One of the most indelible marks in the Minnesota Vikings history pages is the Fran Tarkenton era. And it was this era that began with a record-setting game against the formidable Chicago Bears in 1961, where Tarkenton became the first NFL player in history to throw four touchdowns in his first pro game.
The rest speaks for itself.
But the bulk of Tarkenton’s success came from the collection of targets he utilized to make his air attack one of the most memorable in NFL history with BOTH the Minnesota Vikings and the New York Giants.
Today I would like to highlight the top 10 receiving targets of the Fran Tarkenton era.
As a caveat, only two players on this list actually spent six years working with Tarkenton, while the other eight spent either three, four or five years with him. So for fairness, this top list will be a roundabout top 10, NOT a power ranking.
Really, I could prorate the numbers, but that isn’t a fair assessment, which is why this approach is much better.
Let’s take a look.
I’ll start with Aaron Thomas since he was used the least out of the top 10, despite remaining highly effective for Tarkenton and the Giants passing attack.
The Giants had a rather balanced offense in the late 60s and early 70s. Part of that was Thomas’ ability to be the perfect “wide receiver 2” in a system that afforded Thomas 108 catches for 1,766 yards and 17 TDs while working with Tarkenton during a four-year period.
Thomas, however, was overshadowed by the primary receiver in New York, and Tarkenton’s favorite target in a Giants’ uniform…
...Homer Jones, who was traded away to Cleveland in Tarkenton’s last season as a Giant.
But during his time with Fran Tarkenton, Jones became the primary offensive focus through the air, racking up 164 catches for 3,010 yards and 21 touchdowns in just three short years.
His time with the Giants was the primary reason why Jones was so attractive to the then receiver-starved Cleveland Browns.
Jones had already been a leading receiver for the Giants in 1965 and 1966, prior to Tarkenton’s platoon, but continued for another three years as the leading receiver for the Giants under Tarkenton’s era in New York.
No other receiver has more receiving yards in three years worth of work with Tarkenton than Jones.
From 1961 to 1964, no other receiver was targeted more by Tarkenton than Jerry Reichow.
You can make a case for Paul Flatley (who we’ll get to later), but Flatley didn’t join the team until 1963, which is why I say that.
During Reichow’s three-year stint with Tarkenton, he caught 144 balls for an impressive 2,183 yards and 19 touchdowns.
With the exception of 1964—the first winning season for the Vikings franchise—every other year was a losing effort. But it was Jerry Reichow who gave the Vikings faithful something to cheer about despite the win-loss ratio.
Sammy White was sort of a staple in the 1970s, and he was a popular target for Fran Tarkenton upon his return to Minnesota.
In White’s three years of work with Tarkenton, he hauled in145 catches for 2,407 yards and 28 touchdowns.
Interestingly enough, no other Vikings had more receiving touchdowns from Fran Tarkenton than Sammy White in three years worth of work.
The only two players on this list—as you will see—who spent six years of service with Fran, while also being favorite targets of his, happened to be running backs.
Tarkenton utilized his running backs a great deal with exceptional effectiveness, and Tommy Mason was one of those players.
In Mason’s time with Tarkenton, Mason hauled in 151 balls for 2,910 yards and an incredible 23 touchdowns.
His best season came in 1962 where he caught 36 balls for 603 yards and six touchdowns—also his best career year as a member of the Minnesota Vikings.
Halfbacks weren’t the only tool that Tarkenton utilized in his professional career. Another leading target for Tarkenton—who happened to be a New York Giant—was a fullback named Joe Morrison.
Morrison never led the team in targets (really 1967-1969 were his glory years with Tarkenton), but he was still a valuable tool. He was one of the top 10 targets for Tarkenton, catching a total of 169 balls for 2,143 yards and 21 touchdowns in five years of service under Fran.
Kinda rare, and impressive, for a fullback who also led the team in rushing in 1969.
Rounding out the backs is the all-too-famous Chuck Foreman who was as much a household name as Tarkenton was during his time.
Foreman worked with Tarkenton for six solid years, hauling in 317 catches for an impressive 2,910 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Chuck Foreman’s greatest year as a receiver for the Vikings came in 1975, when he posted career numbers in receptions (75), receiving yards (691) and receiving touchdowns (9).
He also added 1,070 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns in just 12 games started that year.
As we get into the more elite receivers of Tarkenton’s time, one of the names that should come up is John Gilliam.
During his four years of work with Tarkenton, Gilliam was the leading receiver for three of those years. (In 1974, Jim Lash led the team in receiving yards while Chuck Foreman led the team in receptions.)
During his time, though, Gilliam racked up 3,297 yards on 165 balls caught along with an incredible 27 touchdowns.
In the early years, nobody was targeted more than Paul Flatley, who spent four years with Fran Tarkenton.
During that time, Flatley caught 179 balls for 2,990 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Flatley joined the team in 1966—the year before the Vikings’ first winning season—and wound up being the leading receiver for three of the four years between 1963 and 1966.
In 1964, fullback Bill Brown led the team in receptions (48), receiving yards (703) and receiving touchdowns (9)
There is no other Minnesota Vikings receiver who was targeted more by Fran Tarkenton than Ahmad Rashad, despite only working with Tarkenton for three years.
During his short time with Tarkenton, however, Rashad caught 170 balls for 2,121 yards and 13 touchdowns. So if you prorate his reception number to a hypothetical six years, it would equate to 340, which still leads everyone on the list.
To be more precise, no other receiver caught more balls during three years of service than Ahmad Rashad.
If you had to set up a mini "top three" based on prorating numbers to six hypothetical years of service with Tarkenton the number would looks like this. Ahmad Rashad would have led the group in receptions (340), John Gilliam would’ve led the group in receiving touchdowns (41), and Homer Jones would’ve led the group in receiving yards (5,016).
So there ya have it, a little bit of Vikings’ history for you guys. I hope you all enjoyed, and if you’re interested, come check out my Early Fantasy Football Tight End Rankings to help get ahead of the game.