October 4, 2010

1964: Tarkenton’s Heroics Lead Vikings to First-Ever Win Over Packers

The Minnesota Vikings had endured the typical growing pains of an NFL expansion team in the first three years of existence (1961-63). Under Head Coach Norm Van Brocklin, there was reason for optimism entering the 1964 season that the pieces were coming together. They had gone 5-8-1 in ’63 and nearly upset the Bears and Colts – two of the most powerful teams in the Western Conference – along the way (they fought the eventual-champion Bears to a late-season tie).

24-year-old QB Fran Tarkenton had grown along with the team and, while his propensity for scrambling away from the pocket grated on Van Brocklin, it made him one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the league as well as one of the most promising. The running back tandem of HB Tommy Mason and FB Bill Brown was a good one, and split end Paul Flatley was coming off of an outstanding rookie season. The offensive line was anchored by C Mick Tingelhoff and OT Grady Alderman. The defense contained some good players, including DE Jim Marshall, DT Paul Dickson, and linebackers Bill Jobko and Rip Hawkins, and they were being joined by first draft choice DE Carl Eller.

The Vikings beat Baltimore in the opening game but were coming off losses to the Bears and Rams as they prepared to take on the Green Bay Packers at City Stadium on October 4, a club they had never beaten in six tries.

After winning the Western Conference title three straight years, including NFL Championships in 1961 and ’62, Head Coach Vince Lombardi’s team had barely lost out to the Bears in 1963. They were 2-1 and the only loss had come by one point against the Colts. However, the Packers were missing star FB Jim Taylor due to a shoulder injury; Tom Moore, normally a halfback, took his place in the lineup. Also out were two more future Hall of Famers, CB Herb Adderley and DT Henry Jordan.

Tarkenton utilized his scrambling ability throughout the game to keep the Packers defense off balance and complete key passes. In their second possession, the Vikings covered 67 yards in 10 plays, highlighted by passes of 25 and 32 yards to end Tom Hall. Bill Brown went straight ahead for a TD on the first play of the second quarter to give Minnesota the early lead.

The Packers bounced back as QB Bart Starr connected with flanker Boyd Dowler on a 50-yard pass play for a TD that featured Dowler leaping high and bouncing off of two Vikings defenders. However, the extra point attempt by Paul Hornung was blocked by Rip Hawkins.

Minnesota responded with a 14-play, 78-yard drive that again ended with a short carry by Brown for the touchdown. Tarkenton set up the score with a 12-yard run. Green Bay again came back to score, with Hornung diving in for a TD and successfully converting the PAT attempt with 43 seconds left in the half. The Vikings led 14-13 at halftime.

Green Bay got a break on the first play from scrimmage of the third quarter when Brown fumbled and safety Willie Wood recovered at the Minnesota 32. The Packers took advantage as Starr hit Dowler for a second TD pass completion, this time covering 32 yards. Hornung’s point after was good and Green Bay was ahead for the first time, 20-14.

The Vikings were subsequently able to keep the Packers pinned deep in their own territory thanks to good punts. Later in the third quarter, Hornung fumbled at the end of a nine-yard run on the Green Bay 19 and Bill Jobko recovered for the Vikings. Five plays later, from the six yard line, Tarkenton scrambled all the way back to the 20 before connecting with Hall for a touchdown.

In the fourth quarter and down by a point, Starr directed the Green Bay offense on a drive that finally stalled at the Minnesota 10. Hornung booted a 20-yard field goal with 4:52 left to play and the Packers were once again in the lead at 23-21.

Green Bay appeared to have the win sewn up when the Vikings, in the ensuing possession, faced a fourth-and-22 situation at their own 36 yard line with under a minute remaining on the clock. At that point, the biggest play of the game occurred when Tarkenton, seeing no receivers open, scrambled for time and barely eluded the grasp of DE Willie Davis to complete a 43-yard pass to TE Gordon Smith down to the Green Bay 21. Shortly thereafter, Fred Cox kicked a 27-yard field goal and the Vikings were the winners by a score of 24-23.

The statistics reflected the closely-fought nature of the game. Minnesota had slight edges in total yards (332 to 325), rushing yards (179 to 128), and first downs (21 to 17). Each team surrendered three sacks and turned the ball over once.

Fran Tarkenton completed 11 of 16 passes for 177 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions; he also ran for 49 yards on six carries. Tom Hall led the receivers with 6 catches for 97 yards and a TD. Bill Brown (pictured below) was the top runner with 67 yards on 24 carries and the two short touchdowns while HB Tom Michel, playing in place of the injured Tommy Mason, added another 55 yards on 16 attempts.

For Green Bay, Bart Starr was successful on 11 of 21 passes for 216 yards and two TDs against no interceptions. Boyd Dowler grabbed 6 passes for 128 yards and two scores. Tom Moore, in place of Jim Taylor, gained 68 yards on 12 carries and Paul Hornung was right behind at 60 yards, also on 12 attempts, with a touchdown but also the one costly fumble.

It was the second one-point loss of the season for the Packers, and in both instances a missed extra point attempt by Hornung had made the difference in the final score. Hornung had missed the 1963 season due to a suspension by the commissioner for gambling, and while he was still a capable halfback, his kicking woes were a nagging issue throughout the year – he didn’t miss any further extra points, but he was good on only 12 of 38 field goal attempts.

However, on this day, as the Vikings defeated the Packers for the first time, the bigger story was Tarkenton’s performance. Vince Lombardi expressed admiration for the young quarterback, talking about “fantastic catches on passes other quarterbacks wouldn’t even throw…That Tarkenton is a tough little guy.” Willie Davis added, “You think you have him and he just gets away.”

His own coach, Van Brocklin, said, “We try to keep him in the pocket, but his ability to get away sure is a plus for him.” On this day, The Dutchman could not complain.

The Packers turned the tables on the Vikings four weeks later in Minnesota by a convincing 42-13 margin. But overall, both teams ended up tied for second place in the Western Conference with 8-5-1 records. For Green Bay, it was a disappointing season, but for the Vikings it was the first winning record in franchise history and a sign of progress (a fleeting sign, however, as they dropped to 7-7 in ’65 and didn’t post another tally over .500 until 1968, in Bud Grant’s second year as head coach).

For the year, Fran Tarkenton ranked second in the league in yards per attempt (8.2), completion percentage (55.9), and percentage of touchdown passes (7.2), third in passing (91.8 rating) and TD passes (22), and fourth with 2506 passing yards.