Purple Identity Formed 50 Years Ago Offers Vikings a Blueprint
By: Craig Peters
The 2023 Vikings have reached their Week 13 bye with a 6-6 record.
There have been bright moments and positive surprises along the way, as well as disappointments and the need to work around multiple injuries to star players at key positions.
When Minnesota returns to action in Week 14 by visiting the Las Vegas Raiders (5-7 and on bye this week), the team will open a critical five-game stretch to conclude the regular season.
It's an opportunity for Head Coach Kevin O'Connell and his squad to move past the mistakes, most importantly all the turnovers, to turn a .500 showing so far into something much better.
There are historical precedents within the Vikings organization, going back to 50 years ago when the 1973 team emerged from the previous season. Although the turnaround time is much shorter than a full offseason, the 2023 team is in full control of whether this season will result in another postseason appearance.
An Exceptional Time
Bud Grant knew 1972 should be the exception and not the rule.
If the 1973 Vikings eliminated the mistakes that turned up large in five losses decided by three or fewer points on the way to a 7-7 record, better days could return.
Icons like Bud, who become one-name famous, tend to be visionaries — but he thrived on commonsense realities.
From 1969-71, his squads were a combined 35-7 in regular-season games. The run featured two playoff wins for the first time in franchise history, including the 1969 NFL Championship, before falling in Super Bowl IV and in the Divisional Round the next two years.
Fran Tarkenton returned to Minnesota in 1972, providing the team with the elite QB that many believed would be the final piece to winning it all. It was Tarkenton, after all, who had dazzled from 1961-66 for the team that drafted him in the third round before its inaugural season.
Trading Tarkenton in 1967 just days before Grant's hire enabled the Vikings to load up draft picks that helped transform the franchise from fledgling to formidable. Bringing the future Hall of Fame QB back did not yield results that year.
But these were the Minnesota Vikings.
Resolute. Stubborn. Strong-willed. Determined. Relentless.
So, in the series of quotes that Bud provided for the 1973 Prospectus (created by the team's PR staff after the draft), he surmised, "The teams that wind up on top are the teams that win the close games."
"We have the knowledge, the experience, the knowhow to get us almost to the top; we don't want to sacrifice that to try out something for the sake of change," Bud added.
Fifty years later, we asked Alan Page why '72 was such an albatross that landed between the emerging Vikings of 1968-71 and the dominating squads that made the playoffs every year from 1973-76, winning the NFC Championship three times in four seasons.
"It wasn't very pretty, was it? But my recollection is we were pretty optimistic," Page said. "As a team, and particularly defensively, we – I think all those years – believed we were the best around and we could be successful no matter what. Even in the face of having not been successful the previous season.
"We were thoroughly disappointed with the way things went in 1972, and we just felt that was an aberration and we would be back to doing what we did best, which was to perform well enough to win," Page added.
Known as the Purple People Eaters to many but referring to themselves as the Purple Gang, the defense was up to its snuff, limiting 11 of 14 opponents in the regular season to 16 or fewer points.
The offense got an electric jolt from running back Chuck Foreman, who won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. "The Spin Doctor" wheeled his way through defenses as a dual threat for an offense coordinated by Jerry Burns that never really got full due for its innovations that impact today's game.
"I think it was a year where things started out relatively good and continued to get better," Jim Marshall recalled recently. "Mistakes were our biggest enemy, and we wanted to eliminate as many enemies as possible, so mistakes were first on the list."
1-0. 2-0. 3-0. 4-0. 5-0. 6-0. 7-0. 8-0. 9-0. Had current "Voice of the Vikings" Paul Allen been looking, he would not have seen Minnesota's first loss that season until Nov. 19, a 20-14 decision at Atlanta on Monday Night Football, the series that first aired in 1970.
When did Page, Marshall, Carl Eller, Gary Larsen, et al, believe a return to the Super Bowl was possible that season? Before the first kickoff.
"Let me put it this way: We were really good at focusing on what was in front of us, so we always believed we were going to win the next game," Page said. "We always believed that because we were going to win the next one, we were going to make it to the playoffs, and obviously if you make it to the playoffs, you can stand a good chance of getting to the Super Bowl."
Minnesota did return that season after defeating Washington at home in the Divisional Round and Dallas in the first road playoff victory in franchise history.
Marshall celebrated his 36th birthday by sacking Roger Staubach. Teammates Larsen and Wally Hilgenberg also sacked the Cowboys QB, who was intercepted twice by Bobby Bryant and once each by Jeff Siemon and Jeff Wright.
Bryant's 63-yard interception return touchdown put the game away in the fourth quarter and joined a 5-yard run by Foreman and a 54-yard passing touchdown from Tarkenton to John Gilliam. Kicker Fred Cox started the big day in "Big D" with a 44-yard field goal and capped the scoring with a 34-yarder.
Minnesota was unable to complete a Texas two-step two weeks later when Houston hosted Super Bowl VIII at Rice Stadium. The Dolphins ruled the day to win their second consecutive title.
The ultimate goal remained unreached.
In the 1974 Prospectus, Bud said, "We really didn't change much from 1972 to 1973. 'Evolve' might be a better word. We had a veteran team, a veteran coaching staff; we didn't have to assimilate a lot of new people, although there were some rookies who came in and helped us."
