“Tarkenton was a pain in the ass.”
In football years long gone by, quarterbacks were expected to stand in the pocket and only in the pocket, and if their protection broke down, they were supposed to just crumple to the ground and accept the sack. It was an unwritten rule.
Fran Tarkenton changed that expectation and rewrote the unwritten rule. In doing so, he forever changed the game of football and the quarterback position.
Tarkenton’s scrambling abilities were borne out of necessity rather than by design. Drafted out of Georgia by the expansion Minnesota Vikings in 1961, Tarkenton’s offensive line mostly consisted of a group of ragtag misfits and has-beens that other, more established, NFL teams had given up on.
Also known as “The Mad Scrambler,” “Frantic Fran,” and “Scramblin’ Fran,” Tarkenton’s unorthodox behavior on the field drew the ire of huge opposing defensive lineman. One such lineman mused that Tarkenton would be lucky to last two years if he kept the scrambling up.
It seems that opposing defensive lineman were hardly Tarkenton fans.
“I always hated Tarkenton. I really did,” Los Angeles Rams Hall-of-Famer Merlin Olsen would claim years later.
“I mean that little wimp would run around out there for hours and hours and hours and we had to chase him. Wherever he went. Sometimes he’d run 40 yards back and forth and up and down the field. And, um, at the end of a game against Tarkenton your tongue was right on the ground.”
Olsen’s teammate and fellow Hall-of-Famer, Deacon Jones, still seems bitter years later.
“Tarkenton was a pain in the ass. He’d gamble. He’d run anywhere. I mean he’d be up into the stands if he had to. He’s one man that we tried desperately to end his career. We tried, and I must say that in this day and age, we tried desperately to get rid of him. Because on a hot day in the Coliseum, chasing Fran Tarkenton was not what you wanted to do,” Jones said.
Tarkenton’s coach, Norm Van Brocklin, was not a fan of the “Mad Scrambler’s” frantic attempts to make plays, either, often accusing the QB of selfishness and showboating. Van Brocklin, known as “The Dutchman,” was a former NFL quarterback himself, with stints with the Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles in his 12-year career. However, Van Brocklin was purely a pocket passer and expected his young QB follow suit.
Tarkenton’s penchant for scrambling combined with the mercurial Van Brocklin’s ego would prove disastrous for the Vikings, culminating in Tarkenton demanding to be released and ultimately traded to the New York Giants in 1967. Van Brocklin surprisingly resigned soon after the trade. He would later go on to coach the Atlanta Falcons.
Tarkenton defended his scrambling, “I scramble because I’m good at it, because I can twist and dodge those big pass rushers better than most guys and we get a lot of touchdowns that way.”
He further elaborated, “I made up my mind when I got to pro football, that I was not going to give up on a play. Ever!”
Tarkenton’s five years with the Giants lifted the lackluster Giants to a modicum of respectability, but he was miserable. He would later say, that the Giants were the “worst football team I ever saw.”
Tarkenton triumphantly returned to Minnesota in a trade with the Giants in 1971. Van Brocklin’s replacement, Bud Grant, embraced his unorthodox QB, and the rest is history. Under Grant, Tarkenton led the Vikings and their “Purple People Eaters” defense to three Super Bowls. Alas, the Vikings fell short each time.
Once described as a “dinker” by rival quarterback Terry Bradshaw of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tarkenton proved he was anything but. When he retired after the 1978 season, “Sir Francis,” as he was affectionally referred to by ABC Sportscaster Howard Cosell, was the sole owner of nearly every coveted quarterback record. These include most passing yards (47,003), most touchdown passes (342), and most rushing yards (3,674).
Four-time Pro Bowler Ahmad Rashad addressed Bradshaw’s slight head-on.
“People always talked about his weak arm. But Fran Tarkenton was the master quarterback of all,” Rashad said. “Because he got you to do the things he wanted you to do. He never played against his weaknesses. He always played against yours. He couldn’t throw the long ball, he’d throw the short ball to death.”
Vikings head coach Bud Grant called Tarkenton “the greatest quarterback who’s ever played.”
Tarkenton played 18 seasons, was in nine Pro Bowls and is enshrined in the Hall of Fame (1986).
Despite his inability to win “the big game,” Tarkenton is the standard by which all NFL quarterbacks are now held. A mobile quarterback is now a mandatory requirement for the position. Quarterbacks like Carolina’s Cam Newton, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, and Seattle’s slinger Russell Wilson all owe a small debt of gratitude to that Georgia country boy with the gumption to break the norm, tick off huge defensive lineman, and help elevate the position of quarterback to a mix between a well-disciplined orchestra conductor and a scrappy, sandlot scamp.
How ironic it is that the quarterback who defied all conventional wisdom and norms, who refused to “be a statue” in the pocket, has such a statue of himself in the hallowed halls of the Hall of Fame.