Fran Tarkenton’s return to the Twin Cities in 1972 had fizzled out. But the 1973 Minnesota Vikings juiced up the weapons around the future Hall of Fame quarterback and started the best four-year stretch in the history of the franchise.
The lack of a go-to running back had hindered the Vikings—they got piecemeal work from backs ranging from Oscar Reed to Dave Osborn to Bill Brown for the past few years, but nothing to really sustain an attack in an era where defense-friendly passing rules made running the football an imperative. Minnesota drafted a fullback named Chuck Foreman, a good blend of power and speed and he rushed for 801 yards in 1973, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Tarkenton still had reliable John Gilliam, a big-play wideout on the outside. The offensive line was tolerable, though not great. Ron Yary was outstanding at right tackle, making 1st-team All-Pro, but the best of the rest was center Mick Tingelhoff, once a Pro Bowler, but now past his prime.
The defense, after regressing in 1972, returned to be one of the league’s elite. The “Purple People Eaters” finished second in the league in points allowed. Carl Eller and Alan Page were first-team All-Pro up front, with Gary Larsen and 36-year-old Jim Marshall competent players that filled out the front four.
More improvement came in the back seven. Jeff Siemon was a 23-year-old middle linebacker and he made the Pro Bowl. So did veteran free safety Paul Krause, and cornerback Bobby Bryant had a breakout year, with seven interceptions.
Minnesota opened the season at home with the Oakland Raiders, a consistent playoff team throughout the 1970s. Tarkenton’s 43-yard touchdown pass to Gilliam put the Vikes up 10-0 early, though a special teams lapse—allowing a punt return for a TD—put Minnesota behind 16-10. In the end, Minnesota was able to force four turnovers and win 24-16.
One week later, the Vikings fell behind a terrible Chicago Bears team on the road, 10-0, but turned it around and won 22-13, getting five field goals from Fred Cox. The biggest concern in the early going was rush defense—both the Raiders and Bears had run for 200 yards on a Minnesota defense that prided itself on being physical up front.
The rush defense showed for a trip to Green Bay, the team that had displaced Minnesota in the NFC Central (the four teams in the current NFC North). The Packers would slip below .500 this year, and the Vikings also intercepted four passes to go along with dominating the point of attack in an 11-3 win.
Ed Marinaro, an occasionally used fullback, had rushed for 83 yards against Green Bay, and he was a weapon again the next week at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium. Tarkenton found the fullback on two first-quarter touchdown passes that sent the tone in a 23-9 win.
Minnesota played two subpar teams in the San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles and won both. They didn’t run the ball well in San Francisco, but forced five turnovers against an offense quarterbacked by Steve Spurrier, in for the injured John Brodie. Gilliam starred in the win over Philly, running an end-around for one touchdown and catching another.
The Vikings were riding high at 6-0, as were the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC. Homefield advantage was still determined on a rotation system, rather than by merit, so the Vikes-Rams meeting in Minneapolis on October 28 didn’t have the same meaning it would today. But there was still a lot of pride on the line. Minnesota ran for 182 yards, held Los Angeles to 89 on the ground and won 10-9. More dominance of the running game led to a 26-3 win over Cleveland a week later.
No one else in the NFC Central was seriously going to keep up with Minnesota and any doubt about that was eliminated when the Vikings beat the Lions 28-7. Brown and Osborn conjured up the best memories of their recent past, in rushing for 101 and 79 yards respectively. With a record of 9-0, an undefeated season was on the table—just one year after the Miami Dolphins had completed a perfect year by winning the Super Bowl.
A Monday Night visit to Atlanta ended those dreams. The Falcons were a good team, one that would finish 9-5 and even though they missed the playoffs, they would have made it under the more expanded format of today. Tarkenton threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to Gilliam, but there was no running game and Atlanta’s Dave Hampton ran for 108 yards to key the Falcons’ 20-14 win.
Tarkenton and Gilliam hooked up five times for 139 yards the next week against the Bears. Two of them went for touchdowns and Tarkenton was an efficient 11/15. Reed was the running back who had his moment in the sun, going for 97 yards in a 31-13 win.
Foreman’s playing time was going up and down in this stretch of games and he was ineffective at Cincinnati. The Bengals were on their way to a 10-4 season and playoff spot and they embarrassed the Vikes 27-0. Minnesota bounced back to close out the year with easy wins over the Packers and New York Giants, both by 31-7 counts and both on the road. Bryant intercepted three passes at Green Bay, including one taken to the house early that set the tone.
Now it was playoff time and it was George Allen’s Washington Redskins that were coming to old Metropolitan Stadium on December 22 for the NFC Divisional Playoff round. An early turnover set up a Redskins touchdown, and Washington’s Larry Brown—the league MVP one year earlier when the ‘Skins reached the Super Bowl—ran for 115 yards. Minnesota trailed 7-3 early and 13-10 after three quarters.
The risk of another home playoff loss, akin to the disappointments of 1970 and 1971 was a real possibility. But Tarkenton found Gilliam on a 28-yard touchdown pass to give the Vikings the lead. Then corner Nate Wright intercepted a pass and set up another Tarkenton-to-Gilliam touchdown. Washington scored to cut the lead back to 24-20, but Tarkenton led a final drive for a field goal and Minnesota won 27-20.
Minnesota would go to Dallas for the NFC Championship Game, although under today’s rules, the Vikings would have been the #1 seed in the NFC. The defense came ready to play and so did the running game. Foreman ran for 76 yards, with Reed adding 75. Dallas running back Calvin Hill was out, and quarterback Roger Staubach couldn’t carry the load.
Nonetheless, a punt return for a TD got Dallas back into the game after they fell behind 10-0. Tarkenton and Gilliam hooked up on a 54-yard touchdown pass, but it was still 17-10, when the Cowboys began driving and crossed midfield.
Then Bryant stepped up and intercepted Staubach. It was one of four picks thrown by the Dallas quarterback and on this one Bryant finished it off in the end zone. The game was effectively over. Minnesota won 27-10 and was going to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1969.
Head coach Bud Grant took his team back to the state of Texas for the Super Bowl. The game was held at Rice Stadium in Houston, and the Miami Dolphins were looking for a repeat title. The Dolphins were simply too good. Tarkenton was able to complete 18/28 passes for 182 yards, but he couldn’t find Gilliam on the big play, and the Vikings couldn’t run the ball. Miami could run, piling up 196 rush yards and they won easily, 24-7.
The 1973 season was still the start of some very good things in Minnesota Vikings football history. They never did win the Super Bowl, but this was the first of three NFC crowns in a four-year stretch when the Vikings were the best team in their conference.