The Minnesota Vikings came into existence in 1961, and their first six seasons were marked by tensions between quarterback Fran Tarkenton and head coach Norm Van Brocklin, over how much Tarkenton ran.
One thing they were not marked by is winning—after Van Brocklin’s first good year in 1964, the team regressed to 7-7 in 1965 and 4-9-1 in 1966. It was time for new leadership and the change that came would alter the trajectory of franchise history. Bud Grant became the new coach, and while the 1967 Minnesota Vikings did not have a good record, they got the pieces in place for a lot of winning in the years to come.
Grant and general manager Jim Finks made a big move immediately by trading Tarkenton to the New York Giants for a package of four draft picks, all in the top two rounds. To replace him, the team would rely on either Ron Vander Kelen or newly acquired Joe Kapp.
Kapp was 29-years-old and had gone to the Canadian Football League out of college. It was Finks, then working in the CFL, that spotted him and now the new GM went to work on getting Kapp into the NFL. Complicated maneuvering created a de facto “trade” between the leagues, and Grant would have two quarterbacks from whom to choose.
The offense had one Pro Bowler, fullback Bill Brown, but second-year running back Dave Osborn would be effective, rushing for 972 yards in what was then a 14-game schedule. The defense didn’t send anyone to the Pro Bowl, but they had a core of young talent that would ultimately form the “Purple People Eaters” and be one of the best defenses of the 1970s.
Carl Eller was at defensive end, just 25-years-old. Grant drafted rookie Alan Page to play defensive tackle. Veteran Jim Marshall was on the defensive line’s other flank. And cornerback Earsell Mackbee intercepted five passes in the 1967 season.
The NFL has undergone a couple major realignment changes in the years since 1967 and a few other tweaks here and there. One constant has remained—the Vikings have always been in a division with the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions, and in ’67 it was called the NFL Central. The Packers were still under the leadership of Vince Lombardi, entering his final season in Green Bay. The Bears were still led by George Halas. Grant was stepping into a neighborhood occupied by legends.
To say the season didn’t start well would be an understatement. Minnesota hosted the San Francisco 49ers and trailed 27-0 after three quarters, before a late rally made the final a respectable 27-21. The Vikings were then sent west to play the Los Angeles Rams on a Friday. I’m going out on a limb and say that sending a team cross-country on five days rest would catch more than a little heat if someone tried it today.
This time Minnesota fell behind 32-0 before scoring. A home date with Chicago saw improvement—the Vikings only trailed 17-0 before they got on the board for the first time. The Grant era had started 0-3 and all of the games were colossal embarrassments.
Vander Kelen had taken most of the snaps in these games, and Kapp got his first start on October 8 at home against the St. Louis Cardinals. When Kapp hit Gene Washington on an 85-yard touchdown pass to give Minnesota a 24-13 lead in the fourth quarter, the new coach’s first win was at hand. Alas, the defense fell apart down the stretch and the Cards scored three touchdowns.
It was time for a trip to Green Bay. Lombardi’s Packers had won the first Super Bowl ever played the previous season and were the NFL’s dominant franchise. Even with quarterback Bart Starr out, there was still no reason to expect trouble from a winless team, especially when Packer backup Zeke Bratkowski had shown himself capable.
Minnesota’s defense came ready. They shut down the Packer running attack of Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor, holding Green Bay to 42 yards. The Vikes picked off Bratkowski three times, two of them by Mackbee. They ran the ball, with Brown and Osborn each going over 70 yards. The fourth quarter was a breakthrough point, as the Vikings scored ten points and got a 10-7 win.
Backup quarterback or no, a rookie head coach getting his first win on the road against Vince Lombardi is heady stuff. And while it would be a mistake to say the Vikings immediately took off, you can see clear progress that continued from this game forward and set the foundation for Grant’s tenure.
Minnesota hosted the Baltimore Colts next, a team on their way to an 11-1-2 season, coached by Don Shula. Kapp went toe-to-toe with Johnny Unitas, the Vikings fought the Colts to a draw in the running game and a draw in the scoreboard. A 20-20 tie against a team like this was a moral victory in any case, and certainly coming off the high of the Packer win.
There was regression the following week with a 21-20 loss to Atlanta. Vander Kelen was back in the lineup and threw a costly pick-6 in the fourth quarter. But the Vikes turned around and beat the New York Giants, tied Detroit and then nearly pulled another road upset against the playoff-bound Cleveland Browns. Minnesota led 10-0 in Cleveland, before Browns running back Leroy Kelly capped off a 123-yard day with a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns.
Kapp was back on the saddle on his own for a road date in Pittsburgh the Sunday after Thanskgiving. The Steelers were a far cry from the team that would win four Super Bowls in the ensuing decade—Terry Bradshaw was still in college and Chuck Noll was still an assistant coach in Baltimore. But the Steelers got out to a 13-3 lead. Then Kapp took over.
The quarterback threw two touchdowns and ran for one more. The defense scored twice, one a pick-6 by Mackbee. The Vikings ended up winning decisively, 41-27.
Minnesota closed the season 0-2-1, losing to the Packers 30-27 on a late field goal (although we must note that Green Bay had clinched the division and homefield was then determined on a rotation basis, removing any incentive for the Packers), tying the Bears on the road and losing 14-3 to the Lions. All of the games were competitive battles against the teams that Minnesota would have to beat.
The 1967 Minnesota Vikings finished the season 3-8-3 (there was no overtime allowed), which on the surface was about equivalent to the 4-9-1 record Grant inherited. But the surface didn’t tell the story. Grant found young defensive talent, a quarterback he liked, his team played competitively with league powers and got better as the season went along.
Good times were just around the corner—Lombardi would retire and Minnesota took over the division in 1968. They made the Super Bowl in 1969, and made it three more times under the head coach’s tenure. The even got Tarkenton back a few years later. Football was on the rise in the Twin Cities.