By Zane Miller
After being taken by the Minnesota Vikings with the 29th overall pick in the 1961 NFL Draft, quarterback Fran Tarkenton remained in the NFL despite a somewhat tumultuous first 11 seasons in the league.
Playing in Minnesota from 1961 to 1966, Tarkenton would only have one winning season, although he would get runner-up in Rookie of the Year voting in the 1961 season, before joining the New York Giants in 1967. During his time in the Big Apple, he would again be held to just one winning season, coming in 1970 as he had his best season as a pro to that point with a third-place finish in the MVP race that year. However, following an underwhelming 1971 campaign, Tarkenton would again find himself with the Vikings. Although he would lead the Vikings to a 7-7 record in 1972, Tarkenton was still searching for his first-ever playoff appearance as well as his first double-digit win season. Both goals would come true in 1973.
His best performance of the season occurred on November 19th on the road against the Atlanta Falcons, passing for 214 yards and two touchdowns as the Vikings won it 20-14 to improve to a 9-1 showing on the year. Minnesota would eventually end the season at 12-2 to win the NFL Central division, with Tarkenton starting all 14 regular season contests.
Tarkenton scored a total of 15 passing touchdowns on the year to tie with St. Louis (now Arizona) Cardinals quarterback Jim Hart for seventh, while his 2,113 passing yards also put him inside the top-10 in seventh once again, although he would finish 110 behind Hart for sixth in that category.
On December 22nd, the Vikings remained at Metroplitan Stadium for their home matchup against the NFC Wild Card winning Washington Redskins (now Washington Commanders) for the first round of the postseason. Although the Redskins made it a close game, as they led 7-3 at halftime and kept it tied through the third quarter at 10-10, the Vikings would turn their offense on in the fourth as Tarkenton added a pair of touchdown passes to wide receiver John Gilliam to stave off the upset with a 27-20 victory. Tarkenton ended the game with outstanding numbers, getting 222 yards through the air along with the aforementioned two touchdown passes to move on to the NFC Championship Game.
With that, December 30th saw the Vikings travel to face the Dallas Cowboys, who had won the NFC East with a 10-4 record. Minnesota’s defense shined in the first half with a 10-0 shutout, before the Cowboys made it a one-possession game in the third quarter, with the Vikings only up 17-7. However, the defense would stop the Cowboys’ rally in its tracks, putting together a fourth quarter shutout and adding an interception return touchdown from cornerback Bobby Bryant for good measure for a 27-10 win. While Tarkenton had a somewhat rough game, only passing for one touchdown and 133 yards while getting sacked four times, the defensive domination would be enough to send the Vikings to the Super Bowl for the second time in franchise history.
The team then traveled to Rice Stadium in Houston, TX for Super Bowl VIII, against the reigning Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins. If you’ve already read my article on Bob Griese’s 1973 season, or if you’re already familiar with NFL history, you know this doesn’t end well for the Vikings. Indeed, Minnesota would be shut out until the fourth quarter while the Dolphins wreaked havoc all afternoon, culminating in a 24-7 win to secure back-to-back titles. While Tarkenton had a better game statistically than Griese, throwing for 182 yards to Griese’s 73 while neither scored a touchdown, Miami’s stellar running game proved to be the difference. However, this wouldn't be the only time he would reach the double-digit win column.