Bud Grant came to the Twin Cities in the 1967 season and turned the Minnesota Vikings into a feisty team. In 1968, Grant got the team into the playoffs for the first time. And the 1969 Minnesota Vikings continued the improvement, enjoying a monster season and reaching the Super Bowl.
Minnesota was a complete team in every way. They had the league’s most prolific offense and its most stingy defense. The defensive front four, the legendary “Purple People Eaters” was dominant. Carl Eller and Jim Marshall were at the ends, with Alan Page and Gary Larsen on the inside and all four were All-Pro, Eller and Page first-team.
The Vikings had a tough leader at quarterback in Joe Kapp. He was 31-years-old, but still in only his third NFL season, having started his pro career in Canada. The offensive line had its own Pro Bowlers, in Grady Alderman at left tackle, and Mick Tingelhoff at center.
And on both offense and defense, there were big-time playmakers. Gene Washington had 821 yards receiving, a big number in this era and he was superb at stretching the field. Defensively, corners Earsell Mackbee and Bobby Bryant combined for fourteen interceptions and Pro Bowl safety Paul Krause picked off five more.
The running game wasn’t ideal—fullback Bill Brown, now 31-years-old, saw a little bit of a step back from his own All-Pro days and Dave Osborne, while a decent running back, wasn’t outstanding. But the 1969 Minnesota Vikings were a team without real weaknesses.
That wasn’t immediately apparent when the team opened the season in Yankee Stadium against the New York Giants. Gary Cuozzo started at quarterback and threw two long touchdown passes to give the Vikings an early lead. But an old and future friend—Fran Tarkenton, who had been traded from Minnesota upon Grant’s arrival and would soon be traded back—did the Vikes in. Tarkenton threw two late touchdown passes and a mediocre New York team stole a 24-23 win.
One year earlier the Baltimore Colts had been the NFL’s dominant team, before losing one of the famous Super Bowls ever to the New York Jets and Joe Namath as a three-touchdown favorite. What the Vikings did on September 28 in old Metropolitan Stadium sent a loud and clear message.
The Cuozzo idea was junked and Kapp was back in the lineup. He threw an 83-yard touchdown strike to Washington in the first quarter. He hit the speedy wideout on a 42-yard scoring play in the third quarter. Kapp kept pumping touchdowns against an outstanding defense and didn’t stop until he had thrown seven TD passes. Minnesota had a shocking 52-14 rout.
Before the Colts were the NFL champs, the Green Bay Packers were. Vince Lombardi was gone, now with the Washington Redskins, and Minnesota continued its pattern of knocking off the old guard. They forced three turnovers and beat the Packers 19-7.
Minnesota rolled through road games against lousy teams in the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Cardinals, and set up a home date with the Detroit Lions, came into the game at 3-2. The Vikings had the opportunity to open up some room in the Central Division (the teams of today’s NFC North) and they took advantage.
Kapp-to-Washington came through again, a 41-yard touchdown pass, and an early 10-0 lead. Mackbee was all over Detroit quarterback Greg Landry, picking off three passes. The running game took over late, with Osborne and Brown each scoring and the game ended 24-3.
After another win over Chicago, the Vikings prepared to host the Cleveland Browns, who were running away with the Century Division (the Giants, who would finish 6-8 were the closest team to Cleveland). Yet another shock awaited NFL fans—not so much that the Vikings won the game, but the size and scope of the victory.
Kapp hooked up with Washington three different times for touchdowns. This game was Bryant’s turn to play ballhawk, as he intercepted three passes. The final score was 51-3. Minnesota had played the two teams that had met in last year’s league championship game and calmly dropped a combined 103 points on them.
Green Bay and Detroit still held theoretical chances of catching Minnesota in the standings, so a November 16 trip to Milwaukee to meet the Packers was still important. The Vikes did not play well, and a potential scoring drive ended up in an 85-yard interception return the other way for Green Bay. Trailing 7-3, Minnesota looked ripe to be picked, but kicker Fred Cox booted two field goals and they escaped. The Packers were finished as a threat.
After another offensive explosion—52 points over the Pittsburgh Steeler team that was bad enough to get the #1 overall pick in the ensuing year’s draft and get Terry Bradshaw—the Vikings traveled to Detroit for Thanksgiving Day. Minnesota had a two-game lead, and with only three games remaining after this, they could clinch the division.
It was a sloppy game in old Tiger Stadium, but Minnesota just gradually pulled away. Page scored a defensive touchdown in the fourth quarter, and with a 27-0 win, the Vikings had punched their return ticket to the playoffs.
Homefield advantage was determined on a rotation basis, so there was really nothing left to play for, but Minnesota did make one more statement. The Los Angeles Rams were playoff-bound, and the Vikings went west, built a 14-0 lead and beat the Rams 20-13. Minnesota completed the regular season 12-2, losing at Atlanta.
Los Angeles was coming to Minnesota on December 27, amidst 10-degree cold for the first playoff game. The Vikings looked to have an early big play—Eller tipped a pass, caught it and ran in for a touchdown. But Page was whistled offsides and the Rams got a huge break.
Then LA went about the business of making the break count. Quarterback Roman Gabriel worked his tight ends, and the Rams’ own strong defensive front was causing problems for Kapp. Minnesota trailed 17-7 at the half and was still down 20-14 in the fourth quarter.
Grant’s offensive adjustment was for Kapp to roll out more frequently and to take off and run, to try and neutralize the pressure. It worked, and he ultimately ran for a touchdown to put his team up 21-20. With less than four minutes left, the LA offense was backed up and Eller sacked Gabriel for a safety.
Los Angeles came charging back, crossing midfield and looking to tie the game. But Page made amends for his earlier penalty, coming down with a tipped pass that sealed the win. Grant and LA head coach George Allen had more playoff meetings ahead of them, when Allen went to the Washington Redskins two years later. This game started a pattern of Grant consistently coming out on top.
Cleveland was the opponent at the Old Met for the NFL championship (this was the last year prior to the AFL-NFL merger, and what we know as the conference championship round was still considered the “NFL” rather than “NFC” Championship, as would become the case a year later).
The result wasn’t as lopsided as the regular season game, but nor was it close. Kapp ran for an early touchdown and then threw a 75-yard strike to Washington. Osborn, who ran for 108 yards as the Vikings controlled the ground game, took one in from 20 yards out. Washington caught two more passes for an additional 45 yards in the air. It was 24-0 by halftime and the Vikings cruised home to a championship, 27-7.
Minnesota was a two-touchdown favorite over the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl, as oddsmakers and the public felt like the NFL losing the prior year’s game was just a fluke. This game proved otherwise, The Vikings couldn’t get anything going, turned it over five times and were picked apart defensively by smart Kansas City quarterback Len Dawson. The Chiefs won 23-7. The AFL was on a par with the NFL, and the newly named AFC would win most of the Super Bowls through the coming decade.
But the Minnesota Vikings were now on a par themselves—with the rest of the league’s elite. They had now broken through and reached a Super Bowl, and it wouldn’t be their last.