"Fran Who?": The First Dual-Threat Quarterback.
Dual-Threat Quarterbacks are not something that is new. There are many that have come throughout the decades in the NFL. In fact, prior to the massive passing attacks that dominate the current NFL their were many quarterbacks that were running quarterbacks. Notable names that you are familiar with may be Michael Vick, Randall Cunningham, Cam Newton, and Lamar Jackson among others. The Dual-Threat Quarterback is often considered to be a mediocre Quarterback in some cases because they never seem to be amongst the NFL elite. Case and point, Johnny Manziel; he flunked out of the NFL for other issues but playing his similar collegiate style did not translate. Well, for someone way before those other quarterbacks their was one that made it big with a unique playing style. His name was Fran Tarkenton.
Prior to the NFL
Tarkenton grew up in Richmond, Virginia and was the son of a Methodist minister. He grew up in a very racially divided town prior to segregation. Tarkenton began playing football at a young age and was primarily known for his skills being able to throw the ball in a running position. Tarkenton though was not a very large man weighing in at 190 Ibs. Tarkenton played for Athens High School in Athens, VA and was good enough to continue playing in college. He left Athens, VA, for the University of Georgia in Athens, GA. As a freshman, under Coach Wally Butts who is renowned for his lengthy coaching career at Georgia, Tarkenton led the Bulldogs to an SEC Conference Championship. It would be his only true success at Georgia but with his reckless playing he earned praise from the NFL.
At the time, Professional Football had two separate leagues the National Football League (NFL) and the American Football League (AFL). Each league held that it was better because of the differing styles of football. In 1961, Tarkenton was picked by both leagues. The Minnesota Vikings of the NFL picked Tarkenton in the 3rd round. The Boston Patriots (now known as the New England Patriots) picked Tarkenton even later in the 5th round. Tarkenton opted to sign with the Vikings as there was a larger contract and Norm Van Brocklin got along very well. The Vikings were new expansion franchise that season and like any franchise wanted to make a new for themselves. Tarkenton was in for a rude awakening.
Any NFL Rookie knows that the jump from College Football to the NFL can be quite difficult. His rookie year brought him mild fame and lots of fans even outside of Minnesota. The Vikings knew that they had found their leader after his first NFL appearance. Tarkenton played the division rival Chicago Bears in his debut and did surprisingly well. He threw for 250 yards and 4 touchdowns and surprised the Bears. Tarkenton is also the only quarterback to throw for 4 Touchdowns in their debut. That was to be the only bright spot for the Vikings as they lost their next 7 games. At 3-11, the Vikings were the worst team in the league. 1962 was worse; it was to believe it could get any worse. They won 2 games and this time did not finish in dead last. Between 1961-1966, the Vikings has 1 winning season, 1964. Tarkenton though was still the leagues best quarterback leading in passing touchdowns, yards, completions and yards from scrimmage as a quarterback. Tarkenton was putting up numbers that no one in the NFL could compete with. The Quarterback position was changing as well. Tarkenton threw for 14,000 yards in his tenure with Minnesota. His stats though were unexpected with his rushing capabilities as he rushed for just under 2,000 yards. Quarterbacks are not supposed to be throwing heavy and not run heavy. Tarkenton did both and solidified himself as the best in the league. Yet, his stats did not prove his worth apparently as in 1966, to the chagrin of everyone the Vikings released Tarkenton and traded him to the New York Giants. His first tenure with Minnesota remained unsuccessful as the Vikings made the playoffs once. They changed immediately though following Tarkenton’s departure. In 1969, the Vikings made the Super Bowl but lost. Tarkenton though was heading east to help the Giants out of a playoff slump that they would not recover from until 1980.
New York Giants 1967-1971
Tarkenton unloaded in his opening season with the Giants. He threw for 3,088 yards and had 306 yards rushing. The Giants were in the gutter of the NFL as the previous season they finished 1-12-1, with Tarkenton they improved. They won 7 games and lost 7, the following year they did the same but Tarkenton slipped a little bit. With the Giants, Tarkenton would never reach the playoffs. Despite playing extremely well. Tarkenton was still the best quarterback in the NFL despite his teams short sightings. He created the balanced offense and began the rebuilding of the New York Giants. In his final season in New York, it seemed clear that Tarkenton was no longer the best in the game. He was 31 years old and it seemed apparent that the age of the dual-threat quarterback was coming to a close.
Minnesota Vikings: 1972-1978
Tarkenton was traded following his disappointing 1971. The Vikings were now a team that had a shot at a championship. With the arrival of the Super Bowl in 1967 the Vikings had arrived with one of the best defenses in NFL History. They were referred to as the “Purple People Eaters.” Tarkenton did what Drew Brees and Tom Brady both did in their post-prime, he got better. With a revamped Vikings there was a chance for a championship to maybe come out. In his second tenure with Minnesota he threw for over 2,500 yards every season but one. This included 1975 when he completed 273 passes and had 25 touchdowns. He was also voted League MVP that year.
The success of the Vikings was not complete though because the Vikings improvement also coincided with heartbreak. The Vikings ended up in the Super Bowl 3 times between 1972 and 1978. Coach Bud Grant who became the leader of the Vikings in 1967 ended up going to one Super Bowl and had lost. With Tarkenton returning in 1967 their was a pledge for success and to never lost an NFL Championship. In 1973, the Vikings ended up playing the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VIII and were destroyed. The nightmare would not end though as in 1974 the Vikings returned to the Super Bowl playing the Pittsburgh Steelers. They lost again to the eventual 4 time champions. Fran Tarkenton did as he usually did though and had a Super Bowl record for passing yards which lasted briefly due to the changing of the game with additional passing. 1976 was to be the Vikings last Super Bowl ever as they played the Oakland Raiders and were again smashed. Tarkenton’s successful career ended in 1978 as he threw for a seasonal passing yards record of 3,468 yards and also led the NFL in interceptions with 32. Despite his lackluster winning of championships Tarkenton played extremely well throughout his career and led the NFL upon retiring in passing yards and rushing yards by a quarterback. Tarkenton was passed in the 1990s by Dan Marino and in rushing by Michael Vick.
With such an unknown resume Tarkenton earned his spot in Canton by remaining the league leader for almost a decade. The problem with Tarkenton was not his losses of Super Bowls but that he remained unknown following the 1970s. He proved that being a running and passing quarterback could work and lead to massive success. In 1986, the Pro Football Hall of Fame elected Tarkenton. In the years since Tarkenton has since remained an icon for the original NFL but is forgotten as talents like Michael Vick and Randall Cunningham were given more credit for changing the game.