September 17, 2011

1961: Vikings Thrash Bears for Franchise’s First Win

The Minnesota Vikings launched their first regular season on September 17, 1961 as they hosted the well-established Chicago Bears at Metropolitan Stadium. The new team was coached by Norm Van Brocklin, who had ended his illustrious career as a quarterback after leading the Philadelphia Eagles to the NFL title in ’60 in the expectation that he would succeed Head Coach Buck Shaw, who also retired. When the Eagles elevated assistant coach Nick Skorich instead, a miffed Van Brocklin accepted the opportunity to coach an expansion team.

As usual with expansion teams, the Vikings approached the inaugural season with a group of unwanted veterans and untested young players. In this instance, the veterans included QB George Shaw, most recently of the Giants; aging all-time great HB Hugh McElhenny of the 49ers; Dave Middleton, a seventh-year end from Detroit; DE Don Joyce of the Colts; and G Gerry Huth, fresh from the Eagles’ championship team. Rookies obtained in the draft were Tulane HB Tommy Mason (first round), LB Rip Hawkins from North Carolina (second round), Georgia QB Fran Tarkenton (third round), and defensive back Ed Sharockman of Pitt (fifth round).

The Bears, under the direction of owner/Head Coach George Halas, were coming off of a subpar 5-6-1 season in 1960. In the offseason, they obtained QB Bill Wade from the Rams and also added TE Mike Ditka, the first round draft pick out of Pittsburgh, to upgrade the passing attack.

There were 32,236 in attendance for the regular season debut of the Vikings. The veteran George Shaw started at quarterback, but didn’t last long as he completed two of three passes for 22 yards and was replaced by the rookie Tarkenton (pictured above). Minnesota scored the only points of the first quarter as Mike Mercer booted a 12-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.

Tarkenton connected with veteran split end Bob Schnelker, once a star with the Giants, for his first touchdown pass (of an eventual career total of 342) from 14 yards out. The Bears responded when FB Rick Casares went up the middle for a three-yard touchdown. The extra point attempt was missed and the score stood at 10-6 in favor of Minnesota at halftime.

The Vikings had difficulty capitalizing on scoring opportunities in the first half, but came alive in the third quarter. In particular, Tarkenton completed 8 of 11 passes during that period. TE Jerry Reichow made two outstanding catches, one for a 29-yard TD and another for 48 yards between defenders CB J.C. Caroline and SS Richie Petitbon that set up a score by McElhenny, who caught the rookie quarterback’s third touchdown pass of the day from two yards out.

To start the fourth quarter, the young scrambler ran two yards around right end for a touchdown. Dave Middleton scored the last Minnesota touchdown on a two-yard throw from Tarkenton, after which the attempted PAT was missed. With the result a foregone conclusion, the Bears finally rounded out the scoring as Wade tossed a 10-yard TD pass to Galimore. The final tally was a shocking 37-13 decision in favor of the Vikings.

While the Bears were guilty of some sloppy play, Minnesota’s defense played very well and Rip Hawkins (pictured at left), DT Jim Prestel, and DE Jim Marshall were the most noteworthy performers. Hawkins in particular distinguished himself as the leader of the unit.

The Vikings gained a total of 336 yards, to 270 for Chicago, although the Bears had the edge in first downs (20 to 17). However, the Bears turned the ball over five times while the newcomers suffered just one turnover.

Fran Tarkenton was the star of the game on offense, completing 17 of 23 passes for 250 yards with four touchdowns and none intercepted. Hugh McElhenny (pictured below), who rushed for 25 yards on 6 carries, had the most pass receptions for the Vikings with 6, for 54 yards and a TD. Jerry Reichow gained 103 yards on his three catches. FB Mel Triplett was the club’s leading rusher with a yard more than McElhenny, gaining 26 on 8 attempts.

For the Bears, Bill Wade was good on 6 of 10 passes for 109 yards and a TD while having two picked off; QB Ed Brown threw 7 passes and completed just two for 37 yards with two interceptions. Willie Galimore ran the ball 12 times for 47 yards. Flanker Johnny Morris caught 4 passes for 92 yards. Mike Ditka, in his first regular season game, contributed one reception for 18 yards.

Both head coaches, Norm Van Brocklin and George Halas, called Tarkenton’s performance the greatest debut ever by a rookie quarterback.

“Tarkenton is going to be a great quarterback,” Coach Van Brocklin enthused after the game. “The team moves for him. His greatest asset is the way he moves around looking for a target. That draws the defense in and then he throws to an open receiver.”

While friction would eventually develop between Van Brocklin and Tarkenton, at least during the 1961 season there was relative harmony and the rookie completed 56.1 percent of his 280 passes for 1997 yards with 18 touchdowns and 17 interceptions; his scrambling ability kept him from taking a beating behind a mediocre offensive line and he ran for 308 yards on 56 carries that included five TDs.

The opening win by the Vikings was followed by seven straight defeats and they ended up at the bottom of the Western Conference with a 3-11 tally. Chicago recovered from the first-week shellacking to go 8-6 and finish in a tie for third place in the conference with the Baltimore Colts.

Hugh McElhenny had one last Pro Bowl season, leading the Vikings with 570 yards rushing, catching 37 passes for 283 more, and returning a punt for a touchdown. For Mike Ditka, the season resulted in a first Pro Bowl selection as he had an outstanding rookie year with 56 receptions for 1076 yards (19.2 avg.) and 12 TDs.