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Quarterback Crossroads

The Vikings have a tough decision looming at quarterback come season’s end. This isn’t the first time.

Rich Gannon

The Minnesota Vikings have churned out some Hall of Fame level caliber players at multiple positions thoughout their storied history. Most notably it’s been along the defensive line, but they’ve also had a string of pretty good linebackers, wide receivers, running backs, and offensive linemen.

But the quarterback position has been a Gordian Knot that, for the most part, this franchise has not been able to untie.

Oh sure, it started out well enough, with Fran Tarkenton playing out a Hall of Fame career on the Bloomington prairie, minus five years in New York, and retiring as the league’s all-time best passer at the end of 1978.

But since St. Francis of Bloomington hung up the cleats, the Vikings have had, with few exceptions, bad quarterback play more often than not. It didn’t have to necessarily be that way, though. There have been a few quarterback inflection points where a different decision maybe changes the fortunes of the franchise.

The Vikes will face that decision at the end of this season as well, as they will need to choose between Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater, and Sam Bradford. Let’s look back at some other QB choices the Vikings faced in their history, and play a little ‘what if’, shall we?

The first decision wasn’t really choosing between two guys, it was deciding whether or not to pay one guy. When the Vikings traded Fran Tarkenton because he essentially didn’t fit the mold coach Norm Van Brocklin wanted, they plucked Joe Kapp from the CFL. Kapp struggled a bit in 1967 and ‘68, as did the team as a whole, but took off in 1969, just as the Purple People Eaters defense came into their own. With Kapp leading the offense, Minnesota went 12-2, won the NFL Championship, and lost Super Bowl IV to Kansas City in a game in which my Dad swore the Vikings were paid to take a dive (I don’t think that it’s true, fwiw).

Don Glover Conspiracy Theory aside, at the end of ‘69 Kapp wanted his contract re-done (his Exhibit A for the taking the dive theory, btw), and the Vikings not only didn’t re-do his deal, they traded him to New England, and into NFL obscurity.

The Vikings turned to Gary Cuozzo, who was basically Brooks Bollinger before Brooks Bollinger. The team essentially wasted the two best statistical years the Purple People Eaters had before they re-acquired Tarkenton prior to the 1972 season, a season in which they returned to the Super Bowl a second time.

So let’s say the Vikings either don’t trade Tarkenton, or do a new deal with Kapp. I think you can make areasonable argument that the Vikings probably go to at least one more Super Bowl, and they would have beaten either the Colts or Dolphins in Super Bowl V or VI. And if they win one...does that affect the result in future appearances?

As Tarkenton was nearing the end of his playing days, the Vikings drafted Tommy Kramer in the first round of the 1977 draft, and he took over when Tarkenton retired. Kramer was ensconsed as the starter from 1979-1986. When injuries started to take their toll, Wade Wilson took over, from 1987-1991, and then he was supplanted by Rich Gannon. And this is where we get to our next big crossroads.

In 1991-92, Gannon went 14-9 as a starter (I know, I know, QB WINZ RAWR), and the Vikings won the NFC Central in ‘92, which was Denny Green’s first year. During that season Gannon started out strong, and then struggled in a week 10 loss to the Oilers. He was replaced by Sean Salisbury, who started the next three games. The Vikings won two of them, then Green went back to Gannon in week 14, against the 49ers, and the Vikings lost. Salisbury played the final two games, both Vikings wins, and played very well in the season finale, a 27-7 win which saw him really outplay a young Brett Favre.

In the playoffs, Salisbury was named the starter, a home game against the Washington Redskins. He was miserable, as the Vikings lost 24-7. Salisbury went 6-20 for 113 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions, and was sacked four times. At the end of the season, the Vikings kept Salisbury and moved on from Gannon.

Denny Green was so enamored with Salisbury that it began the cavalcade of fading QB stars to roll through Minnesota to replace him, starting in 1993, to include Jim McMahon, Warren Moon, and Randall Cunningham.

That’s right kids, Salisbury, even after winning the job from Gannon, lost it before the next training camp.

Salisbury was out of football after the 1996 season, and Gannon would move on to Kansas City and Oakland, where he would win the league MVP award and lead the Raiders to the Super Bowl in 2002. Do the franchise fortunes change if Green committed to Gannon earlier? About the time Gannon hit his MVP stride in Oakland was the time Denny’s offenses were at their peak in Minnesota.

If Denny chooses Gannon do they even have the McMahon/Moon/Cunningham cavalcade? Does Gannon hit his groove in Minnesota and Denny’s vaunted offenses roll with him?

Speaking of Cunningham, he was involved in the next big Crossroads. In 1997, he was signed and started in place of Brad Johnson the last three games of that season when Johnson suffered a neck injury, and then quarterbacked the Vikings to a dramatic come-from-behind playoff win against the Giants, as head coach Dennis Green won his first playoff game as Vikings coach. Johnson was the starter to begin the memorable 1998 season, but broke his leg in week two. Cunningham once again took over, and with electric rookie WR Randy Moss, the Vikings re-wrote the record books.

After the season the VIkings chose to stick with the 35 year old Cunningham as opposed to the 29 year old but oft-injured Johnson, and traded him to the Washington Redskins for their first and third round picks in the 1999 draft, and their second round pick in 2000.

Johnson guided the Redskins to the playoffs in 1999, and won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay in 2002, ironically enough, against Rich Gannon and the Oakland Raiders. Cunningham? Well, he wasn’t able to re-capture the 1998 magic, and Denny went back to his over the hill QB well. After a 2-4 start, Jeff George, who was signed as a free agent prior to the season, took over for Randall, and got the Vikings into the playoffs as a wildcard team.

But both Cunningham and George were gone in 2000, as Daunte Culpepper took over from 2000 until his devastating knee injury in 2005 ended his time with the Vikings, and pretty much nullified him as a good QB.

And that injury caused the Vikings to bounce from one QB to another, until we land on where we are today....Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater, and Sam Bradford. I’m a Bridgewater guy, you all know that, but I’m a Vikings fan first, and no one is happier with this 9-2 start, or how it happened, than me.

Still, no matter what happens this season, at the end of it this franchise will once again find themselves at a quarterback crossroads, and they will have to choose between the three.

As we have already shown, Who they choose will alter the direction of this franchise for years to come.