During a balmy Sunday game at Soldier Field in 1967, New York Giants quarterback Fran Tarkenton was being taken down near the goal line.
He looked behind him, where offensive guard Darrell Dess stood. Dess played guard and tackle for 12 years in the NFL. At 6 feet tall and 243 pounds with a flattop, Dess was not a physical luminary of his time. He was a lineman, one good enough to make two Pro Bowls.
Tarkenton lateraled to Dess, who lumbered into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown. Not surprisingly, it was the first and last of Dess’ career.
That’s the way Tarkenton played as the league’s first mad scrambler at quarterback. He would lateral to, well, whomever. Run in circles. Improvise out of desperation, and, partly, pleasure.
Born in Richmond, Va., Tarkenton went on to play quarterback for the University of Georgia. At 6-0 with a mobile style, Tarkenton was deemed too short to be a legitimate NFL quarterback. He was selected in the third round of the 1961 draft.
Raised in Richmond, Va., Russell Wilson played college football at North Carolina State and Wisconsin. At 5-11 with a mobile style, Wilson was ... you get the picture.
If there has been a constant comparison for Wilson since he entered
the league, it has been to Tarkenton.
Wilson is thicker, and Tarkenton a tad taller; the latter point was made by the
Pro Football Hall of Famer when he met Wilson in Atlanta before last season’s Seahawks playoff game against the Falcons.
“He was everything they said he was,” Tarkenton said. “All the great quarterbacks, they have a presence about them that defines them.”
Tarkenton met resistance when he entered the league. He tells a story about former Baltimore Colts defensive end Gino Marchetti informing reporters Tarkenton wouldn’t last two years running around like that after playing the Tarkenton-led Minnesota Vikings.
“I was an anomaly,” Tarkenton said. “I was a freak of nature. This was not an acceptable way to play the quarterback position. It was ridiculed.”
Tarkenton played 18 seasons. He was injured once, after a hit he took in the pocket.
Though it’s more than 50 years later — Tarkenton entered the league in 1961 — the supposed drawbacks associated with Tarkenton’s size for his position were the same issues first stuck to Wilson.
No question beyond height and what that meant in relation to throwing was more frequent for each. The pursuit and strict belief of measurables — such as height, throwing distance and 40-yard dash time — galls Tarkenton.
“That’s what they look for,” Tarkenton said. “Big arm, big this, big that. That’s why they miss on so many. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about your ‘it’ factor. That’s what Russell Wilson has.”
Tarkenton, 73, talks like he played, with spunk. He goes left, then right, sometimes in a circle, then — bam! — he lands on a point.
Several of his quarterback beliefs could have come from the lips of Wilson, including one in particular.
“I really scrambled and bought time to throw, and nobody thought of me as a passer,” Tarkenton said.
Wilson insists he’s never trying to run. The spinouts, pump fakes and sideways gallops provide time to load up another pass.
Eventually, Tarkenton broke all the passing records held by Johnny Unitas. People were stunned this scrambler, this outlier of their great game, had done so.
“People were shocked I had all the passer records because they thought I was a scrambler,” Tarkenton said. “That’s all they wrote about.
“The point of it is, I was defined by scrambling and running, and not by passing. To play quarterback in the National Football League, the first thing you’ve got to be able to do is pass, right? Russell Wilson can pass. He’s a passer. An NFL passer.”
When the Seahawks were considering Wilson for the draft, coach Pete Carroll called his mentor, Bud Grant. Grant coached Tarkenton during his second stint with the Minnesota Vikings from 1972-78.
“Of course, Bud Grant told him I was 5-10,” Tarkenton said.
Here’s Tarkenton back to his height. It’s the boomerang of conversation for him. When Tarkenton visited with Wilson in Atlanta, he was “always measuring up to see who is taller,” Wilson said.
As Tarkenton explains it, there is no difference between a 5-10 quarterback and a 6-3 one because of the size of linemen. He argues they’re so big, especially with their hands up, quarterbacks are throwing between them, not over.
“You’ve got to have an opening,” Tarkenton said.
Which leads to the scramble, the art of opening avenues.
“I say these are quarterback savants,” Tarkenton said. “What makes a Russell Wilson leave the pocket dash right or left, or a complete spinout? It’s the instinct they have. They have an instinctiveness and awareness of what’s around them and what’s going on, and make sense of all the chaos.”
Sunday’s championships pit the traditional versus the mold-breakers. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will be perched in the pocket to decide the AFC title. Wilson and fellow master of mobility Colin Kaepernick will play for the NFC title.
Tarkenton will watch with appreciation for the throwers in the AFC. He’ll smile when he watches the quarterbacks dashing in the NFC.
“Now, we’re embracing it and we’re saying, this is pretty damn good stuff,” Tarkenton said. “Just half a century to get there, and we’ll see more to come.”