The Hall of Fame Series: Fran Tarkenton
Class of 1986
Not many players in the history of the Minnesota Vikings stack up well as quarterback Fran Tarkenton. Coming off of the bench in the first game in team history to help upset the established and respected Chicago Bears, Tarkenton became endeared by Vikings fans from the get-go. His frenetic play style brought excitement to a team stuck in the same division as powerhouses like the Bears, the Green Bay Packers, and the Baltimore Colts.
Drafted 29th overall in the 1961 NFL draft (that was the third round back then), Tarkenton was on the bench when the Vikings played their first regular season game against the Bears on September 17, 1961. Tarkenton came off the bench to replace starting quarterback George Shaw early on, and from there the game went from a cute origin story to the foundation of a legendary career. Tarkenton completed 17 of 23 passes for 250 yards and four touchdown passes. He also added a rushing touchdown as the Vikings stunned the Bears 37-13 in their inaugural game.
As he grew into a veteran, Tarkenton continued his personal success. But from a team perspective, things didn’t improve much. The Vikings finished 3-11 in their first season, and in their first six seasons, they only finished above .500 once. Tarkenton’s playing style clashed with head coach Norm Van Brocklin’s coaching style, and the two could not work together. Van Brocklin was a Hall of Fame quarterback himself, so seeing Tarkenton go off-script was infuriating. Van Brocklin would resign following the 1966 season. Tarkenton would be traded to the Giants in exchange for the Giants’ first-round selection (second overall, running back Clint Jones), the 28th overall pick (wide receiver Bob Grim), the Giants first-round pick in 1968 (resulted in the first overall selection, offensive tackle Ron Yary), and the Giants’ 1969 second-round pick (Ed White). Not too shabby for either team.
The Vikings ascended to the upper echelon of the NFL after the trade. In 1969, they reached their first Super Bowl, losing to the Kansas City Chiefs 23-7 in one of the bigger upsets in league history. By 1971, the Vikings were a playoff contender with subpar quarterback play. Gary Cuozzo only completed 44.6 percent of his passes on the season along with six touchdowns and eight interceptions. Unlike Joe Kapp who preceded him, Cuozzo didn’t possess the leadership and grittiness to overcome his erratic play. The Giants, meanwhile, finished the 1971 season with a record of 4-10.
Tarkenton made his return to Minnesota after the 1971 season. The Vikings traded quarterback Norm Snead, Grim, a first-round pick in 1972 (Larry Jacobson) and a 1973 second-rounder (Brad Van Pelt) to bring Tarkenton back. It worked out as Tarkenton meshed well with the Vikings new coach, Bud Grant. Unlike Van Brocklin, Grant tailored his schemes to fit his players instead of forcing players to fit the Vikings scheme. After finishing 7-7 in 1972, the Vikings would advance to the Super Bowl three of the next four seasons beginning in 1973. The one season they didn’t make it to the big game (1975), Tarkenton would win NFL MVP, throwing for 2,994 yards, 25 touchdowns, and a 64.2 completion percentage.
The return to Minnesota also spurned an evolution in the quarterback’s game. In seven of Tarkenton’s first eight seasons in the NFL, he rushed for over 300 yards. But beginning in 1973, his rushing yards began to go down every season. In fact, in 1977, Tarkenton rushed for only six yards. In 1978, he finished with minus-six yards rushing. So, a wash for his final two seasons after rushing for 3,674 yards in his first 16 seasons. He also added 32 rushing touchdowns during his career, only one coming in his final two seasons.
But what stands out is how much more efficient Tarkenton became as a pure passer in his second stint in Minnesota. While many dual-threat quarterbacks are only effective when they have the use of their running ability, Tarkenton showed he could play from the pocket. In five of his final six seasons, Tarkenton completed over 60 percent of his passes after never being a 60 percent passer in his career. A lot of this can also be attributed to the Vikings running the early version of what is now known as the West Coast Offense that was popularized by San Francisco 49ers head coach in the 80s. When running back Chuck Foreman arrived in Minnesota prior to the 1973 season, the Vikings began playing a style of offense that relied on the short passing game and involved getting the running backs involved with the passing game.
After losses to the Dolphins, Steelers, and Raiders in the span of four Super Bowls, the Vikings selected quarterback Tommy Kramer in the 1977 NFL draft. Tarkenton missed five games in 1977, throwing only nine touchdown passes against 14 interceptions as the Vikings lost in the NFC Championship Game for the first time. In 1978, Tarkenton passed for 3,468 yards, eclipsing the 3,000-yard milestone for the second time in his career (this is also attributed to the Mel Blount Rule and expansion to the 16-game season, but that’s another story). Although he also passed for 25 touchdowns, Tarkenton also threw a still-NFL record 32 interceptions in 1978. The golden days of an aging roster appeared to be behind the Vikings, and Tarkenton retired prior to the 1979 season.
Following his retirement, Tarkenton was part of the Monday Night Football crew from 1979-82. From 1980-81, Tarkenton co-hosted That’s Incredible, which included a segment showcasing a five-year old Tiger Woods (I’ll include a link to a video with this).
Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986, Tarkenton became the first player inducted who had spent a large part of his career in Minnesota. Still, Tarkenton holds some reservations on his career. He still feels the pain of the team’s three Super Bowl losses with him under center. “I feel I let myself down, my team down, and people in Minnesota down that I couldn’t deliver a Super Bowl,” Tarkenton said back in 2015.
Still, his stats speak for themselves, and he is still revered in Minnesota and in NFL history. But when he retired, Tarkenton, was the all-time NFL leader at retirement with attempts (6,467), completions (3,686), passing yards (47,003), and touchdown passes (342). His 342 touchdown passes still rank 11th all-time despite all of the rule changes favoring offenses over the years.
Tarkenton has shown his leadership since his retirement as well. When his longtime center Mick Tinglehoff was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015, Tarkenton spoke for him, as Tinglehoff’s dementia and possible CTE had prevented him from coherently speaking. Tarkenton also said that if he had one more wish in his life, it would be that defensive end Jim Marshall (the most important Viking in history according to Tarkenton) would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Fran Tarkenton’s impact with the Vikings continues today. He keeps in constant contact with Kirk Cousins. He is on KFAN’s 9 to Noon with Paul Allen consistently. And he still brings the same energy he brought onto the field when he is on the microphone. Hopefully, to squash some of the burden he feels without bringing home a Super Bowl, the Vikings can win the big one for him soon.