The 1972 NFL season had been a rough one for 37-year-old QB John Brodie of the San Francisco 49ers (pictured at right). After leading the club to appearances in the NFC Championship game in each of the previous two seasons, he had suffered an ankle injury in Week 5 and missed the next eight games. Even after he was able to play again, he remained on the bench as backup to Steve Spurrier, the sixth-year quarterback-in-waiting who had performed ably in Brodie’s absence. Head Coach Dick Nolan’s team was 7-5-1 and trying to nail down a third consecutive NFC West title going into the last game of the season against the Vikings on December 16.
Minnesota, coached by Bud Grant, was having a down year after going to the playoffs in each of the previous four seasons. The return of QB Fran Tarkenton following a five-year sojourn with the Giants had been offset by the decline of the once-stellar defense. The Vikings were 7-6 and had already been eliminated from playoff contention.
It was rainy and the artificial surface wet for the Saturday game at Candlestick Park. Things started off rough for the 49ers when HB Vic Washington, after catching a pass from Spurrier, fumbled and LB Jeff Siemon recovered for the Vikings. However, Minnesota failed to capitalize when Fred Cox was wide on a 33-yard field goal attempt.
Later in the first quarter, the Vikings got another opportunity on a San Francisco turnover and made the most of it. FB Ken Willard fumbled the ball away and CB Charlie West picked it up and returned it to the 49ers’ 16 yard line. Three plays later, Tarkenton completed an 18-yard touchdown pass to RB Ed Marinaro for his first pro touchdown.
Vic Washington responded with a 56-yard kickoff return that gave the Niners good starting field position. They parlayed it into a 14-yard Bruce Gossett field goal early in the second quarter. That was it for the scoring until near the end of the period when Gossett added another field goal, from 37 yards, that narrowed the tally to 7-6 at the half.
In the third quarter, the Vikings capitalized on an interception by Siemon. It set up a 31-yard scoring pass from Tarkenton to WR John Gilliam. Spurrier, who was clearly struggling, tossed a third interception and John Brodie began warming up on the sidelines.
Brodie came into the contest with under two minutes remaining in the third quarter and the 49ers trailing by 17-6. He showed rust when he threw two interceptions that aborted promising drives. The first series went 64 yards, starting off with a short completion to Gene Washington, but ended when FS Paul Krause picked off a pass at the goal line. Following the second interception, the Vikings were unable to move the ball but Mike Eischeid’s punt went out of bounds at the San Francisco one yard line.
The 49ers proceeded to drive 99 yards in six plays. Brodie completed a 12-yard pass to HB John Isenbarger and connected with Gene Washington for a big 53-yard gain. A throw to Vic Washington moved the ball eight more yards to the Minnesota 24 and, after another pass was incomplete, Brodie again connected with Gene Washington, this time for a touchdown.
In response, the Vikings held the ball for over five minutes before the 49ers regained possession at their 34 following a punt with 1:30 left on the clock. Again Brodie went to the air, hitting RB Larry Schreiber for nine yards and Vic Washington for eight. A pass interference penalty on Siemon put the ball at the Vikings’ 26. The 49ers tried a trick play as Brodie lateraled to Isenbarger, whose long pass was broken up by Krause at the goal line, and then Schreiber ran for six yards on a draw play. With time running down, Brodie completed a throw to Vic Washington for an 18-yard gain to the Minnesota two. Following two more incompletions, Brodie, who was rolling to his right on third down, found TE Dick Witcher all alone in the end zone for the go-ahead TD.
The Vikings had time to drive into field goal range and potentially tie the contest, but Cox’s 43-yard attempt on the last play failed. The 49ers came away winners by a score of 20-17.
San Francisco outgained the Vikings (383 yards to 273) and had the edge in first downs (18 to 17). However, the 49ers hurt themselves with seven turnovers, to two by Minnesota. The Vikings, in turn, hurt themselves with key penalties – they were flagged six times at a cost of 67 yards, to three penalties called on San Francisco. The Niners also sacked Tarkenton four times for 48 yards.
John Brodie, in his slightly more than a quarter of action, completed 10 of 15 passes for 165 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Steve Spurrier was successful on 7 of 14 throws for 76 yards with none for scores and three picked off. Gene Washington had a big day with four catches for 119 yards and a touchdown. Vic Washington, in addition to rushing for 43 yards on 10 carries and returning two kickoffs for 78 yards, also caught four passes for 36 yards. Larry Schreiber was San Francisco’s leading rusher with 67 yards on 12 attempts.
For the Vikings, Fran Tarkenton completed just 11 of 25 passes for 144 yards with two TDs and two intercepted. John Gilliam caught four passes for 62 yards and a touchdown. Ed Marinaro, the former Cornell star, led the club with 70 yards on 16 carries and caught three passes for 22 yards and a TD, but also ran out of bounds on a fourth quarter carry when the Vikings were trying to run time off the clock. Likewise, Jeff Siemon had a big day on defense with two interceptions and a fumble recovery, but also was guilty of a key penalty on San Francisco’s game-winning drive.
“John (Brodie) came off the bench and did a great job,” said an appreciative Dick Nolan. “I can’t say anything more. He was our shot in the arm.”
The win clinched San Francisco’s third straight NFC West title with an 8-5-1 record. Brodie started the Divisional playoff game against Dallas, which ultimately was lost thanks to an exciting fourth quarter comeback by the Cowboys. The Vikings ended up in third place in the NFC Central at 7-7.
Adding in his numbers from the early part of the season, John Brodie completed 70 of 110 passes (63.6 %) for 905 yards with 9 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. As his late-game heroics against the Vikings showed, he was capable of outstanding performances during his long, 17-year career with the 49ers that finally came to an end in 1973. That he could not perform so well with greater consistency marked the up-and-down nature of his tenure and kept him from being regarded as a great quarterback.