Fran Tarkenton pulls no punches on today’s NFL. The Hall of Fame quarterback says Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice should never play again. He rails against the culture of painkillers and performance-enhancers. And he says RG3 is on his way to the same graveyard as JaMarcus Russell and Vince Young

By Jenny Vrentas
December 05, 2014

Last week, Fran Tarkenton was at the Atlanta office of his business, Tarkenton Financial, and planning to take his annual Thanksgiving weekend trip to New York City with his wife. But as he has done since retiring from the NFL after the 1978 season, the former Vikings and Giants quarterback was also paying close attention to what’s going on in the league. And he’s not shy about sharing his strong opinions, particularly on topics that he’s knows a thing or two about—the Vikings, quarterbacks and painkiller use in the NFL.

VRENTAS: What’s your evaluation of Teddy Bridgewater’s rookie season so far?

TARKENTON: All the rookie quarterbacks who have been playing for most of the season—Bortles, Teddy, Carr—are about at the same place. Teddy has had a lot of playing time, and I think [at this point], we don’t know. Because the position is so important, everybody wants their guy to be The Guy. He hasn’t played badly, and he hasn’t played great. He is a work in progress. There are some things I like about him; I think he is a nice young man; and I think the team is playing well defensively. But I think the jury is still out on Teddy, as it is on Bortles, as it is on Derek Carr. We’d like to see it more like Andrew Luck. When Andrew Luck came out, we knew he was The Guy, right? And we kind of knew Russell Wilson was going to do fine. I don’t think any one of these rookies, including Teddy Bridgewater, has given us the indication of whether they are going to be keepers or not. And that’s not a negative when I say the jury’s still out. In many [other] cases, after we see them play, the jury says “no.” In these cases, I don’t think the jury says “no” on any of these quarterbacks, but they haven’t played well enough to say “yes,” either.

VRENTAS: For the Vikings, how much harder does that make it to plan for the future?

TARKENTON: You’re always in a tough spot if you don’t have a quarterback that you think can be your franchise quarterback. But, there’s another phenomenon going on. There’s not a franchise quarterback in Arizona is there, either? And Arizona, right now, has as good a record as anybody in football. Drew Stanton is a guy who’s a workman-like guy. Then you look at Kyle Orton—Buffalo is [7-5] with the journeyman Kyle Orton. The quarterback to win with does not have to be a franchise quarterback. There are only a few of those. Peyton Manning. Tom Brady. Drew Brees has been [in the past], but I wouldn’t count him this year. You’re not going to get many Andrew Lucks coming out, where you see right off the bat that he’s a great player. Not many of those happen. But I think all these guys are in play. Teddy Bridgewater, as much as you hope—hope is not a strategy, as we know—he has not proven that yet, that he can be the guy.

VRENTAS: For a long time in Minnesota, it’s been the case that if the team didn’t have “The Guy,” at least they had Adrian Peterson. Now, his future is uncertain. What should the team do: bring him back next year, or move on?

TARKENTON: Next year he’ll be 30, and I think the Vikings are building for the future. Running backs as we know, as certain as anything, after age 30 they’re not the same people. I think [the Vikings] are doing the right thing, building their defense. When you think about their offense playing pretty pedestrian all year, the defense has played great. I think they’ve got the foundation of defense, and that’s very important. I’d like to see them move on from Adrian Peterson, because they need to be trying to look at their franchise beyond next year. Build it solidly from the ground up, and put the pieces in place, and start with new running backs and new wide receivers, and get a solid offensive line going, and then do the best you can with quarterbacks. And again, Teddy Bridgewater doesn’t have to be a franchise quarterback. He has to be a good workman-like quarterback to help this team win.

VRENTAS: Are you saying the Vikings should move on from Peterson because of his age, or because of the child abuse case that led to his suspension?

TARKENTON: I followed the Clippers thing. That owner [Donald Sterling] didn’t get indicted for any crime, but the racial comments he made were totally inappropriate, and we took a stand. The whole world and the NBA, we have zero tolerance to racism. And I think that’s right. I agree with that. But I also think we ought to have zero tolerance to child abuse and domestic violence. I don’t think [Peterson] should play again in the NFL. I don’t think Ray Rice should play again. Either we have zero tolerance, or we don’t. And what is more egregious than domestic violence and child abuse? I don’t know of anything, unless you kill somebody.

