March 7, 2010

1967: Vikings Trade Fran Tarkenton to Giants

Following a 1966 season that was the worst in franchise history, the New York Giants had a need for a capable quarterback. The Minnesota Vikings and their erratic but talented quarterback, Fran Tarkenton, were ready to part ways. On March 7, 1967 a deal was struck that sent Tarkenton to the Giants for four draft picks (two first- and two second-round choices spread across three seasons).

Tarkenton was an original Viking, having been selected in the third round of the 1961 draft out of Georgia. Even as a rookie, it didn’t take him long to push veteran George Shaw aside as the starting quarterback. From the beginning, he showed a distinctive style of play, especially in being quick to abandon the pocket and scramble for time. Considering the lack of quality of the offensive line in this expansion season, it made sense and Head Coach Norm Van Brocklin showed tolerance.

Van Brocklin, a good but stubborn coach, had not been at all mobile during his great career as a pro quarterback and made an effort to alter Tarkenton’s style of play in the next few seasons, to no effect. To be sure, while he might have been overly quick to scramble and improvise, his performance was solid – he went to the Pro Bowl following the 1964 and ’65 seasons and was the third-ranked passer in the league in ’64 as the Vikings finished with their first ever winning record at 8-5-1. While many questioned the wisdom of the 6’0”, 190-pound quarterback’s willingness to run out of the pocket so often, he didn’t lose any time to injury during his first six seasons.

Van Brocklin had valued Tarkenton enough to veto a trade to the Eagles for Sonny Jurgensen after the 1963 season. While he couldn’t alter his quarterback’s style of play, he did have success in teaching him how to read defenses. But there was friction between the two strong-willed individuals, and the antagonism spilled out when on various occasions the head coach accused his young quarterback of playing selfishly and showboating. While Tarkenton could make exciting things happen through his scrambling, Van Brocklin believed that less improvising and a more conventional approach could yield better results.

After peaking in ’64, the Vikings dropped to 7-7 in 1965 and 4-9-1 in ’66. The situation between head coach and quarterback became untenable during the 1966 campaign. After leading Minnesota to an upset of the Green Bay Packers, Tarkenton followed up with a five-interception performance in a loss to Detroit. Van Brocklin benched Tarkenton in favor of fourth-year backup Ron VanderKelen the next week in a loss to the Rams, and two weeks later Bob Berry, in his second season, was given the start at home against the expansion Atlanta Falcons. Much was made at the time of Tarkenton being benched for a game that was being broadcast back to his native Georgia, although it was unlikely that that had played a factor in Van Brocklin’s thinking.

Following the season, Tarkenton demanded to be traded and was accommodated with the deal to the Giants. In the meantime, Van Brocklin abruptly resigned as head coach, to be replaced by Bud Grant, who had been successful in the Canadian Football League. The feuding had resulted in the departure of both of the antagonists.

Meanwhile in New York, the Giants had struggled since winning three consecutive Eastern Conference titles from 1961-63 (and losing the ensuing NFL title games) while the outstanding veteran quarterback, Y.A. Tittle, set records. The aging team crashed in 1964, Tittle’s last, forlorn season. While veteran Earl Morrall was acquired from Detroit and led the team to a respectable 7-7 finish in ’65, he suffered a broken wrist during the 1966 season. Gary Wood and Tom Kennedy proved inadequate as fill-ins as the Giants went 1-12-1.

Tarkenton had a Pro Bowl season in 1967, passing for 3088 yards and 29 touchdowns as the Giants, who had far too many holes to fill to contend, improved to 7-7. A particularly productive target was WR Homer Jones, who caught 49 passes for 1209 yards for a 24.7 yards-per-catch average and 13 touchdowns. In five seasons in New York, Tarkenton was selected for the Pro Bowl four times and led the team to a 9-5 record in 1970 – the club’s best between 1963 and 1985. He was traded back to Minnesota following the 1971 season.

The Vikings stumbled badly out of the gate in ’67 as VanderKelen proved inadequate as the starting quarterback. However, Joe Kapp, a CFL veteran, joined the club early in the season and took over the job. With Kapp’s scrappy leadership, a good running game, and an outstanding defense, Bud Grant’s team made it to the postseason for the first time in 1968 and won the NFL championship in ’69 (although they lost to the AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl).

The draft choices obtained for Tarkenton were used to pick HB Clint Jones from Michigan State (1st round in ’67, second overall pick), HB Bob Grim from Oregon State (2nd round in ’67), OT Ron Yary from USC (1st round in ’68, first overall pick), and G Ed White from California (2nd round in ’69).

Yary and White became mainstays on the offensive line, with Yary garnering six consecutive consensus first team All-Pro selections and going to seven Pro Bowls on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and White going to the Pro Bowl three times (and once more with the Chargers). Jones was a useful halfback and good kickoff returner. Grim, who was converted to wide receiver, had a Pro Bowl season in 1971 when he caught 45 passes; ironically, he was part of the package sent to the Giants in the trade that brought Tarkenton back to the Vikings.