The 1971 Minnesota Vikings produced a tremendous defense, the kind that could give the franchise its first Super Bowl victory, and did produce a division title. But offensive problems, in particular a train wreck at quarterback, ultimately did them in at playoff time.
Minnesota’s defense was the best in the league and it was built around a powerful defensive line and a ballhawking secondary. Carl Eller at defensive end and Alan Page at defensive tackle were Pro Bowlers, and Gary Larsen at age 31 and 34-year-old Jim Marshall still had gas in the tank. The front four was “The Purple People Eaters” with a simple motto—“Meet at the quarterback.”
If the opposing quarterback got the pass off, then Pro Bowl free safety Paul Krause was waiting for the pick. The same goes for corners Charlie West and Ed Sharockman, who combined for thirteen interceptions between them.
It didn’t take much offense to win, and the Vikings were willing to test that to its logical limit. They ranked 18th in a 26-team NFL in points scored. They had good pieces on the offensive line, in 25-year-old Pro Bowl right tackle Ron Yary, and center Mick Tingelhoff, even though the latter’s best days were behind him. But there weren’t enough playmakers.
Clint Jones was given an opportunity at running back and he wasn’t bad, but at 675 yards, you couldn’t build an offense around him. The production from speedy wideout Gene Washington dropped, though 26-year-old Bob Grim became a Pro Bowl receiver on the other side. The real problem though, was complete chaos at quarterback.
Gary Cuozzo was the starter, but he was one of three quarterbacks who got the opportunity in meaningful games. Head coach Bud Grant also tried Bob Lee, and 32-year-old Norm Snead in an ultimately futile attempt to generate a passing game.
The season opened on a Monday Night in Detroit at old Tiger Stadium. The Lions had been the Vikings’ stiffest competition for the NFC Central (the teams of the current NFC North). The offensive problems that would manifest themselves weren’t apparent for the prime-time audience.
Cuozzo hit Grim for a 45-yard touchdown pass and Minnesota moved the ball mostly through the air, turning a 13-0 second quarter deficit into a 16-13 win. One week later, the Vikings lost a home game to the Chicago Bears, but it was a surprising defensive breakdown. Minnesota led 14-3, before Kent Nix threw two fourth quarter touchdowns and the Bears stole a 20-17 win.
Snead started the next two games, against a lousy Buffalo Bills team and the mediocre Philadelphia Eagles. It really didn’t matter who the quarterback was, because the defense made amends for the Chicago loss, with two straight shutouts, 19-0 and 13-0. Cuozzo returned to start at Green Bay on October 17, and after a slow start, he threw two second-half touchdown passes to lead a 24-13 win, a game in which the defense forced five turnovers.
Minnesota was 4-1 and in control for a fifth straight division title. It was the ideal time to again appear on the national stage, and they hosted the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Colts on Monday Night Football. The defense responded to the moment and intercepted Earl Morrall three times, Sharockman doing the damage twice. The offense didn’t move the ball, but played relatively clean, only one turnover and that was enough for a 10-3 victory.
The quarterback problems started to move more into the open on October 31 in Yankee Stadium. Ironically the opponent was the New York Giants—quarterbacked by the man who had once been the Viking QB solution, Fran Tarkenton, and would be again in the very near future. The Giants were a bad team, but Cuozzo was erratic and the score was tied 10-10 in the fourth quarter. Snead came in to throw a 55-yard touchdown pass to Grim and escape with the win.
Minnesota wasn’t as fortunate a week later against a good team. The San Francisco 49ers had upset the Vikings in the playoffs in 1970, and they won this game 13-9. Cuozzo misfired on his first ten passes, and was pulled for Snead, who didn’t do a whole lot better.
The Vikings got back on the winning track the next week against Green Bay at home—in a game that ended 3-0, and Cuozzo threw for 42 yards. Minnesota as a team gained just 87 yards, while Green Bay gained 301, but the defense picked off three passes, two of them by West.
Lee started the next week at New Orleans. The Saints were on their way to a 4-8-2 season and not a threat to anyone. Lee played respectable and went 14/25 for 146 yards in a 23-7 win. A week later against the respectable Atlanta Falcons, the running game had one of its best days. Jones ran for 155 yards, and 33-year-old fullback Bill Brown conjured up the memories of his Pro Bowl days, bulling for 85 yards and two second-half touchdowns in a 24-7 win.
Minnesota was 9-2, and able to keep some separation from Detroit, who was 7-3-1. The teams were pointing to a game with each other in the Twin Cities on December 11, the penultimate weekend of the year. The separation the Vikings had proved important—they were upset at San Diego, after Lee and Snead combined to throw four interceptions and almost singlehandedly allowed the Chargers to score 20 fourth-quarter points and win 30-14.
Fortunately, Detroit lost at home to Philadelphia that same week. So even if the Vikings couldn’t clinch the division in the head-to-head battle, they could still do so at Chicago in the finale.
It was a Saturday afternoon game when Grant’s team went for the NFC Central crown. The linebackers came up with big plays and it started with Roy Winston taking an interception 29 yards to the house in the first quarter, and the Vikings led 14-3 at the half.
The lead was 17-10 in the third quarter when Page blocked a punt through the end zone. The defense forced five turnovers overall and pulled away 29-10. It was an appropriate way for the 1971 Minnesota Vikings to win—Cuozzo completed only four passes for 21 yards.
Lee played the regular season finale and played well, lighting up the Bears for 271 yards and an easy 27-10 win. Minnesota was 11-3 and tied with the Dallas Cowboys for the top spot in the NFC overall. But the NFL didn’t use merit to determine homefield advantage and playoff pairings then. They used a pre-assigned divisional rotation format. It meant the Vikings and Cowboys had to meet in the first playoff game. For Minnesota it could have been worse—they at least got the game at home.
It was Christmas Day when the Cowboys came north for the NFC divisional playoffs, but Viking fans got a lump of coal in their stocking. Lee and Cuozzo each threw two interceptions. Minnesota only trailed 6-3 at the half, but an early third quarter pick led to a Cowboy touchdown, Dallas pulled out to a 20-3 lead and won 20-12. They scored 10 points directly off the turnovers. It was a disappointing end, if an unsurprising one.
While much focus has been given to the quarterback problems and offensive impotence, it needs to be said that it’s only because defensive excellence was becoming such a way of life in the Twin Cities that it could be taken for granted. The Minnesota defense has taken its special place in NFL lore.
They just needed help. Fortunately, Grant wouldn’t sit on his thumbs—by next year, Tarkenton would be back and while it took a year to get things rolling, playoff success was soon coming back to the Twin Cities.