One of the Biggest NFL Games of the Sixties

Two teams with a combined record of 21-1 played each other on December 7, 1969, with everything on the line: for the Los Angeles Rams, a perfect season. For the Minnesota Vikings, home-field advantage in the playoffs. This is the story of the biggest game of the 1969 season.

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Every Friday, host John Gidley shares interesting stories of games, players, coaches and teams that aren’t necessarily forgotten, but are not as well-known as they should be. 

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Biggest Game of 1969

Our first trip into the Football Attic will focus on a huge game on December 7, 1969, played at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, between the undefeated, 11-0 Los Angeles Rams, and the 10-1 Minnesota Vikings.

You might be asking yourself, “John, how can this game be huge if I know nothing about it?” That’s a fair point. To tell you the truth, I went a long time without knowing about it, either. There are a few reasons for this: first of all, it was 1969, the final year before the NFL and its counterpart of ten years, the American Football League, merged to create the present-day NFL in 1970, which is regarded by many as the start of the league’s modern era.

Also, there are very few, if any, historical accounts of this game. All I’ve found are the box score and some newspaper articles, as well as a brief clip of 20 or 30 seconds on YouTube that doesn’t really show much. Now, if this game had taken place in 1979 or 1989, there’s a better chance that you could find the original television broadcast on YouTube, but this was in an era before VCR, and it was very rare for the networks to tape broadcasts of sporting events.

They would tape their Prime Time programming for posterity, knowing that several of those shows could live on in reruns for decades to come, but they didn’t think anyone would want to go back and watch an old game if they already knew what the outcome was. That may have been understandable at the time, but in retrospect, how very wrong they were.

Setting the Scene for the Game

As I mentioned, the Rams came in with a perfect record of 11 wins and no losses. They were looking to become the first NFL team since the 1942 Chicago Bears to finish the regular season undefeated. In their most recent game the week before, they beat the Redskins in Washington, 24-13. A week before that, they played another home game against a one-loss team.

That day, it was the Dallas Cowboys, who were 8-1, and the Rams held off some attempted second-half comebacks by the Cowboys, just barely getting by with a 24-23 win. This was in an era where Los Angeles had some great teams that always came up short in the playoffs. In 1967, they won 11 games, lost only once, and tied twice, but lost to the Packers in the playoffs, 28-7. In 1968, they went 10-3-1 but missed the playoffs since this was in an era before wild cards, and the Rams finished in second place in their division.

The Rams’ head coach was George Allen, former defensive coordinator under George Halas for the Bears. Allen was hired in 1966 to change the fortunes of a Los Angeles franchise that suffered seven consecutive losing seasons from 1959 to 1965, and he did just that as soon as he got there.

He coached the Rams for five seasons, and not once did he end the season with a losing record. What always held him back, however, was his team’s inability to win in the postseason. On both sides of the ball, the Rams were great.

They had quarterback Roman Gabriel, who was on his way to an MVP season in 1969, throwing for 24 touchdowns to just seven interceptions. The running game left something to be desired, but Gabriel had a good receiving corps, led by Jack Snow, Wendell Tucker, and Billy Truax.

On defense, look no further than the legendary Fearsome Foursome, comprised at this point of Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen, Lamar Lundy, and Roger Brown. Jones and Olsen would both wind up inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The Opponent - Purple People Eaters

Their opponent was easily the best team they had faced all season, the Minnesota Vikings, who had won ten games while losing just one. The Vikings were coached by the great Bud Grant, who spent 18 seasons at the helm in Minnesota.

Like George Allen, however, Grant never got the big one. He coached four teams that went to the Super Bowl, but all four of them lost. The Vikings of this era would wind up being just as disappointing as the Rams. This was unknown at the time, however.

This was only Minnesota’s ninth season in the NFL, and the year before, in 1968, they made their first-ever playoff appearance with a record of 8-6. That was a 24-14 loss to the Colts in Baltimore. They took the NFL by storm in 1969 with the league’s best offense and defense.

The offense was led by quarterback Joe Kapp, a strong running game was headed by Dave Osborn and Bill Brown, and Kapp’s top receivers were Gene Washington, John Henderson, and John Beasley. The offense scored 50 points on three separate occasions in 1969, all at home. In week two, they beat the Baltimore Colts, 52-14, in week eight, they humiliated the Cleveland Browns, 51-3, and two weeks before the Rams game, they notched another 52-14 victory, this time over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

That’s a great offense, but if you can believe it, the defense was even better. While the Rams had the Fearsome Foursome, the Vikings had the Purple People Eaters, led by two eventual Hall of Famers, Alan Page and Paul Krause, and another great player in Jim Marshall.

Paul Krause still holds the record for most career interceptions with 81, and that record isn’t going to be broken anytime soon. He led a dominant Minnesota secondary that picked off 30 passes in 1969. The Purple People Eaters twice recorded shutouts, 31-0 in Chicago in week five, and 27-0 in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day.

The most points they allowed in a single game all season was 24. That was in their only loss to this point. It was on Opening Day in New York against the Giants. The Vikings led that game, 23-10 in the fourth quarter, but the Giants came back on two touchdown receptions by Don Herrmann from quarterback Fran Tarkenton to beat Minnesota, 24-23.

Tarkenton played twice for the Vikings in his Hall-of-Fame career. This was during his in-between stint with the Giants.

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    Leading Up to the Showdown

    Coming into this game, the Vikings and the Rams had each clinched their respective divisions. The Vikings had won the Central division over the Lions, Packers, and Bears, and the Rams had secured the Coastal Division over the Colts, Falcons, and 49ers.

