The Minnesota Vikings had the best season in the short history of their franchise when they made the Super Bowl in 1969. The following season was the first year of the NFL-AFL merger and the formation of the league structure as we know it today. The 1970 Minnesota Vikings spent much of the season looking like they might not only make it all the way back, but take the final step. But a great regular season gave way to playoff heartbreak in a year when the Super Bowl trophy was theirs for the taking.
When the season started, a return Super Bowl trip wasn’t the biggest thing head coach Bud Grant had to focus on—finding a quarterback was. Joe Kapp had left after a contract dispute, and Gary Cuozzo took over. Cuozzo was a career backup, though in fairness, part of that career involved being the backup to Johnny Unitas with the Baltimore Colts.
Cuozzo was supported by a running game that was led by Dave Osborn, who had a rather pedestrian 681 yards on the ground, but still made the Pro Bowl. Bill Brown at fullback was a former Pro Bowler, and at age 32, was still productive.
On the surface, the offensive line didn’t produce a Pro Bowler. But there was more to this Viking front five than what met the eye. Center Mick Tingelhoff was an All-Pro in five seasons immediately surrounding 1970. Ron Yary at tackle was a third-year player and embarking on a Hall of Fame career.
The defensive line didn’t require anyone to dig below the surface to appreciate their excellence. Carl Eller at end and Alan Page at tackle were first-team All-Pros. Gary Larsen was another Pro Bowler on the side. Normally, Jim Marshall at defensive end would be in that group, but at 33, Marshall was starting to show signs of decline and was “only” pretty good, as opposed to one of the game’s best.
If you wanted to pass against Minnesota, that wasn’t going to be much easier. Ed Sharockman at corner picked off seven passes in what was then a 14-game schedule. Karl Kassulke was a Pro Bowl strong safety, and Paul Krause was another future Hall of Famer at free safety.
Minnesota hosted the Kansas City Chiefs in a Super Bowl rematch. After a scoreless first quarter, the Vikings returned a fumble for a touchdown, won the rushing battle 132-63 and won the game convincingly, 27-10. The Chiefs were headed for a down year and would miss the playoffs. The Vikings had exposed their flaws quickly.
The defense continued to produce points the following week in a 26-0 win over a terrible New Orleans Saints team, but the first loss came a week later. Cuozzo and the offense were unable to generate any action when they went to Milwaukee to play the Green Bay Packers. The Vikes trailed 6-0 in the fourth quarter and after kicking a field goal, gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown. The Packers won 13-10.
A road trip to another NFC Central (the same teams of the current NFC North) rival produced a better result. Minnesota won at Chicago 24-0, with Page scooping up a fumble and rumbling 65 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. With the record 3-1, the Vikes now prepared for a tough sequence of games against the Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Rams and Detroit Lions.
Dallas was on its way to an NFC East title and they came to Minnesota. No one was prepared for the breadth and scope of what the Vikings would inflict. Sharockman scored off a blocked punt and an interception return in the first quarter alone. The Viking defensive front produced seven sacks. The score was 34-6 by halftime and ended at a stunning 54-13. Grant’s team was off and rolling.
Monday Night Football came to the Twin Cities for the Rams-Vikings game, a rematch of a good divisional playoff game the prior year when Minnesota rallied to win in the fourth quarter. The defenses ruled this game. Cuozzo was able to connect with Brown on a 17-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, but neither team broke the end zone the rest of the night. Minnesota recovered four of seven Los Angeles fumbles, won the rushing battle 146-66 and chiseled out a 13-3 win.
Detroit wasn’t a perennial contender like the Cowboys or Rams, but the Lions were showing their teeth in 1970. They were 5-1 and tied for first when they hosted the Vikings at old Tiger Stadium on November 1. The first half involved a lot of back-and-forth. Minnesota corner Bobby Bryant intercepted a pass and took it 39 yards to the house. Cuozzo threw a pair of second-quarter touchdowns, one of them a 41-yarder to speedy Gene Washington.
The Viking defense was uncharacteristically lenient in the first half and the Lions were within 24-17 at intermission. But they kept the Detroit ground game under wraps and returned to form in the second half. Minnesota got a couple field goals from Pro Bowler kicker Fred Cox and won 30-17.
Grant’s team kept their focus in a win at the mediocre Washington Redskins, while Detroit lost, creating a two-game gap in the division race. And the schedule brought the Lions right back, with the rematch in Minneapolis set for November 15.
Viking special teams were usually a strength, but the 1970 season is marked with too many instances of opposing teams returning punts and kickoffs. The game with the Lions was another example, as a second-quarter kickoff return after a field goal gave Detroit a 10-3 lead. They still led 20-10 in the fourth quarter and were poised to tighten the NFC Central race.
Cuozzo didn’t have a great game, completing just 13 of 30 passes. But he made them count, getting 228 yards, and he led drives that set up two short touchdown runs from Clint Jones. Minnesota escaped with a 24-20 win. There were five games to go, the Vikings led the division by three games and they owned the tiebreaker. They were home free.
A ho-hum win over Green Bay followed. The Vikes won 10-3 in a game marked by zero turnovers and zero ball movement either way. The Packers had faded from the race and would finish 6-8, as would the Bears.
The Sunday after Thanksgiving produced a little fly in the ointment, as Cuozzo had to leave early in a game at the New York Jets. Bob Lee stepped in, but threw four interceptions in a 20-10 loss. Lee had to start the next game six days later, a Saturday kickoff with Chicago. A win would wrap up the division, and in an era where homefield advantage was determined by rotation rather than merit, that’s all that mattered in the regular season.
Osborn played his best game of the year, rushing for 139 yards on 29 carries. Lee stayed away from mistakes and the Vikings were ahead 16-6 late. The special teams coverage problems resurfaced when Chicago returned a kickoff for a touchdown and made the game interesting, but the defense closed out a 16-13 win. Minnesota was NFC Central champs.
Lee started and won a game at the then-named Boston Patriots, while Cuozzo returned for a season finale tuneup at the equally lowly Atlanta Falcons. Minnesota easily won both games and at 12-2, they were the best team in the entire NFL.
The Vikings were a solid favorite to beat the San Francisco 49ers, and when Krause returned a fumble 22 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter, the Metropolitan Stadium faithful could surely smell another playoff victory. But it was the last good thing to happen to their team that season.
Cuozzo got nothing going, completing just 9-of-27 passes. The 49ers gradually moved ahead 17-7. Cuozzo finally got his team into the end zone, with a touchdown pass to Washington…but it came with one second left. A disheartening 17-14 loss ended the season.
Bud Grant achieved much during his tenure with the Vikings and that’s highlighted by four trips to the Super Bowl. He never won it all, and this team might have been his best shot. The ’69 team had been heavily favored in the Super Bowl, but that’s as much on the public for underrating the Chiefs and the old AFL as it is on the Vikings. In future years, Minnesota was simply not as good as the best the AFC had—the Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland Raiders and Miami Dolphins.
1970 was different though. Dallas, the very team Minnesota had beaten by 41 points went to the Super Bowl. The Cowboys lost to the Baltimore Colts in a game that was exciting (decided on a last-second field goal) but generally regarded as one of the most poorly played Super Bowls in history. There’s no reason to think Minnesota doesn’t win, if they just get there.