The 1972 Minnesota Vikings had seen potential Super Bowl teams in 1970 and 1971 undone by problems at offense in general and quarterback in particular. Head coach Bud Grant swung a big trade to get Fran Tarkenton from the New York Giants to solve the problem. The deal would ultimately work, but not immediately. In 1972, Fran’s return to Minnesota fizzled.
Grant had traded Tarkenton away prior to the 1967 season and used the resulting draft picks to build one of the league’s best defenses, the “Purple People Eaters.” Tarkenton made four Pro Bowls in the next five seasons in New York, but the teams were never good enough to win.
Minnesota made the postseason each of those years and the Super Bowl in 1969, but never won it all. Tarkenton wanted to come home and his old team wanted him back. Grant packed off two first-round draft picks to get the deal done.
There were other changes coming at the skill positions. Grant acquired wide receiver John Gilliam from the St. Louis Cardinals, to help make up for the decline of Gene Washington. Changes were made at running back, and 28-year-old Oscar Reed was promoted and given his opportunity, while rookie Ed Marinaro was drafted out of Cornell.
The juicing up of the offense worked—Minnesota improved from 18th to 12th in points scored, in spot of having an offensive line that was starting to age a bit, with the exception of 26-year-old right tackle Ron Yary, a future Hall of Famer.
But just as the offense improved, the defense declined. They went from being the best in the NFL to ranking 11th. The front four was still the reliable unit of Carl Eller and Jim Marshall on the ends, with Gary Larsen and Alan Page on the inside. But Page was now the only one on the right side of age 30, and not coincidentally, the only one to make the Pro Bowl.
In the secondary, Ed Sharockman was phased out at corner and replaced with Bobby Bryant. Sharockman was a great ballhawk, and interceptions went down. Even though Paul Krause was still a Pro Bowl safety, the defensive backfield wasn’t quite the same.
Minnesota opened the season at home on Monday Night against the Washington Redskins, with each team having made the playoffs the year before, at a time when they were only four qualifiers per conference in the postseason. The Redskins were on their way to a Super Bowl and set the tone by blocking a punt for a touchdown in the first quarter and winning 24-21.
Tarkenton threw for 233 yards, two touchdowns and had no interceptions, so it’s not as though the new/old quarterback was a disappointment. But special teams had always been a source of Viking pride, and on the defensive side, Minnesota allowed Larry Brown, soon to be league MVP, to rush for 105 yards.
The Vikes did bounce back with a win at Detroit. The Lions had been their stiffest competition in the NFC Central (the current teams of the NFC North). Tarkenton hit Gilliam on an early 40-yard touchdown pass and the result was a 34-10 rout.
One week later, Minnesota lost—but it was to the Miami Dolphins, who would eventually become the first team to win the Super Bowl with a perfect record. And Minnesota still led 14-6 in the fourth quarter before a late Miami rally beat them 16-14.
At this point, any potential problems really aren’t surfacing. The record of 1-2 is disappointing, but the losses are the two future Super Bowl teams—both of whom were playoff teams in 1971, so their ability was known at the time—and a win over what had been the biggest division rival (though that would change in the weeks ahead).
It was the next three games that set the alarm bells off. Minnesota played the St. Louis Cardinals, Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears in succession. None of these teams would finish better than 5-9. The Vikings lost two of the games and needed a fourth quarter Tarkenton-to-Washington touchdown pass to escape Denver with a win.
Minnesota wasn’t stopping the run, and to make matters worse, the Cardinal loss came to opposing quarterback Gary Cuozzo—the man whose struggles in Minnesota had been so costly the last two years.
The season was already on the line when the Vikings went to Lambeau Field in Green Bay. At 2-4, they trailed both the Packers and the Lions by two games. With the money on the table, the defense came through.
The game was tied 13-13 in the fourth quarter, when Krause and linebacker Wally Hilgenberg each intercepted Green Bay quarterback Scott Hunter and each took those interceptions to the house. The following night, Detroit lost in Dallas and the Vikings were within a game of first place.
A home win over lowly New Orleans followed, and then Minnesota got set to host Detroit for another must-win game. They got an early 10-0 lead, before Lion quarterback Greg Landry threw over the top for two touchdowns and the Vikes were down by four. They lost three fumbles on the day…but they came back. Reed rushed for 124 yards, his most consequential performance of the season and the Tarkenton led two drives for field goals and a 16-14 win.
Tarkenton then went west and got into a passing duel with Los Angeles Rams’ quarterback Roman Gabriel. In a back-and-forth battle more befitting the football of the 21st century, Tarkenton threw for 319 yards, Gabriel threw for 240 and Minnesota outlasted Los Angeles 45-41.
The schedule didn’t do Minnesota any favors in 1972. At the time, teams played two games from the opposing conference. The Vikings had already played the Dolphins. Their next opponent was the Pittsburgh Steelers, who would be Miami’s opponent in the AFC Championship Game. Overall, Minnesota played 8 of 14 games against teams with winning records.
And they lost this one in the Steel City, with Pittsburgh taking over the fourth quarter because Minnesota couldn’t stop the run in a 23-10 loss. Fortunately, Green Bay lost to Washington, so the NFC Central race was still within one game, the Vikings still had the tiebreakers and they still had the Packers coming to the Twin Cities in two weeks.
The defense showed their old form in taking care of the Bears. Chicago quarterback Bobby Douglass only completed two passes for a total of eight yards…and one of those was a seven-yard touchdown pass that came when Minnesota had a 23-3 lead in the fourth quarter. Yup, the Vikes pass defense held an opposing quarterback to one yard passing at points when the result was in doubt. No matter what era you’re in, that’s impressive.
What wasn’t impressive was how Minnesota played with the division title at stake against Green Bay. On a frigid December afternoon with the wind chill at -19, the game was scoreless through the first quarter and the Vikings were up 7-0 at halftime. But the rush defense collapsed in the second half. John Brockington and MacArthur Lane led a Packer running attack that piled up 214 yards. Tarkenton only threw for 118 yards and gave up three interceptions. The final score was 23-7 and the playoff streak in Minnesota was over.
One more loss awaited, this one in San Francisco the following Saturday afternoon. The 49ers won the NFC West, had knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs in 1970, and beaten them in the regular season in 1971. In spite of committing seven turnovers, they won this one too, with two fourth quarter touchdowns sending Minnesota to a 20-17 loss.
Minnesota was licking its wounds after the 1972 season, but the Tarkenton trade would pay dividends in the years ahead. Over the next four seasons, the Vikings reached the Super Bowl three times. The one year they didn’t, 1975, was when Tarkenton won the MVP award. It was a good trade, but its first year was a definite fizzle.