With only 17 seconds to play in sudden-death overtime last Sunday in the showdown between Minnesota and Green Bay for first place in the NFC's Central Division, Viking Quarterback Fran Tarkenton decided to run out the clock. Pay attention now, New York Giants. Tarkenton took the snap from center, gingerly lowered himself to the ground and ever so carefully cradled the ball against his belly. It was the work of an old master. Final score: Minnesota 10, Green Bay 10.
What's this? Fran Tarkenton, the most daring quarterback in the NFL, falling on the ball to protect a tie? Has senility finally weakened Tarkenton's powers of reason? Or was he simply fed up with trying to perform behind an injury-riddled offensive line that had left him open to attack all afternoon? Every time Tarkenton tried to pass on Sunday, he was chased from Oshkosh to Sobieski by the tough young Packer defensive ends, Mike Butler and Ezra Johnson.
There is little doubt that age has finally taken its toll of Francis Asbury Tarkenton. His legs now occasionally concede footraces to younger defensive linemen, and his arm barely has enough strength to throw a pass into a strong wind. But there is nothing wrong with Tarkenton's mind. The experience of his 38 years has taught Tarkenton that sometimes in the NFL a tie can be a win.
The 10-10 standoff at Green Bay's Lambeau Field left both the Vikings and the Packers at 7-5-1 with three games remaining. But the Vikings' 7-5-1 is better than the Packers' 7-5-1. Earlier this year Minnesota beat Green Bay 21-7, so in head-to-head competition, which is step No. 1 in the tie-breaking procedure to determine division champions, Minnesota has the edge over Green Bay. If the two teams are still tied after their final games of Dec. 17, Minnesota will go to the playoffs as the division champion for the sixth straight time and the 10th in the last 11 years. Fall on the ball for the Gipper, Francis.
Only six weeks ago it seemed that these same Vikings would be no-shows for the playoffs. When they tangled with the Packers the first time back in October, their record was a sad 3-4. They had become the first team to lose to both Tampa Bay and Seattle in the same season, and they trailed Green Bay—which was an astonishing 6-1 at the time—by three games. But Minnesota smacked the Pack that day, cutting Green Bay's lead to two games, and the Vikes went on to win three of their next four. They also became the only club to beat both of last year's Super Bowl contestants, Denver and Dallas, this season. Meanwhile, the Pack slid back, losing three of its next four while scoring just 29 points.
Thus the 7-5 records and the tie for first place as they squared off on Sunday. Curiously, Tarkenton and the Vikings spent most of the afternoon trying to develop a running game, something that had been nonexistent for Minnesota all season. The problem is not Minnesota's running backs—Chuck Foreman (when he is healthy; he has missed two games this season) and Rickey Young are just fine. The problem is the Vikings' inoffensive line, which was hurt by the early-season trade of All-Pro Guard Ed White, a contract holdout, to San Diego, and has since been ravaged by injuries. At times during Sunday's game the Vikings played with two rookies. Tackle Frank Myers and Guard Jim Hough, on the left side. Still, they stubbornly stuck to their ground game. With two minutes to play in regulation time, the Vikings had run the ball 35 times for only 82 yards. Tarkenton, who despite the fading skills is somehow having his best passing season, had thrown just 22 times, mostly in third-down-and-long situations forced by the Vikings' miserable running attack. Tarkenton also had been intercepted three times while completing just 10 passes for 76 yards. Not surprisingly, Minnesota trailed 10-3.
At that point it looked as though the game's only touchdown would be the one the Packers' Terdell Middleton had scored on a one-yard smash just before the end of the first half, giving Green Bay a 7-3 lead. Middleton, a second-year man from Memphis State, ran around, through and over the Vikings all afternoon, gaining 110 yards on 39 carries and surpassing the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
Green Bay had another chance to score a touchdown on the first play of the final quarter, but on third-and-goal at the one, the Minnesota defense stiffened and threw Middleton for a one-yard loss. Instead, the Packers had to settle for a 19-yard Chester Marcol field goal and a 10-3 lead.
