This isn’t the first time the Vikings have been a championship contender coming off a division title while sporting the top-ranked defense and an expensive new quarterback facing immediate Super Bowl-or-bust expectations.
In 1972, quarterback Fran Tarkenton returned from the Giants via a blockbuster trade to join forces with a defense that had allowed 9.9 points per game while going 11-3 the year before. But the Vikings started 1-3, finished 7-7 and missed the playoffs for the only time in 11 seasons between 1968 and 1978.
Fast forward 46 years and you’ll find a similar type of pressure mounting in Minneapolis. Now, it’s Kirk Cousins and his $84 million guaranteed contract joining a conference finalist that went 13-3 with a defense that also led the league in fewest points allowed.
“I could see how some would see similarities,” Vikings Hall of Fame safety Paul Krause said. “We had big expectations in ’72, like this year. But ’72 was a rough season. It took us that whole year and the next training camp to come together as a team.”
Once they did, the Vikings went to two consecutive Super Bowls and three of the next four. But 1972 was a missed opportunity for a team that had gone 35-7 the previous three seasons and was adding an elite passer.
“Francis was known to be one of the best quarterbacks in football,” said former Vikings running back Dave Osborn. “A missing piece. It is kind of like this year. But our high expectations became 7-7.”
In 1971, the Vikings were so dominant defensively that Alan Page became the first defensive player to win league MVP. But rotating quarterbacks Gary Cuozzo, Bobby Lee and Norm Snead provided little spark with nine touchdown passes, 18 interceptions and 134 fewer points than the 1969 team scored with Joe Kapp at quarterback.
Meanwhile, in New York, Tarkenton’s five-year stint with the Giants was coming to a messy end. Unhappy with his $125,000 salary, Tarkenton threatened to retire during the summer of 1971, but came back. The Giants finished 4-10 and, like Washington with Cousins, were done dealing with Tarkenton’s contract issues.
On Jan. 27, 1972, the Giants shipped Tarkenton back to Minnesota for a first-round pick in 1972, a second-rounder in 1973, Snead, receiver Bob Grim and running back Vince Clements.
Like Cousins in Washington, Tarkenton’s Giants were under .500 (33-37). Counting his first stint with the Vikings, Tarkenton had played 11 seasons without reaching the playoffs.
Page questioned the trade publicly when it was announced.
“It may get me in trouble,” he told reporters, “but I don’t think our offensive problems are one of personnel. We had three good quarterbacks.
“It is the Viking theory not to make mistakes, to play conservatively, and rely on the defense. I don’t think it makes that much difference who plays quarterback. Tarkenton is a good quarterback, but I don’t think anybody is that good to give up this much.”
The 1972 season unraveled quickly when the Vikings lost four of their first six games by a total of 10 points.
“We should have been so much better than that, but we never got going,” Hall of Fame tackle Ron Yary said. “You can’t blame any one person.”
Like this season, the ’72 schedule was tougher than the one the year before. The Vikings’ first two home games were against Washington and Miami, which would go 11-3 and 14-0, respectively, en route to Super Bowl VII, which Miami won to cap its 17-0 season.
The Vikings lost both games by a total of five points. Then, over the next three weeks, they lost to league lightweights St. Louis and Chicago by a combined five points as well.
Injuries nagged the defensive line and knocked middle linebacker Lonnie Warwick out of eight games. So after leading the league in points allowed for three consecutive years, the Vikings finished 11th.
Offensively, receiver Gene Washington had an injury-riddled season, and the running backs were all short-yardage grinders. And at quarterback, Tarkenton was a playmaker who made too many mistakes.
“When Francis came back, he had been used to controlling the game in New York,” Osborn said. “Bud said, ‘No, you’re not controlling the game. I’m controlling the game.’ So there was a little bit of an adjustment period as Francis adjusted over to Bud’s way of doing things.
“Keep it simple. Keep it basic. Don’t have some of those wild plays that Francis was used to some of the times.”
Tarkenton’s time in New York began with back-to-back 7-7 seasons, in 1967 and ’68. When he finished 7-7 in 1972, the critics in New York joked that Tarkenton’s tombstone would read 7-7.
“Francis was big-time in New York,” Krause said. “He was on Broadway and all this. I think there was a little something between Bud and Francis. I think it took a year for Bud to rein Francis in, whether Francis wants to admit it or not. Francis had to agree to what the football team was doing and become one of the guys.”
In 1973, Tarkenton erased 7-7 from his tombstone. He posted his best record (12-2, which he would repeat in 1975) and best passer rating (93.2) while winning the first of six consecutive division titles. He also had the fewest interceptions of his 18-year career (seven) and led the league in lowest interception percentage (2.6).
“Whatever Bud did,” said Osborn, “it worked because we were a different team after ’72.”
So how will Cousins and the 2018 Vikings be remembered? That’s the $84 million question. Sports Illustrated jokingly put the over/under for metaphorical pounds of pressure on Cousins at 4 billion.
“It will be interesting to watch because [Case] Keenum showed me some guts last year,” Krause said. “He led the team when he had to go in there. I think the guys like him and played hard for him.
“And then here comes Cousins getting close to $100 million. I’ll tell you what, I didn’t like that move. He’s got to prove to me he’s a winner. He’s never been a winner yet. Keenum was a winner. Now, it’s up to Cousins to grab the reins and say, ‘I’m the guy now. Follow me. I can win.’ ”
And can he win right away?