QB demotions don't always go this smoothly

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 20, 2011 - 11:51 AM

Fran Tarkenton barked back at fans when they called for Tommy Kramer to replace him in 1978.

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Fran Tarkenton got the ball away as Tampa Bay’s Dewey Selmon put on the pressure during a 1978 game. It was the 38-year-old Tarkenton’s last season. He threw 25 TD passes that year, but also 32 interceptions. Tommy Kramer took over the next year.

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The decision to replace a veteran with a rookie as the starting quarterback is a rare happening in Vikings history.

You have to go back 50 years to the Purple's first season to find a comparable situation to what occurred this week, when coach Les Frazier informed Donovan McNabb that he was being benched in favor of Christian Ponder, the No. 12 overall selection from Florida State.

The Vikings had traded a first-round choice to the New York Giants for veteran George Shaw. He started the 1961 opener vs. the Chicago Bears, was hooked before the end of the first quarter and Fran Tarkenton arrived to lead the Vikings to a 37-13 victory.

Tarkenton, a third-rounder from Georgia, started the next week and 10 of the final 13 games.

Unless you choose to include Joe Kapp, a veteran brought in from Canada in 1967, Tarkenton was followed by four other rookie QB starters over the next 49 seasons: Ron VanderKelen in the 1963 season finale for Tarkenton; Tommy Kramer, one game for Bobby Lee (who had replaced an injured Tarkenton) in 1977; Tarvaris Jackson, the last two games for Brad Johnson in 2006, and Joe Webb for the last two games in 2010 when Brett Favre and Jackson were injured.

Ponder will be the first Vikings rookie quarterback to get a shot at starting with a majority of the schedule remaining in 50 years.

Ponder/McNabb will not stand as the greatest controversy involving a quarterback prospect and a much-acclaimed veteran with the Vikings. McNabb had been around for only six starts, and he moved aside Wednesday with little more than a whimper.

That was not the case in 1978, when Tarkenton -- a two-term Viking in his 18th NFL season -- did not fade away quietly as fans booed and called for Kramer to take over.

Kramer was in his second season from Rice. He had triggered an amazing fourth-quarter comeback vs. San Francisco late in his rookie season.

Right then, a public that had been through three Super Bowls with Tarkenton was ready for the old QB to fade away and make room for Kramer.

Instead, Tark returned in 1978 to reclaim his role. He threw four interceptions in an opening loss at New Orleans, then three more in a Monday night victory over Denver at Met Stadium.

Kramer relieved Tarkenton for a time in that game. And then on Sept. 17, a Met Stadium crowd of 46,152 robustly booed Tarkenton in a 16-10 loss to Tampa Bay.

Bud Grant pulled Tarkenton with the Bucs holding that six-point lead with 3:39 remaining. Kramer's second pass was intercepted and a final possession went nowhere.

Sir Francis had been treated royally in the Twin Cities dailies -- particularly with the Star's Jim Klobuchar and the Tribune's Sid Hartman. And in Monday's edition, both gave readers strong hints that Tarkenton was livid over the boos.

Booing Tarkenton was such a big issue that Hartman quoted John Mariucci, the legendary hockey man, in the next day's Tribune as saying:

"Here's a man who has been more responsible than any one person for the success the Vikings have had. He completes his first nine passes ... [and] when the Vikings get behind, they start yelling for Tommy Kramer and booing Tarkenton.

"It was a disgrace."

Tarkenton played better over the next five weeks and the Vikings went 3-2. The last of those victories was 21-7 over Green Bay at Met Stadium. And that's when the steam from those earlier boos came pouring out of Tarkenton:

"I resent the hell out of it," he said. "In other towns, to be a veteran player is to be revered. Look at Washington and the feeling they had for Sonny Jurgensen. Or Green Bay during Bart Starr's last years. He didn't have it any more, but the fans didn't get on his back.

"When you're an old guy in this town, it seems like they're trying to exterminate you. ... Seems like all they want here is fresh blood."

In 1978, the fans had to wait another season for Tarkenton to move aside and get their fresh start with Kramer at quarterback.

In 2011, McNabb arrived late in the summer, came with no Purple pedigree, soon was hearing boos in the home stadium, and it wasn't even bloody for Frazier to make the switch to Ponder.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. • preusse@startribune.com

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