VRENTAS: Peterson has not played since the child-abuse charges first surfaced in September, and now he’s been suspended for the rest of the season, pending appeal. Do you think the response shows that teams and the league are starting to take these issues more seriously?

TARKENTON: Kind of. They have been a little bit wishy-washy. [The Vikings] were going to play Adrian Peterson [before reversing course in September]. Other teams were going to play other players [involved in cases of domestic violence]. And the NFL was going to give just a two-game suspension to Ray Rice. I don’t think we’ve gotten beyond “win at any cost” yet. And I think we need to get there. We should have zero tolerance to racism. We don’t believe that, right? Is that more important than zero tolerance to domestic abuse and child abuse? Unless we as a society think that way, then we won’t make progress. And the whole domestic violence thing, that has been tolerated universally, but certainly in the NFL. We can’t tolerate that. All these behaviors that are so egregious continue. We need to set an example.

VRENTAS: Have you had contact with the Vikings or the NFL to share your opinions on this issue?

TARKENTON: I have. I don’t like to talk about whom I have spoken with. But I have made it very plain and very clear, to people in both places. There’s got to be zero tolerance.

VRENTAS: You wrote a letter to the New York Times regarding painkiller abuse, in response to the DEA’s recent spot checks of NFL team medical staffs. This has been a subject you have been vocal about. What was your experience with painkiller use during your playing career?

TARKENTON: This has been going on forever. I was playing for the New York Giants, and I hurt my shoulder in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. I came in at halftime, and the doctor had a great big long needle, punched a few different places, and told me, “Show me where it hurts the worst.” I said, “Ow,” and he jammed a combination of xylocaine and cortisone into my shoulder. That’s not good for my shoulder, but he’s my team doctor. I don’t think he’s going to do something that hurts my career, right? He’s like my family doctor. If my family doctor tells me to take a pill, I’ll take a pill. So every Friday, I went on the subway from old Yankee Stadium, where we practiced, all the way down to lower Manhattan to St. Vincent’s Hospital, and they did the same thing they did at halftime. They shot my shoulder. It didn’t really help me, but it allowed me to play. Now, when I come back to Minnesota, my shoulder is worse. The year we played the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl in New Orleans, my shoulder was already deteriorating, and I hurt it early in the season in Dallas. The rest of the year I could not throw a ball in practice; I could not throw a ball in warm-ups over 10 yards. When I got in the game, I could throw it maybe 40 yards, because my adrenaline was up, but there was nothing on it. But every Friday, guess what they shot me with? Butazolidin. That’s what they shot horses with. Shot me up every Friday, all the way to the Super Bowl. I retired at age 39, and I see my doctors down here [in Atlanta] because my shoulder is killing me. They say, “You’ve got the shoulder of a 75-year old man. You need your shoulder replaced.” I talked to a lot of the old guys—Roger Staubach, Otto Graham, Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitas, Y.A. Tittle­—and none of them had shoulders replaced. I had my shoulder replaced, because they shot me up. Where was the conscience back then? People say, “You knew what they were doing.” I knew what they were doing, but I didn’t think they would hurt me. I didn’t think my shoulder was going to fall apart.

VRENTAS: You’ve also been outspoken about PED use in the NFL. How should these issues be addressed?

