A 50-Year Flashback to the Minnesota Vikings on Their Way to a Super Bowl

Last week’s win by the Minnesota Vikings somehow felt like a loss. This week’s marquee matchup on Monday night against the San Francisco 49ers also feels like a loss – even though it hasn’t yet been played.

Six weeks and two wins into this NFL season, and it’s growing more and more difficult to find something to feel good about where our beloved Purple is concerned. Sometimes when skies are grey, it helps to get a little nostalgic and look back at happier times. Let’s look back 50 seasons, to a year that felt downright magical to Viking fans…

The year was 1973, and in the last ten days of October the Vikings were working on a winning streak that would eventually bring their record to 9-0. This on the heels of a remarkable 1972 campaign by the Miami Dolphins, who ran the table with a perfect 14-0 record followed by three more post-season wins and a Super Bowl championship. Vikings fans far and wide allowed themselves to dream that their team could duplicate that feat as October rolled into November.

Bud Grant had already led the Vikings to a Super Bowl appearance in 1969, falling to the Kansas City Chiefs, and his squad–led by the legendary Purple People Eaters front four of Alan Page, Carl Eller, Jim Marshall and Gary Larsen–had rolled through the 1969-71 seasons with a combined 35-7 regular season mark. When Quarterback Fran Tarkenton was reacquired from the Giants in 1972, it seemed the missing piece was in place—but the team went a disappointing 8-8 in Sir Francis’ first season back in purple.

It could have been that it took some time to incorporate the freewheeling Sir Francis into an office that had previously been led by old-school QBs Joe Kapp and then Gary Cuozzo, or it may have been the lack of a workhorse running back, or it might have even been simply a case of bad luck. But the team did not take 8-8 lightly, and with determination and grit, the 1973 edition of the Minnesota Vikings were intent on engineering the mother of all bouncebacks.

Minnesota Vikings Strike Gold

Minnesota Vikings
Jan 9, 1977; Pasadena, CA, USA; FILE PHOTO; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton (10) in action against the Oakland Raiders during Super Bowl XI at the Rose Bowl. The Raiders defeated the Vikings 32-14 giving the Raiders their first Super Bowl Championship. Mandatory Credit: Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Tarkenton settled into his role as field general, and although nearly all statistical measures indicated he passed fewer passes for fewer yards, he had some had some help. Chuck Foreman joined the team as a rookie in ’73, and the University of Miami grad and 12th overall pick in the draft made an immediate impact.

Foreman gained 1,163 total yards by ground and air, in a defensive era with only 14 games per season; he was a revelation whose electric style that combined speed, power, and an ability to make opponents miss challenged opposing coaches and put their defenses on notice.

He would be named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press at season’s end. The Vikings possessed a new dimension, and while the stats alone don’t jump off the page, the team could beat you in so many ways on offense.

On the defensive side of the ball, they bounced back from a lackluster ’72 performance (by their high standards) and reasserted their dominance, allowing the second-fewest points in the NFL—one of seven seasons they were ranked top-3 during the 8-year span covering their four Super Bowls, 1969-76, with ’72 being the only year of exception.

And, I can assure you, those Vikings were fun to watch. It’s easy to understand why a 9-year old kid would gravitate to a team living so large, with six future Hall of Famers, and commit himself so fully, assuming the Super Bowls would continue and that one day the Lombardi Trophy would reside in hometown Minneapolis.

50 Years Ago, This Week

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Jan 11, 1970; New Orleans, LA, USA; FILE PHOTO; Minnesota Vikings head coach Bud Grant visits with commissioner Pete Rozelle prior to the game against the Kansas City Chiefs for Super Bowl IV at Tulane Stadium. The Chiefs defeated the Vikings 23-7. Mandatory Credit: Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

But back to October, 1973. 50 years ago this week, Minnesota would take care of the Eagles on the 21st, 28-21, and then   on the 28th came the L.A. Rams, a heated rival in those days. Both teams were defensive behemoths, each starting two future Hall of Fame linemen (Page and Eller for the Vikes, Merlin Olson and Jack Youngblood for the Rams) and possessing highly skilled players throughout their defense.

In fact, Minnesota had a third Hall of Fame defender in Paul Krause at the Safety position, and a third lineman who should be in the Hall of Fame in Marshall. On that day it was, quite fittingly, a defensive struggle. Foreman scored the game’s only touchdown on a 9-yard pass from Tarkenton in the second quarter to take a 10-3 lead into the locker room at halftime; both defenses played superbly in the second half, with the Vikings hanging on for a 10-9 victory, giving them a 7-0 record.

The team would win two more to start November. Then, the entire football world was well aware that another perfect season was in the making when the 9-0 Vikings visited the 6-3 Falcons in Atlanta on the Monday prior to Thanksgiving.

In 1973, Monday Night Football was a newly-created Television Spectacle, debuting on ABC three seasons earlier, in an era when the NFL was just beginning to lay its claim as America’s favorite sport. There were just three network to choose from; no ESPN, no internet, and no other network coverage of any sport could be found in prime time in November. 20% of all homes in America tuned in to MNF each week (compared to 9% for the NFL’s most popular evening broadcast in 2023, NBC’s Sunday Night Football).

It was with that level of national attention that the Vikings’ streak ended, with a 20-14 defeat at the hands of their former coach, Norm Van Brocklin, and quarterback, Bobby Lee, who had both landed with the Falcons in their post-Minnesota careers. It was, along with the upset loss to Kansas City in Super Bowl IV, the birth of Minnesota’s reputation for rising to semi-great heights, and then collapsing when the spotlight shined greatest. Also, this was not the last time Atlanta would upset the Vikings in a huge game with all of America watching.

And the Moral of the Story…

Oct 15, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell looks up at the scoreboard in the second half against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

Somehow, those Vikings found their resolve. They regrouped to close the season strong, finishing at 12-2, before cruising past Washington and Dallas to earn a second Super Bowl nod–this time against the previously-perfect Miami Dolphins. Miami was near-perfect once again in vanquishing the Vikes easily on Super Bowl Sunday, 24-7. And so it was, a season of tremendous heights (who can argue with 12-2 and a Super Bowl appearance?) and crushing lows in two highly-rated nationally televised events.

Looking through the lens of the 21st century Vikings fan, it all sounds so familiar doesn’t it? Except for, you know, the part about Super Bowls. Here in 2023, this year’s trials and tribulations ought to be a lesson to us all, that when contrasted with previous seasons like 1973 (or 2022) that came with building expections and greater disappointments: it’s better to endure the crushing lows that can only come with a healthy dose of regular-season success, than to slog through a season when success is too rare to generate any real hope at all.

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