April 26, 2015

1972: Vikings Obtain Gilliam & Draft Picks from Cards for Cuozzo

On April 26, 1972 the Minnesota Vikings traded discontented QB Gary Cuozzo to the St. Louis Cardinals for WR John Gilliam and two draft choices, which were second and fourth picks for 1973.

The 31-year-old Cuozzo had played out his option and was due to become a free agent on May 1 and had demanded a trade. After being the primary starter in 1970, he had split time with Norm Snead, who was obtained from Philadelphia with the hope that he might supplant Cuozzo, and Bob Lee in ’71. While Snead was traded to the Giants three months earlier, it was as part of the deal that brought QB Fran Tarkenton back to Minnesota – a clear indication that Cuozzo was not part of the team’s plans.

Undrafted out of Virginia in 1963, Cuozzo had originally been a backup to Johnny Unitas for four seasons with the Colts. While he didn’t see much action, he had a five-touchdown passing performance against the Vikings in 1965 that drew a great deal of favorable attention and the New Orleans Saints traded a first-round draft pick for him in ’67. Cuozzo was unable to hold onto the starting job with the first-year team and was dealt to Minnesota the following year, this time for two first-round picks. He couldn’t unseat starting QB Joe Kapp, finally taking over when the fiery Kapp left the club after the 1969 season. Smart (he was Phi Beta Kappa in college) and an accurate passer, he lacked arm strength and was not nearly the leader that his predecessor in Minnesota was.  Overall with the Vikings, Cuozzo completed 49.6 percent of his passes for 3552 yards and 18 touchdowns, giving up 23 interceptions. And while the club was 16-5 during his regular season starts, it had not been able to win in the postseason.

Head Coach Bob Hollway of the Cardinals indicated that Cuozzo would be the starting quarterback, ahead of Jim Hart and Pete Beathard, who both had trouble with consistency. St. Louis was coming off of a 4-9-1 record in 1971, which marked a big drop from the previous year, and quarterback was an area of concern.

John Gilliam (pictured at top) was 26 and was a teammate of Cuozzo’s with the Saints in 1967, who had drafted him in the second round. He scored the first regular season touchdown in franchise history on the opening kickoff of the ’67 season, but the remainder of his tenure with the club was unremarkable and he was obtained by the Cards in 1969. With his great speed in a better offense, he broke out in St. Louis, catching 52 passes for 997 yards (19.2 avg.) and nine TDs in his first year with the club. Gilliam followed up with 45 receptions for 952 yards (21.1 avg.) and five touchdowns in ’70 and was coming off of a 1971 season with 42 catches for 837 yards (19.9 avg.). He led the team in receiving yards in each of his three seasons and in receptions in the last two. With WR Bob Grim having been traded to the Giants along with Snead, a spot was open in the Minnesota lineup for Gilliam.

Cuozzo (pictured above) proved to not be the answer in St. Louis. He started six games, only one of which resulted in a win for the Cards, while splitting time with Hart and unheralded Tim Van Galder (Pete Beathard was traded to the Rams during the preseason). He completed just 43.7 percent of his passes for 897 yards and five touchdowns while giving up 11 interceptions. It marked the end of the line for his pro career as he retired to practice dentistry.

Gilliam had much more success in Minnesota. He caught 47 passes for 1035 yards (22.0 avg.) and seven touchdowns and earned the first of four straight Pro Bowl selections, matching his number of seasons with the Vikings (he jumped to the Chicago Winds of the WFL in 1975, but when the team folded at the end of August after five games he returned to Minnesota in time for the regular season). He had a total of 165 catches for 3297 yards (20.0 avg.) and 27 TDs for the Vikings and added another 14 receptions for 261 yards (18.6 avg.) and five scores in the postseason. Gilliam moved on to the Atlanta Falcons in ’76, where his production dropped off significantly in his next-to-last year.

The 1973 second round draft choice that Minnesota also obtained was used to take Jackie Wallace, a defensive back from Arizona, while the fourth round pick was passed on to Kansas City (who used it to take Emporia State DE John Lohmeyer). Wallace started at cornerback in place of the injured Bobby Bryant and also returned kicks before moving on to the Colts, who shifted him to safety for two years, and eventually the Rams, where he led the league with 52 punt returns for 618 yards in 1978.

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