TARKENTON: It has been going on since my generation, but nobody really knew about it. I remember being with my center, Mick Tingelhoff, who wasn’t on [PEDs], and he weighed about 240 pounds. We were watching [another team] warm up, and they had big bulging muscles. I found out later there were steroids that probably crept into the league at least in the mid-70s. Before that, players took bennies, an upper drug that made you feel high and energized. It didn’t make you bigger, faster, stronger, but it made you feel good. Teams would have them in the training room by the bowlfuls, and the defensive players took them and would break out in sweat beads all over their head. That was what they were doing then, and we see what has happened with steroids now. It is an epidemic. We struck pretty hard at PEDs in baseball, and cycling, and track and field, and swimming, but not in the one sport that PEDs help the most. The people that win in college and pro football are the people that have the biggest and strongest athletes. You look at some of the guys who played these physical positions, they are shadows of their former selves one year or two years after they get out of football. They lost 40, 50, 60 pounds. Is that normal? I’m 74 years old. I played at a weight of 193. I wasn’t on PEDs, and I now weigh 192. But I fight not to weigh 220. When you retire, historically, you put on weight. And nobody talks about it. And now, we have all these injuries. If you are putting 40, 50, 60 pounds of weight on your same tendons, what happens? And in this generation of players, the contacts are more vicious than ever before—even with the new rules, because they are bigger, stronger, faster. The injuries are epidemic, are they not? The sport now is violent, and so who cares about these players? Their safety? I do. So I rail about it. Before you can solve a problem, you have to recognize the problem. If you care about the sport and the safety of the players, why wouldn’t you want to fix this?

VRENTAS: Of all the quarterbacks in the league today, Johnny Manziel has been compared to you because of his scrambling ability. Yet the former Texas A&M star has spent most of his rookie season on the bench behind Brian Hoyer. What do you think his future is in the NFL?

TARKENTON: Well, first of all, if you are going to be a great player in the NFL as a quarterback, you have to really, really prepare and understand every nuance of every defense and every offense; where your players are, and where their players are. If you get to that point, the proverbial “it’s slowed down,” it’s an easier play. If you see Peyton Manning in his advanced age, or Tom Brady in his advanced age, you see that it’s almost like pitch and catch for them. If you are going to be a great quarterback, you have to mentally get to that point, and the No. 1 thing you’ve got to do is be a great passer. You’ve got to know where to throw it, and you’ve got to be accurate. When I retired from football, I had broken every passing record there was. Obliterated it. But when Dan Marino finally broke my record after 17 years, people were shocked. They knew me as a scrambler, right, and they didn’t know what I did first was pass. You have to be a great passer to be a great quarterback. Now, what I also did as part of my repertoire, I had the ability to buy time. I would pick up first downs, I would move side to side to be able to buy time, because I played on expansion teams when I first came up. That’s how I had to adapt to have time to throw the football. Right now, the only comparison with Manziel is he has agility. But he hasn’t proven he can be the right type of leader to make the right type of decisions. The quarterback has to be the respected leader of the clubhouse. He has to be the adult in the room who brings that clubhouse together, who is a leader and a person they can depend on, because he is pulling the trigger.

VRENTAS: You talk about quarterbacks having to be great passers first, and that’s been one of the big issues with Robert Griffin III. Can he turn things around?

TARKENTON: I said two years ago that RG3 would not make it. This guy comes from a good family, a good background, a good school, Baylor; he’s a smart young man, physically gifted, he can throw it. But he came into the league with an arrogance. He goes into Washington, which is the worst place for him to go. They have been so hungry for a quarterback, and for winning, they worshipped him. Here’s RG3; he’s our savior, he’s our guy. His father gets involved and is in the locker room—I have never seen a father in a locker room on Sundays. The owner, Dan Snyder, adopts him and becomes his best friend. So RG3, at 21, 22, thought he was Jesus, right? And he was making pontifical statements about how he approached the game. I was listening to him the offseason after his rookie year, which was not a bad year, and I’m saying, “Holy s---, this guy is out of control with his ego.” That was the first sign you saw that he lacked leadership. Then, he was so into himself. You know a quarterback’s job? Make his teammates better. It’s not about you; it’s about your teammates. You’ve got to make them better, and if you don’t make them better, you have no chance. And he was all about RG3. I sympathize with Jay Gruden. Gruden came out and pointed out, which is right, that he has no mechanics. He is a terrible passer, has no accuracy, he doesn’t understand the offense, he doesn’t read defenses, and he has no discipline. When he is supposed to take a three-yard drop, he takes a one-yard drop; if he is supposed to take a five-yard drop, it’s a three-yard drop. There’s no discipline and understanding of the defense because he is a pontificator. He will never make it. He will be out of football. He will be in the same graveyard as JaMarcus Russell and Vince Young.

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