He throws footballs at a mattress in his attic, he eats chili before a game, he says what he thinks, and a lot of people do not like the fact that he sometimes runs into remote corners of neighboring states before he connects on another touchdown pass for the Minnesota Vikings. But Fran Tarkenton is, and Fran Tarkenton does, and whether any of the oldtimers are going to be able to stomach it or not, Fran Tarkenton is on the verge of proving that he might be the greatest professional quarterback who ever drew back an arm.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Baugh. Graham. Unitas. All that stuff. But Fran Tarkenton looks better right now in his 15th season than ever before. His Vikings are the only undefeated team in the NFL, and he is getting ready in the next 15 or 20 minutes to break every meaningful record available to a passer. And he still hasn't come close to being seriously injured, despite those journeys into the unknown. Also, he hasn't always benefited from brilliant receivers, and he calls his own plays, and he can see the whole field better than anyone, and he has an amazing touch, and he can throw long and short and medium, and he's a leader, and he doesn't panic, and he can make things happen. But mainly he is going to own all these passing records, and the critics can just shut up.
The fact is, whether you like a scrambler or not, and whether or not you like a guy who throws a lot to his backs, and whether you don't accept a guy who has "never won the big one," Fran Tarkenton is going to become the alltime, lifetime career passer, and you will be able to look it up.
One not so unimportant by-product of what Tarkenton is up to these days is the effect all this is having on the Vikings. When last seen, out there in Green Bay, Wis., they were 7-0 with the best and most confident club Coach Bud Grant has put together, and looking very much like one of the Super Bowl entries. It might be early for talk of this nature, but who else in the National Conference do you want to get excited about?
Last Sunday the Vikings went into what figured to be their usual physical battle with the Packers, and all Tarkenton did was have the best day he has had all year, and by doing so, kept the Vikings rolling along with a 28-17 victory. Tarkenton did it like this: he hit the first seven passes he threw, he hit 11 of the first 12, 16 of the first 18, and so on like that to finish up with 24 completions out of 30 attempts, for 285 yards and three touchdowns.
It all goes back to his toys in the attic. "In the off-season," Fran says, "I get on my knees and throw 20 or 30 balls a day at a mattress." But you don't scramble on your knees, Fran. "I scramble to keep from getting tackled." But people don't like for you to scramble, Fran. "People like Johnny Unitas," he says.
It isn't easy to get Tarkenton to talk about Tarkenton until he has talked about the Vikings, who have only become a consistently fine team since he escaped from the New York Giant penal colony and returned to them. First, therefore, we must hear about the Vikings.
It may come as a surprise to most people, but the Vikings have subtly turned into a young team. There are still antiques around, like the defensive ends Carl Eller and Jim Marshall and the linebackers Roy Winston and Wally Hilgenberg, a safety, Paul Krause, and the center, Mick Tingelhoff. Their continued presence is what keeps the average age of the squad at 26.5 years, which is not high compared to, say, the Washington Redskins.
But look who is gone—Gary Larsen, Milt Sunde, Grady Alderman, Bill Brown, Oscar Reed and Mike Eischeid, all of them retired, waived, traded or simply not signed. Meanwhile, the new Vikings are being raved about by the older Vikings, and some of them are causing their elders to perform with a vigor defying their years.
The youth of the Vikings centers around five or six guys. In the backfield, for example, there is the combination of Brent McClanahan-Ed Marinaro to go along with Chuck Foreman. McClanahan, once he learns to stop trying to run over stadium portals, will be what Dave Osborn was, only swifter, and Marinaro is a fine receiver. Foreman, of course, is the first breakaway threat in Minnesota since the emigrants.
In the offensive line you have to dwell on John Ward, who was not available last season because of an injury. He can take over for Tingelhoff at center anytime Bud Grant wishes, but currently he starts at guard. Another blossomer is Steve Craig, a tight end who backs up Stu Voigt and could probably start for half the teams in the NFL.
All this is fine, but most good teams—teams that consistently reach the playoffs—do it with defense, and the Vikings are no different. The fact is that the Vikings could lose an Eller or a Marshall, and both Winston and Hilgenberg, tomorrow, and they might well be better off. Their No. 1 draft choice, Mark Mullaney, a defensive end from Colorado State, is already just a few votes shy of being admitted into the Hall of Fame, counting just the votes from Bloomington, Minn., that is. And the Vikings are absolutely certain that their backup linebackers are better than anyone's, Matt Blair and Fred McNeill, especially.
Earlier last week, after a Viking practice, as he sat in Eddie Webster's Peanut Bar near the stadium, cracking shells, Tarkenton spoke of all the reasons why these Vikings are so improved over the team that disappointed so many people in the last two Super Bowls.
"Depth alone makes us better," Tarkenton said. "I think my arm is healthy. It wasn't last year. John Ward makes us better at guard. Doug Sutherland has developed as a first-rate member of the front four and can stand right up there with Alan Page. Bobby Bryant is back in the secondary. That's a big, big thing. Jim Marshall played all last season with pneumonia. Neil Clabo was a real find as a rookie punter. McClanahan and Marinaro. We've got the six best linebackers in football. Depth. You can't say enough about depth."