At the two-minute warning, Tarkenton decided to take matters into his own hands. Starting at his 43, he ignored his useless ground game and called 11 straight passes. Once Tarkenton was sacked by the ubiquitous Johnson for a five-yard loss, but twice he kept the drive moving with fourth-down completions. With 14 seconds to play, he sent the game into overtime on a five-yard lob to the left corner of the end zone that Wide Receiver Ahmad Rashad plucked away from Packer Cornerback Mike McCoy.
Tarkenton having rediscovered the pass, Minnesota seemed poised to blast the Pack in sudden death. On the Vikings' second series in overtime, Tarkenton skillfully moved them 75 yards—56 through the air—to set up Rick Danmeier for a chip-shot field-goal attempt from the Green Bay 11 with four minutes to go. Danmeier missed.
So Tarkenton, who thought he had completed his day's work, went back into action when the Vikings regained the ball at their 23-yard line with 1:55 on the clock. He completed a five-yarder to Foreman, then threw to Rashad for an apparent first down. Trouble was, Rashad began to play volleyball with the pass instead of catching it, and McCoy intercepted it. McCoy became so excited that he then fumbled, but teammate Dave Roller recovered at the Packers' 43.
Now it was Quarterback David Whitehurst's turn to maneuver Green Bay into position for a shot at a winning field goal. With 21 seconds to play, Marcol, whose 48-yard field goal beat Tampa Bay 9-7 four weeks ago—the last time the Packers tasted victory—lined up for a 40-yard attempt. He hooked it to the left. Minnesota took over, and Tarkenton decided that enough was enough and sat out the clock.
The question around Minnesota these days is whether Fran will retire at the conclusion of this season or show up for his 19th campaign next summer. If Tarkenton needed any encouragement to call it quits, he probably got it last month from Detroit Defensive Tackle Dave Pureifoy, who drew a 15-yard penalty for hitting Tarkenton in the face with his helmet. "I've never had another hit like that," said Tarkenton. "Never." The blow knocked the caps off three of Tarkenton's teeth and opened a gash in his lip that a plastic surgeon stitched 60 times before it was closed. What hurt Tarkenton much worse, however, was the booing he got from Viking fans during the loss to Tampa Bay. "I resented the hell out of that," Tarkenton said.
Last season or not, this will probably be Tarkenton's best—statistically, at least. Tarkenton holds most of the game's career passing records, including touchdowns (334) and yards gained (46,167). This year he should add some seasonal marks; his 274 completions in 444 attempts are within easy reach of Sonny Jurgensen's records of 288 and 508.
Tarkenton is blunt when he talks about the reason for his impressive passing statistics. "The pure, hard, cold fact," he says, "is that we're not running the ball well. I'd like to throw it less." Coach Bud Grant prefers to be more optimistic about the situation. "We should throw," he says. "We have the greatest quarterback who ever played, and our five receivers are as fine as anybody's." Which makes it all the more mystifying that the Vikings spent so much time trying to find a ground game against Green Bay.
Tarkenton's targets are indeed inviting. Foreman led the NFL in receiving in 1975 with 73 catches. Young, whom the Vikings acquired from San Diego in exchange for White, should lead the league in catches this year; he already has 74, including the six he caught for 63 yards against the Packers. Tight End Bob Tucker led the NFC in receiving in 1971, when he and Tarkenton both played for the Giants. Rashad topped the NFC in catches last season with 51. That leaves the other wide receiver, Sammy White; he was the NFL's offensive rookie of the year in 1976, and has caught 26 touchdown passes in less than three seasons as a pro.
But Tarkenton's one remaining football goal is not statistical. In a lengthy discussion with The Minneapolis Star columnist Jim Klobuchar recently, Tarkenton said, "When you're young and established in pro football, you're going to play forever. Your friends are the young guys, and they all want to win, but there's always next year. The difference then was that you could always win tomorrow. Tomorrow is now for me and maybe half a dozen other guys on our team. Winning is more urgent.... The Super Bowl is more important to me now than I ever cared to admit to myself before. You don't dedicate a season to it. But you also know this may be the last time around."
When you're 38 and contemplating retirement, you'll do a lot to get to the Super Bowl. Even sit on a tie.