Fran Tarkenton, the often beleaguered quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings (see cover), is a professional football player whose cup runneth over. Unfortunately for young Mr. Tarkenton, this is not the pleasant circumstance it might be for you or Miss America of 1962 or a Rockefeller. More often than not, Tarkenton's overflowing cup leads to a varied assortment of contusions, sore bumps and miserable afternoons that he remembers with as much enthusiasm as he would an acute case of food poisoning.
The cup, it should be explained, is not a cup at all. It is the pros' word for the protective wall that the offensive line is supposed to throw around a passer every time he drops back to pass. On the Vikings last year the wall almost never materialized. In the first few games this season it was just a shadowy crock that leaked 250-pound ends and tackles. For most people the prospect of playing football behind the Viking wall would be terrifying. But for Fran Tarkenton, the earnest son of a minister who does not smoke, drink or even curse, playing quarterback for the Vikings is a challenge to master his job rather than to prove his bravery.
"I got discouraged sometimes last year," Tarkenton said the other day with remarkable equanimity. "Not because I was getting hit, but because I was making mistakes. There is so much to learn about playing quarterback in this league. The toughest thing to figure is the defenses. In college [he played at Georgia] all I had to worry about was my pass pattern. Now I've got to recognize a defense in a couple of seconds, remember how they cover on passes, figure out the weakness in it and call an audible. I hope some day all that becomes instinctive. It's not now."
Stan West, the Minnesota line coach, described the Viking forwards of a year ago rather simply. "They are not," said West, who weighs around 280 pounds and used to play middle guard for the Los Angeles Rams, "big. But they are slow." Norman Van Brocklin, the coach of the Vikings and a former quarterback himself, explains it somewhat differently. "Last year," he says, "we had lots of 'watch-out' blockers on the club. A watch-out blocker is a guy who misses his assignment and turns around and hollers to the quarterback, 'Watch out!' This year we have a few more blockers and a few less hollerers."
This, of course, is good news to Tarkenton who, as you can see in the color photographs on the following pages, has spent some long and sickening Sunday afternoons since he joined the Vikings as a rookie last fall. Although the Vikings of this year lost their first five starts (in 1961 they had won one by the fifth game) their line is beginning to jell and the future looks bright.
A year ago Tarkenton's principal problem, other than a porous line, was an understandable tendency to leave whatever cup there was and run. This made it difficult for the few strong, silent types who were standing their ground. Pro blockers have to know within a couple of yards where the quarterback will be if they are going to protect him.
"He used to take off out of the pocket if you raised an arm coming in," a Green Bay linebacker recalls. ("In college I was fast enough to run away from them if I had to," Tarkenton says.) "He is a good scrambler, but if you run much you'll get clobbered."
This year Tarkenton has stayed within the protective circle more consistently. He still gets dumped with irritating frequency, but he doesn't take the mauling he suffered last season. "I was surprised at the size and the speed of the defensive linemen in pro football," he says. "I had to learn to find lanes in the defense to throw through because the linemen coming in are too big to see over. And I guess if I had to run 50 yards against Henry Jordan [defensive tackle for the Green Bay Packers] he would beat me by five."
Tarkenton actually is rather quick for a quarterback. He scrambles very well, through necessity, and he is adept at the sine qua non of a good pro quarterback: picking up floating receivers in a broken pattern. This requires good peripheral vision and the ability to disregard the dangers—i.e., those menacing linemen—while waiting to get a pass off at the last moment.
"He had a tendency to throw too soft when he came up," Van Brocklin said the other day. "In college you can dunk a ball out there, but in this league if you hang a pass it's as bad as hanging a curve ball in baseball."
"It's a matter of habit," Tarkenton says. "I have to remember every time I throw to follow through all the way and straighten out my arm, so I throw the ball flat even on the long passes."
The difference between the Tarkenton—and the Viking blockers—of these days and earlier is plain to see. In the opening game of the season Tarkenton was savaged by Green Bay. Two weeks ago, against the same team, he lost only 28 yards attempting to pass, most of them late in the game when the Packers could commit their linebackers to rushing him. It was plain to see, too, that the training he got in accepting adversity last season had helped him. He ducked and wheeled and peered around the large Packer linemen and managed to complete 18 of 28 passes for 260 yards and two touchdowns. The Vikings, mostly on Tarkenton's arm and bravery, scored four of the first five touchdowns given up by Green Bay this year.
"In the opening game we waited for Tarkenton to commit himself and then we went after him," a Packer linebacker said. "If the first guy didn't get him, the next did. But this time he was much harder to reach."
Fortunately for Tarkenton, he is sturdy and not a bit injury-prone. He played every game for the Vikings last season and has played every one so far this year. "He gets up," Van Brocklin says, "no matter how hard they belt him. He doesn't complain, either. He isn't a motor mouth."
Van Brocklin has worked hard with Tarkenton, on both the technical and the emotional aspects of pro football. After some of the disasters of last year Tarkenton, naturally, was depressed. He and Van Brocklin spent hours looking at movies of those games, with the coach pointing out everything good that Tarkenton had done and how small the difference between success and failure was. Invariably Tarkenton left the sessions with renewed confidence.
But of all the lessons Van Brocklin taught Tarkenton, the most important was to stay put, even in a crumbling cup. During his playing career with the Rams and the Eagles, Van Brocklin, who was not at all fast, almost never ran. His limitation, he feels, proved his blessing.
"When a quarterback is forced to run, you have taken away his effectiveness and made him play your game," he said the other day. "He won't beat you running. He'll beat you throwing the ball. That's what he's paid to do. As I once said, and say again, he should run only from sheer terror."
Tarkenton, who knows now what Van Brocklin is talking about, agrees.