The Giants were desperate. You think things were bad the past few years? In 1966 they bottomed out, going 1-12-1 two seasons after they had been 2-10-2. They were surrendering the town, piece by piece, to the Jets — whose star quarterback Joe Namath was already a star off the field even as he worked to become one on it.
So the Giants pulled the trigger on a monumental deal on March 7, 1967. They sent the Minnesota Vikings two first-round picks, a second-rounder, and a player to be named for Francis Asbury Tarkenton, a 27-year-old quarterback who could run and pass with equal skill, who had made two Pro Bowls with the expansion Vikings, but had grown out of favor with their hard-line coach, Norm Van Brocklin.
“You give up a lot to get a lot,” Giants coach Allie Sherman said, beaming, at a press conference that day. “We happen to think that Fran can step in here and make this team make a run for it.”
The Giants and Vikings, who meet Sunday afternoon in Minneapolis in a wild-card playoff game, will forever be linked by that trade. The Vikings believed it would get them better in a hurry, and they were right — within two years they won the NFC under a most un-Tarkenton-like quarterback named Joe Kapp.
Well, the truth was, they immediately became watchable again. Tarkenton was a fearless player, and in many ways was the forerunner, by almost 60 years, of the kind of quarterback play we see routinely now — from Josh Allen to Lamar Jackson, Daniel Jones to Jalen Hurts. Van Brocklin called him, derisively, a “scrambler,” but Sherman was quick to say his new prize was more than that.
“That’s a misused word,” Sherman said. “Rollout is a better word. In Fran’s case, the rollout is a quality. He knows when to come out of that pocket, and he doesn’t come out without a reason. It’s an instinct. He can turn a busted play into a productive play.”
And the thing is, Tarkenton did exactly what the Giants hoped he would do. From the ashes of ’66, they went 14-14 the next two years, and Tarkenton made two Pro Bowls. In 1970, the Giants went 9-5 and weren’t eliminated from the playoffs until the last day of the season, their one fulfilling year in a 17-year desert of playoff darkness.
Of course, as great as Tarkenton was, he didn’t help the Giants make their intended inroads against the Jets. In 1967, while Tarkenton had a masterful year (29 TD passes), Namath threw for a record 4,007 yards. In 1968 Tarkenton was again terrific, but the Jets went 11-3 and won the Super Bowl. Tarkenton, despite his colorful personality and elite skills, was the clear Other Quarterback in town.
It obscures what was actually a terrific Giants career for Tarkenton — who from 1967-71 threw for 13,905 yards, ran for 1,126, had 103 touchdown passes (and 10 TD runs) and 72 interceptions. (Namath’s numbers in those years: 11,684 yards passing, 56 yards rushing, 70 TDs passing, four rushing and 80 interceptions.)
But Tarkenton was 33-36 for the Giants, with zero playoff appearances; Namath 32-17-1 for the Jets, with a win in Super Bowl III.
That, as much as anything, soured Tarkenton on his Giants experience. After a subpar 1971 season, Tarkenton declared that he would retire if he wasn’t traded elsewhere — “elsewhere” turned out to be his old home, at Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis. The Giants got a three-player haul, including quarterback Norm Snead. The Vikings wound up riding Tarkenton to three Super Bowl appearances in four years from 1973-76.
Tarkenton is remembered, properly, as a forever Viking.
But for a brief shining moment he also breathed life into Big Blue, managing to stake a claim to his own share of the quarterbacking market in this town at a time when it seemed Joe Namath was everywhere, selling everything.
“I loved New York,” Tarkenton said a few years ago, “but in those days it was pretty clear that New York was a Jets town. More specifically, it was a Joe Willie town.”
You never really know how these things are going to work out, but come the spring we may look back at Wednesday night at the Garden — Rangers tie the Stars with less than a second to go, then win in OT — as a turnstile to some better things.
“Your Honor” (below) is back on Showtime tonight, a splendid void-filler now that “1923” is on vacation for a few weeks.
Heart 9/11, an organization comprised of police and firefighters who served at Ground Zero, will send 12 of its members later this month to Mobile, Ala., to help Cleon Jones renovate houses in his birthplace of Africatown. The 9/11 group became aware of Jones’ good work because of an article written in The Post by gifted young Howie Kussoy.
I do believe the Eagles might all be wearing purple Carl Eller and Alan Page jerseys Sunday in the comfort of their own homes, don’t you?
Whack Back at Vac
Steve Harris: For the Knicks, 40-45 wins seems right and certainly better and more entertaining than the 25 years prior to this coaching staff. Still, without a true superstar, they’re not matching up with elite teams.
Vac: If the NBA were like a golf-club tournament, the Knicks might do well in the first flight.
Albert Carbone: Your column about the NFL season being too long was spot on. If I recall correctly, Pete Rozelle always said that his biggest concern was overexposure. He is up in NFL Heaven right now yelling “Stop!”
Vac: I’m pretty sure in NFL Heaven, the seasons are still 16 games long.
@therealSully66: After the 1997 Giants-Vikings playoff debacle, it took me damn near 1.5 hours to drag my brother from section 126.
@MikeVacc: For all their glory, the past four decades the Giants have three playoff losses — this one, the Flipper Anderson game and the blown lead in Candlestick in 2003 — that still cause some long-term migraines among the believers.
Marty Gavin: What a shame the Jets’ finale wasn’t in the Meadowlands as it was a perfect football afternoon for a flyover —SELL … THE … TEAM …
Vac: We are getting closer and closer to that, aren’t we?