    The other two NFL divisions in 1969 also started with the letter C: the Capitol division consisted of the Cowboys, Redskins, Eagles, and Saints, and the Century division had the Browns, Cardinals, Giants, and Steelers. Geographically, the divisions made very little sense, but that was ok.

    Coming into the season, it was predetermined that the champions of the Capitol and Century divisions would face each other in the divisional round of the playoffs, and the Coastal and Central division champs would play against each other as well. So coming into December 7, Minnesota and Los Angeles already knew that they would see each other again three weeks later in the playoffs.

    It still carried a lot of meaning, though, since the Rams were going for a perfect season, and the winner was likely to have home-field advantage for their playoff matchup. On a sunny, 70-degree day, over 80,000 fans showed up to the L.A. Coliseum, and millions more were watching Hall of Fame broadcasters Jack Buck and Pat Summerall called the game on CBS.

    No word if any celebrities were on hand, but several political figures of the era took in this game: Vice President Spiro Agnew was at the game, along with California Governor Ronald Reagan and Senator George Murphy rooting on the Rams. Cheering for the Vikings was Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey. So, the stage has been set. Now on with the game.

    Now The Most Important Game of 1969

    Bruce Gossett kicked off for the Rams, and Charlie West fielded for the Vikings. West returned the opening kickoff 78 yards, and Minnesota was in immediate scoring position at the Los Angeles 22-yard line. The offense went in easily, with the first drive capped by a four-yard Dave Osborn touchdown run. Quickly, it was 7-0 Vikings.

    Minnesota relied heavily on a balanced running game in this one, as Osborn, Bill Brown, Oscar Reed, and quarterback Joe Kapp combined for 177 rushing yards, the most rushing yards the Rams gave up all season. Kapp was only 8-of-16 passing for 72 yards. The score remained 7-0 until the second quarter when Bill Brown capped an 88-yard drive by leaning forward for a one-yard touchdown to put the Vikings up 14-0, the largest deficit Los Angeles had faced all season.

    The Rams couldn’t get anything going on offense in the first half. Roman Gabriel threw for only 186 yards on the day, with an interception to the Vikings’ Earsell Mackbee. This was the only turnover of the game for either side, and it was the first time all year that the Los Angeles defense didn’t record at least one takeaway.

    Kickers Bruce Gossett and Fred Cox exchanged field goals in the remainder of the second quarter, and at halftime, the score was Minnesota 17, Los Angeles 3.

    Both defenses continued to bear down in the second half, and the only score of the third quarter came on a 27-yard field goal by the Rams’ Gossett, to trim the Vikings’ lead to 11 points, 17-6.

    In the fourth quarter, Fred Cox tacked on a 29-yard field goal that would prove to be some insurance points, extending the lead back to 14 points, 20-6. The Purple People Eaters turned in an outstanding effort on this day to thwart the league’s MVP and his offense, but they still let the Rams back in it towards the end of the game.

    In the final minutes of play, Gabriel led a 77-yard drive that was capped by a four-yard touchdown pass to Larry Smith. Just like that, the score was 20-13, and Los Angeles was still alive. The ball was back in Gabriel’s hands with one minute and 32 seconds remaining.

    The best the Rams could realistically hope for was a tie since regular-season overtime was not yet introduced. Gabriel marched L.A. from their own 14-yard line to midfield but proceeded to throw four consecutive incomplete passes.

    The Vikings had successfully stopped the Rams’ late efforts and handed Los Angeles their first loss of the season. Minnesota left Hollywood with a 20-13 victory.

    The Aftermath

    Despite the defeat, the Rams still had a slim chance to clinch home-field advantage for the playoffs over the next two weeks. They would have to rely, however, on the Vikings losing either of their final two games, both of which were against inferior opponents, San Francisco and Atlanta.

    Naturally, L.A. could keep themselves alive by winning any, or preferably both, of their final two. The next week, the Vikings edged the 49ers, 10-7 in snowy Minnesota. The Rams, however, were shockingly shut out by the Lions in Detroit, 28-0. What was shocking wasn’t that the Lions had beaten them, Detroit had a good team that year.

    It was just completely unexpected for both of the Rams’ strong units to shut down like that. So now, Minnesota was 12-1, and L.A. was 11-2. The Vikings had clinched home-field for the playoffs. Both teams lost their regular-season finales that turned out to be meaningless, Minnesota losing 10-3 at Atlanta, and Los Angeles falling at home to Baltimore, 13-7.

    When next they met, it was two days after Christmas in Bloomington, Minnesota, the divisional round of the playoffs. The temperature was a mere 11 degrees. Most expected the Rams to fold for two reasons: their disappointing regular-season finish, and the cold weather.

    Two years earlier, they had lost to the Packers in the playoffs in 13-degree conditions. To the surprise of many, however, Los Angeles led this game at halftime, 17-7, and was leading 20-14 in the fourth quarter. The Vikings came back, however, as Joe Kapp ran two yards for a touchdown to give them a 21-20 lead, and Carl Eller sacked Roman Gabriel in the end zone for a safety to make the final score 23-20.

    The Rams’ once-promising season had ended in disappointment yet again. The Vikings would go on to defeat the Browns, 27-7, in the last NFL Championship game ever played. They advanced to Super Bowl IV in New Orleans to face the AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs. Minnesota was favored by 12 points in this game but was completely shut down, as Kansas City rolled to a stunning 23-7 victory.

    So the Vikings ended the year the same way that the Rams did, only several weeks later.

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