1975 Minnesota Vikings: Fran Tarkenton’s Best Year Ends In Heartbreak

Fran Tarkenton had the best of year of his career at age 35 for the 1975 Minnesota Vikings. The team might have been the best in the seven-year stretch that Tarkenton played for Bud Grant (1972-78). Tarkenton won the MVP award, the Vikings went 12-2 and were poised to reach the Super Bowl for the third straight year and perhaps this time, finally bring home a championship. Heartbreak caught up with them at the end.

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Tarkenton threw for nearly 3,000 yards and had a 25/13 TD-INT ratio, sparkling numbers in this era when defensive backs could essentially assault wide receivers. Chuck Foreman, the third-year running back, ran for 1,070 yards. The offensive line got a spark when right guard Ed White developed into a Pro Bowler at age 28, joining right tackle Ron Yary, who was a perennial first-team All-Pro.

The Viking offense ranked third in the NFL in points scored, and the defense also ranked third. Alan Page, a 1st-team All-Pro at defensive tackle was the anchor on a front four that was no longer dominant, as they had been in the early part of this decade, but still had a lot of veteran savvy in Carl Eller and Jim Marshall at the ends.

Jeff Siemon was a young Pro Bowl linebacker, and two defensive backs had great years. Paul Krause, the veteran free safety made his usual Pro Bowl trip, and his ten interceptions were an unusual display of ballhawking. Bobby Bryant was another Pro Bowler at corner, picking off six passes.

Minnesota’s early schedule was soft—none of their first four opponents finished better than 5-9 at the end of the season. The Vikings were sluggish at home against the San Francisco 49ers, leading 13-10 and then pulling away in the fourth quarter to a 27-17 win. Minnesota went to Cleveland and picked off four passes to key a 42-10 rout.

Tarkenton then began a home game with the Chicago Bears by hitting veteran receiver John Gilliam  on an early touchdown pass, and he completed 19/30 passes for 250 yards in an easy 28-3 win. There was a lot of hype surrounding the visit of Joe Namath and the New York Jets one week later.
Namath’s Jets weren’t very good anymore, but they did lead 21-20 in the fourth quarter, before a blocked punt for a safety give Minnesota the lead and they eventually won 29-21. Tarkenton threw for 244 yards, while Foreman ran for 96, including the clinching touchdown.

The Detroit Lions were 3-1 and hoping to give Minnesota a run in the NFC Central (the same teams as the current NFC North), but the Vikings jumped out to a 25-3 lead behind Foreman’s 107 rushing yards. Detroit rallied to make it 25-19, but Minnesota extended its division lead to two games.

Minnesota’s trip to Chicago was on Monday Night Football, and it was a defensive battle. Tarkenton was the difference—he completed 16/30 for 234 yards, while counterpart Gary Huff was only 10/22 for 97 yards. The Vikings won 13-9. Tarkenton then went to Green Bay and completed 24/30 for 285 yards, including two fourth-quarter touchdown passes that turned a 17-14 deficit into a 28-17 win.

It was the defense’s turn to shine at home against Atlanta. The Viking D held the Falcons to 43 rush yards and intercepted quarterback Kim McQuilken five times in a 38-0 rout. A win over another bad team, the New Orleans Saints, followed, when Tarkenton threw for 310 yards and helped overcome five turnovers in a 20-7 win.

The Vikings won their tenth straight over the terrible San Diego Chargers, although it wasn’t an inspiring blowout. The Chargers hung around until Foreman, who ran for 127 yards, went for two fourth-quarter touchdowns to break open a 28-13 win.

Even though Minnesota was 10-0, they hadn’t played a team that would finish the season with a winning record. The first chance came at RFK Stadium and the Washington Redskins on November 30. A consistent playoff team under George Allen, the Redskins were fighting for their lives and they put Minnesota in a 21-0 hole.

Tarkenton got hot, and rolled up 357 passing yards against a proud, veteran defense. He brought the Vikings all the way back, to a 30-24 lead. It should have been the stuff of legends, but the Minnesota defense allowed Billy Kilmer and the Redskin offense to drive back and win the game 31-30. Washington would not ultimately make the playoffs, but they had derailed the Viking bid for perfection.

Minnesota came back with an easy 24-3 home win over Green Bay, but a road trip to Detroit resulted in a 17-10 loss. The offense played one of its worst games, with the only points coming on a Krause fumble return when the score was 17-3. The Vikings’ first visit to the new Detroit stadium, the Pontiac Silverdome, hadn’t gone well.

Under the old playoff format rules, this would have been irrelevant, because until 1975, homefield advantage for the playoffs was determined by a rotation system, rather than record. Once a team won its division, nothing else mattered, and with no other winning teams in the NFC Central, the Vikes had put that to bed long ago.

But 1975 was the first year that record would be the criteria for seeding division champions, and Minnesota’s second loss meant they needed to win the season finale at Buffalo to hold off the Los Angeles Rams for the #1 seed. The Bills had O.J. Simpson, and they were 8-5 coming in—a reminder that the Vikings still had not beaten a team that would finish on the plus side of .500.

Minnesota’s defense met the moment. They held O.J. to 57 yards and intercepted Joe Ferguson three times, two of the picks by Bryant. Tarkenton led an easy 35-13 win and the road to the NFC title would come through the Twin Cities, and the frigid outdoor environment and old Metropolitan Stadium.

The Dallas Cowboys were the opponent, the one wild-card team in the four-team NFC bracket. Tarkenton didn’t have a bad day, but it wasn’t his best, at 12/26 for 135 yards. Cowboy counterpart Roger Staubach completed 17/29 for 246 yards. Even so, the Vikings led 14-10 and had Dallas backed up on their own 15-yard line with 1:51 left.

Dallas faced a 4th-and-16, when Staubach found Pearson for a first down near midfield with 24 seconds left. Pearson then ran down the right sideline. Staubach launched a desperation pass. Minnesota corner Nate Wright appeared overrun the play, though Viking fans and players argued ferociously that Pearson gave him a nudge to aid that. The Cowboy receiver caught the ball and walked into the end zone.

It was a stunning end to a great season for the Vikings. Say what you will about the schedule, any team that goes 12-2, produces the MVP and has the eventual NFC champs (Dallas) on the ropes to that extent is awfully good.

Perhaps it’s a small consolation to consider that the Pittsburgh Steelers, who beat Dallas in the Super Bowl, were probably too good to be stopped anyway. But the 1975 Minnesota Vikings deserved a better ending than they got.