Nor can you ever say enough about Fran Tarkenton. He retains an enthusiasm for the game that is unmatched among quarterbacks. For a man in his 15th season, you would expect him to show some signs of wear or scars of battle, or perhaps even a jadedness in his attitude, but he is as vibrant as ever.
"I'm a fan as much as anything," Fran said. "I really love the game. I love to follow it as much as play it. I wanted to be a football player from the time I can remember. Playing a touch game in an alley with just two kids when I was five years old, I knew I wanted to play football." And he has never been too badly injured to be able to play.
"I stay in shape, if that's part of the reason," he said. "Probably it's luck. I'm physically strong. I have strong legs. Maybe that's helped. Stand-up quarterbacks have stood in the pocket and gotten hurt. I've scrambled, and I haven't. I never scrambled with any design. I was trying to complete a pass, to move the team. But it's interesting. The oldtimers have never accepted me as a good quarterback because I've run out of the pocket too often. All that does is amuse me."
They are not going to accept Tarkenton breaking all of those records that belong to Unitas, either, but he is surely going to break them, and in fewer seasons, and when he does, he will have done it playing on some far worse teams than Unitas ever did, and throwing to receivers who are never likely to take their places alongside Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore.
The two major records for a quarterback to covet are career touchdown passes and career completions. Unitas holds those records. In his 18 seasons he completed 290 touchdown passes and his lifetime total of completions is 2,830.
When Tarkenton left the field last Sunday his lifetime completions came to 2,781. Putting the computer to that, you find that Tarkenton needs only to hit Foreman or Jim Lash or John Gilliam for an average of eight catches a game over the second half of the regular season, and the record will be his.
As for touchdown passes, which might be the equivalent of home-run hitting, Tarkenton now needs only 11 to surpass Unitas after he got his 12th, 13th and 14th of the season Sunday. If you consider that Tarkenton is going to play on a while longer, the world can surely look forward to his becoming the first man to throw 300 lifetime touchdown passes.
So why won't anybody name a candy bar after him?
"People don't like to admit that football teams get better every year," Fran said. "I promise you that athletes today are far superior to what they used to be. There were great players in every era, of course, but the linemen weren't what they are now. Guys today work out the year around. They go to health clubs instead of beer taverns. They're bigger and faster. They're smarter. You don't see linemen with fat bellies anymore."
But what about quarterbacks?
"I think Unitas was the best," Fran said. "But he didn't see the zones and subtle defenses we see. He got a lot of one-on-one coverage. He didn't see the pass rush we see."
Tarkenton said he would take Oakland's Ken Stabler for his ability to move a team, simple as that. Also for the variety of balls he can throw. He likes the unselfishness of Bob Griese at Miami. "We may never know how great Griese is because he plays behind the greatest offensive line ever, and he only has to throw 10 passes a game."
He said if you wanted the most tenacious, competitive guy around, you might come up with Billy Kilmer at Washington. "He'll wobble one in there somehow," Fran said. For courage, what about Joe Namath? "Courage," he said, "and the ability to lay the 25-yard ball in there."
And how would history remember Fran Tarkenton, inasmuch as it is going to downplay the records?
"I'd like to be thought of as a good one," he said. "I hate to think I won't be unless I win a Super Bowl. You know, this team could win a Super Bowl, but I don't know that I would have made a bigger contribution to football by being a part of it than I did a couple of seasons in New York when we went 9-5 and 7-7 with no football players."
Happiness for a quarterback, naturally, is having yourself surrounded by receivers like Gilliam and Voigt and backs like Foreman and Marinaro who can also catch the ball. Against the Packers, Tarkenton's ability to find these people when he needed them was the principal thing that kept the Vikings undefeated.
At the risk of sounding repetitious, having Tarkenton is like having a coach on the field. As Minnesota's offensive coordinator, Jerry Burns, says, "Certainly nobody today has seen more than Fran has. When we set up a game plan, I suggest what I think the running game ought to be, but Fran knows as much as anyone about what will work with the passing game. We manage to put together something that he's comfortable with."
When Tarkenton had his ritual bowl of chili the night before the game at Chili John's in beautiful downtown Green Bay. he couldn't help but dwell on how he might feast on the young Packer secondary. Some say that feasting on the current Packers is easier than feasting at Chili John's, and Tarkenton proved as much on Sunday.
It would not be fair to suggest the victory was an easy one. The Vikings had to come from behind twice, from 10-7 and 17-14, but it never seemed that they were out of control. Receivers were open everywhere, and especially when Tarkenton needed them to be.
His three touchdown passes were of an assortment that only Tarkenton, perhaps, could have thrown today. The first was a play action to the right where he zinged one in from five yards to Voigt. The second was a drop-back, a floater over the head of the defender into the arms of Gilliam in the end zone. And the third was a typical old-fashioned Tarkenton scramble. Running around, bringing the stadium to its feet, and then, as only a man with a still-good arm can do, firing one for 10 yards to Foreman, who caught it just on the line, inundated by people in green shirts.
And so Fran Tarkenton and the Vikings press on, wondering if they can finally do it all. "Getting through the playoffs is the hardest part," he claimed. "That's where the real pressure is. We've gone into two Super Bowls now and we've lost our edge both times. Maybe it's because there's two weeks between the conference championship and the Super Bowl, I don't know. Maybe that's why there's never really been a great Super Bowl game." Tarkenton would like one more opportunity to do something about all that.