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Fran Tarkenton: The Mad Scrambler

The Mad Scrambler!

I believe Fran Tarkenton is one of the most underrated quarterbacks in NFL history.The Minnesota Vikings drafted Tarkenton in the third round of the 1961 NFL Draft, and he was picked in the fifth round of the 1961 AFL draft by the Boston Patriots. He signed with the Vikings. Tarkenton, 21, played his first National Football League game (and the Vikings’ first game) on September 17 against the Chicago Bears coming off the bench to lead the Vikings to a come-from-behind victory by passing for 250 yards and four touchdown passes and running for another as the upstarts stunned the Bears 37–13. He was the only player in NFL history to pass for four touchdowns in his first NFL game, until the feat was repeated by Marcus Mariota in the Tennessee Titans’ 2015 season opener versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

He played for the Vikings from 1961 to 1966, during which time he frequently locked horns with head coach Norm Van Brocklin, who disdained the idea of a mobile quarterback, a concept that Tarkenton dramatically advanced in the NFL. Tarkenton was given the nicknames “The Mad Scrambler,” “Frantic Fran,” and “Scramblin’ Fran” because he frequently ran around in the backfield to avoid being sacked by the opposition.

Tarkenton was traded to the New York Giants in 1967, his efforts helped the Giants rally from the NFL’s basement (a 1-12-1 record in 1966) to better times. In the first game of the 1969 season, Tarkenton’s Giants played the Vikings. After trailing 23-10 in the fourth quarter, Tarkenton threw two touchdown passes to secure a 24-23 comeback victory over his former team. The 24 points allowed by Minnesota’s defense would be a season-worst for the unit that would finish #1 in dominant fashion, making it to the Super Bowl.

Tarkenton was traded back to Minnesota in 1972, for three players plus a first and second round draft choice. He led the Vikings to three Super Bowls in the 1970s, but lost all of them. In Tarkenton’s first Super Bowl appearance they lost to the Miami Dolphins 24–7 in Houston, they lost the second to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a defensive struggle 16-6 in New Orleans, and in the last Super Bowl Tarkenton would ever play (and Minnesota’s last Super Bowl to date), the Vikings lost to the Oakland Raiders 32-14 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. A lot of people judge Fran on those three Super Bowl losses, but look at the teams he lost to? They were beaten by three of the greatest teams in NFL history.

Tarkenton won the NFL’s MVP award after the 1975 season, capturing All-Pro honors in the process. Tarkenton was also second Team All-Pro in 1973 and earned All-NFC selection in 1972 and 1976. He was named second Team All-NFC in 1970 and 1974. Tarkenton was selected to play in nine Pro Bowls.

In his 18 NFL seasons, Tarkenton completed 3,686 of 6,467 passes for 47,003 yards and 342 touchdowns, with 266 interceptions. Tarkenton’s 47,003 career passing yards rank him 8th all time, while his 342 career passing touchdowns is 6th all time in NFL history. He also is 6th on the all-time list of wins by a starting quarterback with 124 regular season victories. He also used his impressive scrambling ability to rack up 3,674 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns on 675 carries. During his career, Tarkenton ran for a touchdown in 15 different seasons, an NFL record among quarterbacks. He ranks fourth in career rushing yards among quarterbacks, behind Randall Cunningham, Steve Young and Michael Vick. He is also one of two NFL quarterbacks ever to rush for at least 300 yards in seven different seasons; the other is Tobin Rote. Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986. Vikings head coach Bud Grant flatly called Tarkenton “the greatest quarterback who’s ever played.” When he retired, Tarkenton held NFL career records in pass attempts, completions, yardage, and touchdowns; rushing yards by a quarterback; and wins by a starting quarterback.

Despite not winning a Super Bowl, he won six playoff games, and in 1999 he was ranked number 59 on The Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Football Players. He was also known to heave the ball deep on third and long with no regard to an interception. He stated this was due to the great defense his teams had.

One of the more difficult losses of Tarkenton’s career occurred during the 1975 NFC Divisional Playoffs. With what was considered by some observers to be the best team of their Purple People Eater era, the Vikings lost to the Dallas Cowboys 17-14 on a hail Mary touchdown pass from Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach to wide receiver Drew Pearson. It’s hard to call a hall of famer underrated, but I feel that when great quarterbacks are brought up, you rarely hear the name Tarkenton, and you should.


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