high, we'll find ways to get around it. We use visual signs, too."
As for his abnormal success in the two-minute drill, Kramer said he found it easier than attacking normal defenses.
"If they're sticking in one basic coverage, you can take advantage of it," Kramer said. "There are a lot of different things to do and all you have to do is get a first down. There isn't much time for the defense to look over our formation. And our offense has built-in blitz patterns if they try to blitz."
Kramer revels in the Vikings' wide-open offense, which last year picked up three-quarters of its yardage passing before attaining a more equitable 2-1 ratio in this shortened season.
"I enjoy throwing the ball and I was involved in a passing game both in high school and college," Kramer said. "I chose Rice because they threw the ball a lot and I figured, since I wanted a pro career, it was the route to take."
A year ago, while he passed for 3,912 yards in 14 games, sore knees limited Kramer's mobility and he was virtually a stationary target for opposing headhunters. An arthroscopy took care of stretched ligaments in his left knee, but it was never determined what was wrong with the right. This year he has been healthy and able to maneuver in the backfield. He scored three of Minnesota's six rushing touchdowns in the regular season, one on an 18-yard dash.
Another change in Kramer concerns his personal life. Where once he was known as the playboy of the Midwestern world, with behavior patterns similar to Billy Kilmer, Kramer has taken on Roger Staubach tendencies in his old age of 27.
In April, Kramer began a month-long treatment for chemical dependency, then in June he was married. It is noteworthy that a Minnesota public relations assistant warned a reporter not to bother Kramer at home, because while most cooperative in the locker room he wanted his privacy respected outside working hours. A year ago, the reporter would merely have checked out various bars along I-494 until Kramer was located.
"I settled down and got married and I'm not living in the fast lane any more," Kramer said. "I had enough of it. I don't feel it ever affected my play, but I just had all I wanted. It could have taken a toll on me physically and if I wanted to play longer, it was time to settle down."
Kramer's goal is to win the Super Bowl "and everything else will take care of itself. When you win the Super Bowl you get more money than you ever had and that's what everybody is shooting for, oddball season or not."
To beat the Redskins and keep that Super dream alive, Kramer said, the Vikings have to "control the ball and keep their offense from getting it. We can't give up points like we have on interceptions. Our defense has to shut down their passing game and put good pressure on (Joe) Theismann."
Theismann and Kramer are offseason buddies and both have the same agent, Bill Morris.
"We played in a couple of golf tournaments during the summer and we were joking about the game we were supposed to play in midseason," Kramer said. "Joe said he hoped we'd beat Dallas for them. Of course, when you're out on the field, you're enemies."
And if they are buddies off the field, they are not drinking buddies. Kramer is content to pass up even a sociable beer, because he knows it might lead to more. As for the Super Bowl, though, he would like to see if the same thesis would hold true.