In only his second year as a National Football League head coach, Jerry Burns is far from being a celebrity by Hollywood standards. But to those close to the game, his credentials are very much in order. The man who has led the Minnesota Vikings to within one game of the Super Bowl spent many years learning his profession under such famous tutors as Vince Lombardi and Bud Grant. And if he and his team do make it to the big one, he will hardly be in unfamiliar territory, having been to six others as an assistant coach.
Minnesota advanced to the National Football Conference championship game by upsetting San Francisco, 36-24, last weekend. That earned the Vikings a date in Washington Sunday against the Redskins, whose passport came in the form of a 21-17 victory over Chicago.
In the American Conference semifinals, Cleveland pounded Indianapolis, 38-21, and Denver routed Houston, 34-10. The Broncos will now entertain the Browns in Denver on Sunday for the AFC title, with the victor going on to play the Minnesota-Washington winner in Super Bowl XXII in San Diego on Jan. 31.
Meanwhile, a few more words about Mr. Burns, whose unsmiling face, and habit of pacing up and down the sidelines during games have become as much a television staple as the helicopter scene that introduces M*A*S*H.
A quarterback at Michigan in 1949-50, Burns has coached in the high school, college, and pro ranks ever since. He began his NFL coaching career at Green Bay in 1966, going to Super Bowls I and II with the Packers, then in 1968 he joined the Vikings, with whom he made four more Super Bowl trips in the 1970s.
Burns has worked with both the defense and offense, but mostly with the latter. He's known as an innovator, and is credited with popularizing the one-back offense and the short passing game.
He finally got his NFL head coaching chance last season with the Vikings, who went 9-7 but missed the playoffs. In the strike-shortened '87 campaign Minnesota went 8-7, which turned out to be good enough to get in as a wild-card team.
The Vikings struggled at the end of the season, losing three of their last four games, but Burns found a quarterback who could do the job in Wade Wilson, a seven-year pro understudy who has suddenly escaped the shadows.
However, if anything should happen to Wilson, Burns has the ideal backup in former starter Tommy Kramer, who is now over most of the injuries that he has been fighting all season. Happily, there has never been any jealousy between Wilson and Kramer, who are not only friends but also golf and cribbage partners.
If there is a way to stop the Vikings on offense, a big part of the solution lies in how well opponents contain the multiple talents of wide receiver Anthony Carter.
Despite Carter's big hand in Minnesota's victory over New Orleans the previous week, San Francisco tried to handle the former Michigan star with single coverage - and got its pocket picked. While Anthony did not score any touchdowns, he did create several scoring opportunities. He also set an NFL playoff record by catching 10 passes for 227 yards.
What makes Carter so tough to defend is the way he can out-leap his rivals on the fly, then grab footballs as if he had gobs of sticky molasses on his fingers.
The Redskins, who all week have been breaking down films of Minnesota's playoff victories, will try to delay Carter by legal means at the line of scrimmage. But if what the Vikings have been doing offensively and defensively for the last two weeks is for real, Washington will need more than a filibuster to control the ball.
While Redskins' quarterback Doug Williams had a fine game against Chicago, Minnesota's defensive Front Four isn't apt to give him nearly as much time in which to throw.
Indeed, when these teams met on the last weekend of the regular season, it was Minnesota that controlled the action most of the way and led by 10 points midway in the fourth quarter only to blow the game as the Redskins tied it up and won via a field goal in overtime.
As for the AFC game, Denver is always tough at Mile High Stadium. There is also the problem of how to contain Bronco quarterback John Elway, who combines the maneuverability of a running back with an arm powerful enough to throw a football across two time zones.
Asked the advantages of being able to scramble when a play breaks down or all of his receivers are temporarily covered, Elway told reporters:
``Once a quarterback begins to scramble, everything evolves into a street game, but my receivers have seen this happen enough so that they know what to expect and how to get open.
``Now there's not any one thing that somebody is supposed to do when this happens. It's all instinct. It simply becomes a case of them trying to lose the guy who is covering them and me trying to find my receivers before somebody brings me down.''
The Browns, meanwhile, have a very clever quarterback of their own in Bernie Kosar, who reads defenses well, seldom throws an interception, and has the supreme confidence of his teammates. In addition, Cleveland's ``Dawgs'' looked good again Sunday when they held the Colts to just 63 yards on the ground.
Upsets have been forged with a lot less than this - but not usually in Denver! Elsewhere in the NFL
One of Chicago's biggest problems against Washington was the ineffectiveness of quarterback Jim McMahon, who hadn't played since injuring his leg on Dec. 6. Before Sunday, the Bears had won 28 of the last 29 games McMahon started at Soldier Field. But with Jim unable to scramble very well, it was not surprising that he had his problems, throwing three interceptions. After the game, McMahon met the press in black hat, a fur-trimmed black leather jacket, and three days of beard. ``This is the worst game I've played in a long time,'' he said.
This is what one former coach, who wishes to remain nameless, told me about San Francisco's unexpected loss to Minnesota: ``The 49ers made two big mistakes. They were so sure they could win that they came in with a standard game plan. When that didn't work, they had nothing else ready that they could go to. The 49ers also played the Vikings like they were flat mentally. I can't imagine why San Francisco thought it could cover Anthony Carter one-on-one. Even after Carter hurt them so badly in the first half, they still didn't adjust. Sometimes even smart coaches make mistakes.''