With anticipation, he added: "We'll go into 1974 with the same formula as a year ago, and with the same goal. We hope we're as successful and get back into the Super Bowl."
A 10-4 mark was followed by wins over the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams, setting up a return to the Super Bowl, but Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain closed on that season's show.
The ultimate goal remained unreached.
Apparently, Super Bowl hangovers were not as fashionable as the polyester of the era. The 1975 team opened 10-0 on the way to a 12-2 mark with losses of just 1 and 7 points.
But on the afternoon of Dec. 28, at Metropolitan Stadium, Staubach birthed the Hail Mary with a 50-yard pass to Drew Pearson in the waning seconds. A no-call of pass interference by Pearson — He clearly pushed off! — halted title dreams in the cold.
The ultimate goal remained unreached.
The 1976 Vikings finished 11-2-1 in the regular season, with their only losses occurring by 1 and 4 points. Minnesota prevailed again in the first two rounds of the playoffs, but Super Bowl XI ended the run unceremoniously.
The ultimate goal remains unreached.
A Tale of 2 Steves
The Vikings went 45-10-1 in regular-season games from 1973-76, for a win percentage of 81.3 that ranks second to any NFL franchise's four-season run during the Super Bowl era. Only the 1971-74 Dolphins produced a better mark (47-8-1; 84.8 percent).
Minnesota didn't just defeat opponents. The Vikings beat them up with an intimidating defense and beat them down on the scoreboard.
The Vikings scored 1,288 points and allowed just 719 over the course of those four seasons, for a positive margin of 569 points.
"We expected to win, and Bud told us, 'Winning is a habit,' " Marshall explained. "He said, 'The more you believe you can win, the more chance, the more opportunity you're going to see to do something to win the football game.' "
It was generally a great time to be a Viking and even better for young Vikings fans.
Sports journalists Steve Wyche and Steve Rushin were born in 1966.
Wyche grew up in a North Minneapolis home on Xerxes Avenue until his family moved to St. Louis when he was almost 9. Prior to the relocation, Wyche took advantage of his proximity to Eller's residence by trick-or-treating on Halloween.
What did "Moose" hand out?
"Autographed pictures of himself," Wyche laughed when back in Minnesota to cover the start of this season's training camp for NFL Network. "It was back when they'd have kind of monster pictures. Carl is the greatest. I didn't see him often, but just to be able to knock on his door."
Images Wyche saw while attending games at Metropolitan Stadium are permanently burned — or, frozen — in his mind.
"The cheerleaders had the fuzzy boots on, and it was cold," Wyche recalled. "Bud would just stand there, and he wouldn't flinch. You could just tell, 'This is a tough guy. This isn't somebody you want to mess around with.' "
And after his family relocated, Wyche kept carrying the banner.
"I got to captain my after-school flag football team. We were the Vikings. Everything was the Vikings," he recalled. "There were two or three people at my school from Edina or places like that. We all wore Vikings colors. Purple was it, so I just loved being treated to those teams. When they lost the Super Bowls, I was wrecked, so I know how teams feel. I'm not a fan anymore, but I know how fans feel when their teams don't finish it after having a great season."
Rushin's family moved from Chicagoland to West 96th Street in central Bloomington before he turned 3. Instead of saving up money for a Tarkenton or Foreman jersey, he cajoled his mother into making a custom No. 88 in homage to Page.
One September Saturday in 1974, a friend enabled Rushin to stay at the Holiday Inn where Vikings players encamped the night before home games. Rushin wore his jersey as he stood in the lobby. He couldn't find the words as Page strolled by, but the 1971 NFL MVP circled back, borrowed a pen, palmed Rushin's head for a quick second and ascended the stairs.
It was an encounter Rushin deftly retold when writing a feature on Page for Sports Illustrated in July 2000.
"It's just something that when I'm, knock on wood, 90 and my memories are fading, that will be one of the last five or six core memories I have: Alan Page walking through the doors of that Holiday Inn and me losing the ability to speak," Rushin said almost another quarter century after becoming acquainted with Page while writing his feature.
When Rushin played backyard football with friends, he would score and hand the ball to a little birch tree standing in as a referee because Grant didn't like his players spiking the football. That's of course after whoever was playing quarterback scrambled for the sake of it in tribute to Tarkenton and before whoever was pretending to be Fred Cox kicked an extra point over the swing set.
With three television networks and no internet or smartphones, it was big-time to be talked about by Howard Cosell on Monday Night Football. Rushin and friends thought the TV medium was so powerful they'd create signs to hold in front of a set in their living rooms.
"It was hard to square that Howard Cosell, on Monday Night Football, is talking about my hometown. To the icebox in Bloomington, Minnesota," Rushin said. "Then you see on NFL Films, in slow motion, steam rising off Alan Page's Afro after he removes his helmet. They were just larger than life, but then they were also at the hardware store. It was pretty mind-blowing as a kid."
Come game day at the Met, however, the errand-running citizens transformed into mythic figures.
"Marshall and Eller and Page and Larsen, it was like the color of frostbite," Rushin said. "It was like frostbite was coming to get you in the form of these guys in Purple."