1977 Minnesota Vikings: A Division Title Amidst Decline

The 1977 Minnesota Vikings were a good team that won a division title, their ninth in ten years. They reached the NFC Championship Game. But there were also unmistakable signs of decline setting for the franchise that had been the NFC’s best from 1969-76, reaching four Super Bowls, including three of the past four.

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Throughout most of the decade, it was customary to see the Vikings in the top ten—if not the top five—in the NFL in points scored. They were traditionally a top five defense. But in 1977, they ranked 16th in offense and 13th on defense.

The lineup was long on the tooth. Fran Tarkenton was now 37-years-old and his TD/INT ratio slipped to 9/14. The defensive line still had the names of three men who once drew the nickname “The Purple People Eaters.” But Carl Eller, Alan Page and 40-year-old Jim Marshall were no longer Pro Bowlers. Nor was Paul Krause, the 35-year-old safety. Other players for whom the clock was ticking included center Mick Tingelhoff at 37 and corner Bobby Bryant, age 33.

But lest we turn this into a funeral atmosphere, they could still play with savvy and the Vikings had a top running back in Chuck Foreman, who rolled for 1,112 yards. They had good receivers in Ahmad Rashad and Sammy White. The right side of the line had Pro Bowl talent in Ed White and Ron Yary—although Yary did lose the 1st-team All-Pro status that he had enjoyed since 1971, and 1977 would be his last year in the Pro Bowl.

Minnesota opened the season hosting the Dallas Cowboys, and it began with an erratic performance from Tarkenton, who went 13/32 for 182 yards and three interceptions. The game still went to overtime, but the Cowboys left town with a 16-10 win.

A rare early season Saturday night kickoff followed in Tampa Bay, where the expansion Buccaneers were a new team in Minnesota’s NFC Central Division (which otherwise had the four teams of today’s NFC North). It was an ugly game. Eller sacked Tampa quarterback Randy Hedberg for a safety and the defense forced Hedberg into a 4/14 for 51 yards and three interceptions night. But the Vikings only won 9-3.

The Green Bay Packers were a bad team at this time, and even after getting a 95-yard touchdown pass from Lynn Dickey to begin their game in Minnesota, the Vikings took over. They held Dickey to 48 yards passing the rest of the way and won 19-7. Another defensive game followed at home with Detroit. There was no running game, but Tarkenton’s two first-quarter touchdown passes to White were enough for a 14-7 win.

A fourth straight game with a division foe was next, and so was another hard-fought win. The Vikings led the Chicago Bears 13-0, then fell behind 16-13, then tied it with a field goal. Minnesota won in overtime, on a trick play, as Krause came in and threw a touchdown pass to tight end Stu Voigt.

Minnesota was 4-1 and had swept their NFC Central rivals. But the fact the games with the Packers, Lions and Bears were all at home and all close, was enough to cause concern. And that concern shot up with a humiliating Monday Night trip to Los Angeles. The Vikings gave up three first-half touchdown passes to the Rams’ Pat Haden and were crushed 35-3 by a traditional playoff team.

Another grinding win over an average team followed in Atlanta. After falling behind 7-0, Tarkenton connected with White on a 54-yard touchdown pass to key a 14-7 win. The next week though, the St. Louis Cardinals came to the Twin Cities and the rush defense collapsed. The Cardinals ran for 316 yards, and the offense didn’t score until St. Louis was ahead 27-0 in the fourth quarter.

Head coach Bud Grant got his team back on track against a decent Cincinnati Bengals team. The Vikings played their best game. Foreman ran for 133 yards. Tarkenton was razor-sharp, completing 17/18 passes for 195 yards in a 42-10 rout. But as though something was telling Minnesota that their time was running out, Tarkenton broke his leg. He was lost for the season.

The road trip to Chicago was next, and the Bears’ Walter Payton carried the ball 40 times and ran for 275 yards. It was a performance that probably won Payton the MVP award. Minnesota could only score on a blocked punt by Pro Bowl linebacker Matt Blair and they lost 10-7.

Minnesota was now 6-4, with Chicago and Detroit each in close pursuit at 5-5. This was essentially new territory. The Vikings had only sporadically had to face a challenge for the division title deep into November. Now they had competition.

Bob Lee was the quarterback at Green Bay the next week at Green Bay, but it was the defense and Foreman’s 101 rush yards that keyed a 13-6 win. Perhaps that’s why Grant was ready to pull Lee when the Vikings dug a 24-0 hole for themselves at home the next week against the San Francisco 49ers. Enter Tommy Kramer.

Kramer would eventually become the starting quarterback and the 23-year-old delivered an electric performance. He completed 9/13 passes for 188 yards. Kramer threw three fourth-quarter touchdown passes to three different receivers and led a stunning 28-27 comeback win.

He lost the job the next week after digging a big hole in a 35-13 loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders, but that was a game the Vikings would probably have lost on the road no matter what, even had Tarkenton been healthy. Kramer’s heroics against San Francisco meant that Minnesota controlled their own destiny going into the final week of the season.

The Vikings were 8-5, as were the Bears. Detroit had faded, and Minnesota held the tiebreaker. There was no guarantee of a wild-card fallback, as only one such berth existed at this time, and the Washington Redskins were also 8-5.

Minnesota played their season finale on Saturday in Detroit. Lee was the starter and he played well, completing 11/16 for 206 yards, and not making any mistakes. The Vikings took a 24-7 lead and even though they allowed a pair of special teams touchdowns, on two long returns by Eddie Payton, Minnesota was never in danger of losing. They won 30-21 and secured another NFC Central—and the win was needed, because Chicago and Washington both won on Sunday.

The Vikings were the #3 seed in the four-team NFC bracket and they traveled to Los Angeles to rematch with the Rams. A torrential downpour engulfed the LA area and the Coliseum was tracked with mud. Foreman ran for over 100 yards, as did Ram running back Lawrence McCutcheon. Lee played extremely conservative, going 5/10 for 57 yards, but not throwing any interceptions.

It was the Rams who made the mistakes. Minnesota got out to a 7-0 lead, and were up 14-0 in the fourth quarter because Haden threw two interceptions, and Los Angeles missed a field goal. The Rams finally did score with a minute left and then recovered the onside kick. Haden threw one more pass into the end zone…and one more interception, as Jeff Wright picked it off to secure the win for the Vikings.

The run ended on New Year’s Day in Dallas. The Cowboys were just too dominant this season. The Vikings had to play a perfect game under any circumstances, and they lost three fumbles. The balanced Dallas running attack of Robert Newhouse and Tony Dorsett keyed an easy 23-6 win.

Even with the loss, and even with the end of the Minnesota Vikings’ run as the top team in the NFC, they still showed they could survive a tough division race and still win playoff games. But the end was clearly coming.