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In the offensive line you have to dwell on John Ward, who was not available last season because of an injury. He can take over for Tingelhoff at center anytime Bud Grant wishes, but currently he starts at guard. Another blossomer is Steve Craig, a tight end who backs up Stu Voigt and could probably start for half the teams in the NFL.
All this is fine, but most good teams—teams that consistently reach the playoffs—do it with defense, and the Vikings are no different. The fact is that the Vikings could lose an Eller or a Marshall, and both Winston and Hilgenberg, tomorrow, and they might well be better off. Their No. 1 draft choice, Mark Mullaney, a defensive end from Colorado State, is already just a few votes shy of being admitted into the Hall of Fame, counting just the votes from Bloomington, Minn., that is. And the Vikings are absolutely certain that their backup linebackers are better than anyone's, Matt Blair and Fred McNeill, especially.
Earlier last week, after a Viking practice, as he sat in Eddie Webster's Peanut Bar near the stadium, cracking shells, Tarkenton spoke of all the reasons why these Vikings are so improved over the team that disappointed so many people in the last two Super Bowls.
"Depth alone makes us better," Tarkenton said. "I think my arm is healthy. It wasn't last year. John Ward makes us better at guard. Doug Sutherland has developed as a first-rate member of the front four and can stand right up there with Alan Page. Bobby Bryant is back in the secondary. That's a big, big thing. Jim Marshall played all last season with pneumonia. Neil Clabo was a real find as a rookie punter. McClanahan and Marinaro. We've got the six best linebackers in football. Depth. You can't say enough about depth."
Nor can you ever say enough about Fran Tarkenton. He retains an enthusiasm for the game that is unmatched among quarterbacks. For a man in his 15th season, you would expect him to show some signs of wear or scars of battle, or perhaps even a jadedness in his attitude, but he is as vibrant as ever.
"I'm a fan as much as anything," Fran said. "I really love the game. I love to follow it as much as play it. I wanted to be a football player from the time I can remember. Playing a touch game in an alley with just two kids when I was five years old, I knew I wanted to play football." And he has never been too badly injured to be able to play.
"I stay in shape, if that's part of the reason," he said. "Probably it's luck. I'm physically strong. I have strong legs. Maybe that's helped. Stand-up quarterbacks have stood in the pocket and gotten hurt. I've scrambled, and I haven't. I never scrambled with any design. I was trying to complete a pass, to move the team. But it's interesting. The oldtimers have never accepted me as a good quarterback because I've run out of the pocket too often. All that does is amuse me."
They are not going to accept Tarkenton breaking all of those records that belong to Unitas, either, but he is surely going to break them, and in fewer seasons, and when he does, he will have done it playing on some far worse teams than Unitas ever did, and throwing to receivers who are never likely to take their places alongside Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore.
The two major records for a quarterback to covet are career touchdown passes and career completions. Unitas holds those records. In his 18 seasons he completed 290 touchdown passes and his lifetime total of completions is 2,830.
When Tarkenton left the field last Sunday his lifetime completions came to 2,781. Putting the computer to that, you find that Tarkenton needs only to hit Foreman or Jim Lash or John Gilliam for an average of eight catches a game over the second half of the regular season, and the record will be his.