Fran Tarkenton enjoyed a Hall of Fame career, most of it in the Twin Cities. He began his career in Minnesota in 1961 and after a brief time with the New York Giants (1967-71), finished it back in the Upper Midwest with seven more years. The 1978 Minnesota Vikings were Fran’s last ride, and while it certainly wasn’t his best year, the 38-year-old vet packed it full of enough key moments to steal one more division title.
Tarkenton threw for 3,468 yards in the first year that the NFL made the rules easier for pass offenses, but he also threw 32 interceptions. The dramatic rise in turnovers was accompanied by a lack of production in the running game. The Vikings had become used to 1,000-yard seasons from Chuck Foreman, but even with two extra games added to the schedule in 1978, Foreman mustered only 749 in 16 games.
The offensive line was aging, with center Mick Tingelhoff—another 38-year-old stalwart in his last year, and future Hall of Fame right tackle Ron Yary past his prime at age 32. The receiving corps was good—Ahmad Rashad was the one Pro Bowl player on this side of the ball, and Sammy White was a good deep threat.
Head coach Bud Grant had long prided himself on defense, but this unit was aging. Carl Eller and Jim Marshall on the defensive ends were shadows of their former selves and Eller’s playing time was drastically reduced. The same went for defensive tackle Alan Page—so much so that Page was released after six games. The “Purple People Eaters” that had dominated the entire NFC for much of the 1970s, were no longer.
Matt Blair at linebacker was the defense’s only Pro Bowler and the secondary had two more proud, aging vets with Paul Krausse at safety and Bobby Bryant on the corner. Collectively though, it all added up to the 20th-ranked defense in the NFL in points allowed.
The problems showed up immediately in a season-opening visit to New Orleans, when Tarkenton threw four interceptions and the Vikings lost 31-24. They got their first win on Monday Night at home against the Denver Broncos, but it was ugly.
Both teams threw three interceptions, but the Vikings recovered three fumbles and the Broncos failed to convert an extra point. Minnesota won in overtime 12-9. Five more turnovers followed in a bad home loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 16-10.
Minnesota was reeling when they went to Chicago on Monday Night to face a Bears team that had made the playoffs a year earlier and were hopeful of breaking the Viking stranglehold on the NFC Central (the four teams of the current NFC North, plus Tampa Bay).
Tarkenton met the moment on the Monday Night stage in Soldier Field. He threw an early 33-yard touchdown pass to White. Blair produced a defensive touchdown and the defense held Walter Payton, the Chicago running back who had won the MVP award in 1977 to just 58 yards. A 24-20 got the Vikings to 2-2. The same formula produced a win in Tampa—stop the run, take care of the football and get a non-offensive touchdown, as the Vikes beat the Bucs 24-7.
The momentum didn’t continue when they went west to play an improving Seattle Seahawks team. After falling behind 13-0, Tarkenton played well—he completed 27/37 for 274 yards and no interceptions and rallied Minnesota to a 28-19 lead. The defense couldn’t close though, and they lost 29-28. Another loss followed at home to a good Los Angeles Rams team. The Vikings led 17-13 after three quarters, but when you lose the rushing battle 180-42, you’re asking for an avalanche to eventually hit you and that’s what happened with three fourth-quarter Ram touchdowns.
Minnesota was now 3-4, and the Green Bay Packers were riding high at 6-1. Since the realignment of 1970 that created the NFC Central, the Vikings had won this division every year but one (1972). If they failed to defend their home turf at the old Metropolitan Stadium against the Packers on October 22, you could all but kiss that streak goodbye.
Tarkenton again rose to the occasion. He found Foreman on a 16-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter for the game’s first points. Two more touchdown passes to Rashad followed. The old quarterback went 26/43 for 262 yards and there were no interceptions in a 21-7 win.
The Vikings still trailed the Packers by two games as the season hit its midway point and a Thursday Night visit to the defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys was next. Thursday games outside of Thanksgiving were rare at this time in the NFL and the short week on the road was one more challenge added to trying to beat an elite team.
But the proud veterans of Minnesota were up for the challenge. They shut down Dallas running back Tony Dorsett. The offensive line paved the way for Foreman to rush for 101 yards. Tarkenton took care of the football and the Vikings won surprisingly easily, 21-10.
The defense paved the way for consecutive home wins over Detroit and Chicago, 17-7 and 17-14. In the meantime, Green Bay lost both weeks and the NFC Central race was tied at the top, with both the Vikings and Packers at 7-4.
Both teams lost the following week. The Vikings dropped one at home to the improving San Diego Chargers—a team that would finish 9-7 and by the following year be a playoff team with Dan Fouts at quarterback and Joe Gibbs at offensive coordinator. But the Packers lost at Denver, so the race was still a dead heat when Minnesota went to Lambeau Field on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
For 58 minutes, it was a disastrous performance for Tarkenton. He threw four interceptions. The defense allowed Green Bay to control the point of attack, as Terdell Middleton rushed for 110 yards. But the Vikings were still in it, trailing 10-3 when Tarkenton got the ball one last time. And he made it count, driving the distance and hitting Rashad on a five-yard touchdown pass to force overtime. Both teams missed field goal chances in overtime and the game ended 10-10.
The tie was almost as good as a win for Minnesota though, because they held the tiebreakers. The next game was at home against a playoff-bound Philadelphia Eagles team and even on December outdoors in the Twin Cities, Tarkenton was putting the ball in the air. He threw 56 passes, completing 30 and getting 289 yards as he rallied his team from a 27-14 deficit to a 28-27 win. Green Bay answered with a win and both teams were 8-5-1.
No one had any illusions that either the Vikings or Packers were real Super Bowl contenders. The Cowboys and Rams were the top two teams in the NFC and in this era of a five-team conference playoff bracket (what major league baseball has today), the Central winner would be a significant road underdog in the first postseason game. But even allowing that, the ending of this race was two teams backpedaling to the finish line as fast as they could.
Minnesota played terribly at Detroit, as Gary Danielson picked the Viking defense apart for 352 yards passing and five touchdowns in a 45-14 win. Green Bay “answered” by being shutout at Chicago, 14-0. The Bears and Lions would each finish respectably, at 7-9, though neither were ever in the division race.
In the finale, the Vikings and Packers each went west. Minnesota turned it over seven times in Oakland, fell behind 21-0 and lost 27-20. Green Bay was no less hapless in Los Angeles, losing to the Rams. The Vikings were 8-7-1 and had backed into another NFC Central title.
The playoffs had a predictable ending. Minnesota went to Los Angeles as an 8 ½ point underdog and hung in for a half, staying tied with the Rams 10-10. Given the Vikings long history of tormenting the Rams in postseason play—including an upset the previous year—no one in Los Angeles could have been comfortable. But just as in the regular season meeting, the Rams owned the ground game and it took over after halftime. The Vikings lost 34-10.
It was an ugly ending, and as division championships go, it wasn’t one for the ages. But that doesn’t mean we should overlook what Tarkenton did. He was 38-years-old and coming off a year in which he had broken his leg. Yet he still came up with a big win in Dallas and a clutch drive at Green Bay.
There’s something to be said for veteran savvy that helps you squeeze out one more year even when Father Time seems to be saying no. That’s what Tarkenton did, and he rode off into retirement following the season.