The Minnesota Vikings were in their second year of the post-Fran Tarkenton era in 1980. After making regular playoff appearances and four Super Bowl trips from 1969-78, the franchise slipped out of the postseason in the first year without the Hall of Famer. The 1980 Minnesota Vikings didn’t arrest the long-term decline of the team, but they did squeak back to the top of a weak NFC Central division.
Tommy Kramer was in his second year at quarterback and he was explosive, throwing for over 3,500 yards at a time when a number like that was hard to get to. But he was also mistake-prone, and finished with a TD-INT ratio of 19/23.
The Vikings as a whole were mediocre offensively, ranking in the middle of the league in points scored. The offense had only one Pro Bowler, wide receiver Ahmad Rashad, who broke the 1,000-yard barrier. The only other notable player was future Hall of Fame right tackle Ron Yary who was now 34-years-old.
Minnesota’s defense was a little bit better, ranking 11th, although this side of the ball had the same problem as the offense. Matt Blair was 1st-team All-Pro at linebacker, but he was the only Pro Bowler. Here too, the most notable talent was long in the tooth, with corner Bobby Bryant age 36.
Week 1 brought the Atlanta Falcons into town and the Kramer-to-Rashad combo got right to work. Rashad caught 11 passes for 160 yards. Kramer threw for 395 yards and rifled three touchdown passes. The Vikes caught a break when the Falcons missed an extra point and it was the difference in Minnesota’s 24-23 win.
Another home game was up next with the Philadelphia Eagles and this one didn’t go nearly as well. The Vikings rush defense was non-existent and they gave up 28 second-half points in a 42-7 loss. The positive side was this—the Vikes had managed a split of two games against the teams who would finish 1-2 in the NFC seeding (although only Philadelphia was perceived as such at the time of the games).
Minnesota played their first game against NFC Central foes (the four current teams of the NFC North plus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) when they went to Chicago and blew the game open with big plays. Kramer hit Rashad on a 76-yard touchdown strike. Running back Ted Brown took off on a 55-yard scoring jaunt. And Tom Hannon intercepted a pass and took it 41 yards for a touchdown. The final was 34-14.
The pattern of a win being followed by a blowout loss with terrible rush defense continued when the Vikings went to Detroit. Kramer threw five interceptions and Minnesota allowed 260 rushing yards in a 27-7 loss. Kramer threw five more interceptions in a 23-17 home loss to the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
The loss was worse than it appeared in two ways—the Vikes actually trailed 23-3 in the fourth quarter. And it turns out the Steeler Dynasty would end and this was a non-playoff team doing the damage. Minnesota was still able to get back to .500 with a great defensive effort in a 13-7 home win over Chicago. John Turner intercepted three passes, part of six-turnover day for the Viking defense.
Minnesota still struggled to find consistency, going to a poor Cincinnati Bengals team and losing 14-0. Kramer didn’t implode with interceptions, though he did throw two. The real problem was that he was just completely unproductive, going 13/25 for 130 yards and the offense earned just ten first downs.
Another low point followed in Green Bay. In spite of forcing five turnovers, the Viking defense was run over by a bad team, as the Packers picked up 147 yards on the ground. A game that was tied 3-3 going into the fourth quarter ended up as a 16-3 loss.
Head coach Bud Grant had a team in serious trouble. They were 3-5 and half the schedule had been against teams that would finish the 1980 NFL season under .500. Another road trip to face the weak Washington Redskins went better for Minnesota. Steve Dils stepped in at quarterback and threw a pair of early touchdown passes and went 18/29 for 200 yards. Just as important, Dils did not throw an interception and the result was a 39-14 win.
Minnesota was set to host Detroit on November 9. The Lions were 6-3 and leading the division, with the Vikings sitting on 4-5. Kramer was back in the lineup and he threw a quick 67-yard touchdown pass to Brown out of the backfield. It was 10-0 at the half and the Vikes broke it open on defense, with Kurt Knoff’s 67-yard interception return making it 17-zip and Minnesota didn’t stop until they had a 34-0 win that kept their season alive.
Kramer got into a passing war with Tampa Bay’s Doug Williams in a home game the following week. Kramer threw for 324 yards, while Williams went for 486. But the Viking quarterback was staying mistake-free in this one and his team’s 3-0 turnover advantage was the difference in a 38-30 win. Detroit lost to the sub-.500 Baltimore Colts and the NFC Central race was tied.
Green Bay came north to play in the old outdoor Metropolitan Stadium and for reason, the Vikings continued to make the no-name Packer backfield look like the reincarnation of Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor. This time Minnesota allowed 246 rushing yards in a 25-13 loss as they slipped a game back of Detroit in the race.
A trip to New Orleans, where the Saints were the worst team in the NFL, was what any contender would hope for with four weeks left. Minnesota took advantage, with Ted Brown rushing for 95 yards and the Vikings jumping out to a 23-0 lead before hanging on 23-20. The Lions lost at home to the mediocre Bears and the NFC Central was again a dead heat.
Detroit continued to fade the next week, and Minnesota stepped into sole possession of first place with a win in Tampa Bay. It didn’t come easy, as they trailed 10-0 at the half. But there was a running game going, with Brown picking up 90 yards and Kramer went 22/31 for 264 yards. He hit Sammy White for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter and the Vikings went on to a 21-10 win.
Two difficult opponents remained, at home with the Cleveland Browns and on the road at the Houston Oilers, both playoff-bound in the AFC and the Browns still needed to win on December 14. The good news for the Vikings was that they only needed one win—thanks to an edge on the Lions in conference record, the Vikes would take the NFC Central if they just got to 9-7.
It didn’t look good when the trailed 23-9 in the second half against Cleveland and it looked like any comeback bid would be thwarted when they missed an extra point following a touchdown that cut the lead to 23-15. There was no two-point conversion at this time, so the next touchdown kept the Vikings behind 23-22.
They got the ball back and were on the 46-yard line with time for one more play. Kramer had already thrown for 410 yards and three touchdowns against no interceptions in his best game of the year. He stepped up and launched it deep one more time.
Rashad went down the sideline and the ball started hitting hands in the crowd. The 31-year-old receiver stayed with it, made the play and hopped into the end zone. In a stunning finish, the Vikings had won 28-23.
The way this game ended didn’t make up for a similar ending in the 1975 NFC playoffs, when Minnesota was on the wrong end of a desperation pass against the Dallas Cowboys. But this 1980 stunner proved to be necessary—the Vikings lost the next week in Houston, Detroit won both games and Minnesota took the tiebreaker with both teams at 9-7. They were back in the playoffs.
A trip to Philadelphia followed two weeks later—prior to 1990, all division winners were seeded directly into the divisional playoff round. The Vikings were a (+7) underdog, but came out firing and took a 14-0 lead. But Kramer’s turnover problems completely caught up with him in. As the Eagles rallied, Kramer would throw interceptions on each of his team’s final four possessions. Minnesota turned the ball over eight times, seven in the second half, as they lost 31-16.
Grant’s time as head coach was winding down and he would only make the playoffs one more time. His days of producing Super Bowl contending teams were finished. But the 1980 season showed, the head coach could still keep pushing his team into the postseason.