The Vikings are one of the most exciting teams in football. Scrambler Fran Tarkenton and the offense are fascinating to watch as they pile up points. The defense titillates in a different way—it usually lets opponents score enough points of their own to mess up the offense. Coach Norman Van Brocklin found the situation too exciting last year and quit—for 24 hours. The Dutchman is still around, the offense is still tremendous and the defense is as entertaining as ever.
Van Brocklin has a new five-year contract and the same old problems. They begin with the defensive line, which has been seriously overrated. End Jim Marshall allegedly was one of the game's quickest pass rushers; the trouble was that he seldom got to the passer. End Carl Eller was clearly one of the strongest of defenders, but he did not seem to be using his strength to any real purpose. Tackles Paul Dickson and Gary Larsen made no pretense of putting on a big pass rush, but they were supposed to be strong against the running game. They were not strong enough.
Deficiencies in the line left the linebackers frantic. Now Rip Hawkins, the middle linebacker, has retired, and Bill Jobko has gone to the Falcons in the expansion draft. Van Brocklin may have solved the linebacking problems with Lonnie Warwick, Roy Winston and John Kirby. Maybe. The secondary again consists of Ed Sharockman and George Rose at the corners and Jeff Jordan and Karl Kassulke at safety.
Van Brocklin hopes that No. 1 draft choice Jerry Shay of Purdue will win one of the starting tackle positions and that another rookie, Don Hansen, has the makings of a big league linebacker, but this may be wishful thinking. The Viking defense again looks vulnerable. Ah, well, there is always Tarkenton. In 1965 he not only completed 171 passes—only John Brodie, Sonny Jurgensen and Rudy Bukich connected on more—but ran for 356 yards. He racked up another thousand yards or so skipping around in the backfield looking for receivers and should do so again in 1966. Tarkenton's backup men, Ron Vander Kelen and Bob Berry, also are scramblers.
Minnesota gets powerful inside running from Fullback Bill Brown and a slashing outside game from Halfback Tommy Mason—when he is not injured. The battered knee which limited his activity in 1965 is said to be O.K. now. But Brown and Mason cannot run all day, and their replacements are of the journeyman caliber of a Phil King. Much is expected from Jim Lindsey of Arkansas, the 220-pound No. 2 draft choice.
One of the reasons Tarkenton throws so often to his running backs is that the normal receivers are also rather ordinary. The best is Split End Paul Flatley. Hal Bedsole at the tight end has never reached his potential and is more valuable as a blocker than a receiver. Tom Hall, Red Phillips and Lance Retzel are not exactly feared as receivers, either.
The offensive linemen deserve gold stars for their patience with Tarkenton; it is impossible to block scientifically for anyone who darts around the way he does. Tackle Grady Alderman is the only holdover from the original 1961 Vikings. He is a good man, too, as is Center Mick Tingelhoff. Tackle Erroll Linden went to Atlanta, and Archie Sutton and rookie Doug Davis are battling for his position. Milt Sunde and Larry Bowie are powerful, experienced guards.
Fred Cox almost never misses field-goal attempts from 35 yards in, and Bobby Walden is an excellent punter.
How Van Brocklin's young players develop is, of course, important, but possibly more important to the Vikings is the development of the Dutchman himself as coach. His own background as a smart quarterback strategist has been reflected in the Vikings' fine offense, but conceivably he has not given the defense as much thought and nourishment as he might have. "Maybe I wanted to get there too fast," he has admitted.
Van Brocklin has done quite a bit of mooning over games that he might have won last season. "We wound up 7-7," he says. "If you took three plays out of 1965 we could have been 10-4. Detroit beat us in the last 22 seconds with a 48-yard pass. We had Chicago 38-31 with two minutes to go and let Sayers get loose for 96 yards. Against Green Bay we had two touchdowns called back in the last minute of a game we lost 24-19."
Now Van Brocklin is unquestionably working very hard to solve his defensive problems and thus to make vain regrets over lost games unnecessary. "We've got to improve the pass rush," he says grimly. "I feel an air of determination here. We are capable of beating the best teams. We've got to go out and do it."
Unfortunately for the Dutchman, he has to do it in the NFL's stronger division, against better, deeper teams. It is exhilarating to have him around, but his team may be no more than an exciting sixth in the West.
THE VIKINGS' PAUL FLATLEY, A SHOWY SPREAD END, CRADLES A FRAN TARKENTON PASS IN ONE ARM AS HE BREAKS HIS FALL WITH THE OTHER