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Today’s guest post comes from hscer, a frequent commenter here at Football Perspective. Hscer is starting a project on his website, MVPQB.Blogspot.com, where he is working on his most valuable quarterback for each season since 1951. Here’s a sample chapter today: as always, we thank our guest posters for their contributions.

 “When .500 is a Miracle” – The Giants trade a number of picks for Fran Tarkenton and immediately go from a one-win team to a .500 club.

The Stats

Unitas (AP1): 255-436 (58.5%) 3428 yards (7.86 y/a) 20 TD 16 INT, 83.6 rating, 7.13 AY/A, 11-1-2 record in starts (4 4QC, 3 GWD). Rushing: 89 yards on 22 attempts (4.0 avg.), 0 TD, 4 fumbles.

Tarkenton (MVQB): 204-377 (54.1%) 3088 yards (8.19 y/a) 29 TD 19 INT, 85.9 rating, 7.46 AY/A, 7-7 record in starts (2 4QC, 2 GWD). Rushing: 306 yards on 44 attempts (7.0 avg.), 2 TD, 4 fumbles.

The Argument

For older selections, I’ve often deferred to the AP when they pass over a quarterback on a weaker team to give their All-Pro nod to an established star on a great squad. I won’t do that here.

The 1966 Giants went 1-12-1. Much of that was due to a putrid defense which allowed 501 points, many of them in an infamous 72-41 loss to the Redskins. But the offense could not be absolved from blame. Gary Wood, Earl Morrall, and Tom Kennedy split time at quarterback, and no rusher exceeded 327 yards. As a result, New York was 12th in the 15-team NFL with 263 points scored, and 8th in yards. Just two seasons later, Morrall would be putting up Unitas-like numbers on Unitas’ own team.

In ’66, New York’s top 5 pass receivers were Homer Jones, Joe Morrison, Aaron Thomas, Chuck Mercein, and Bobby Crespino. In ’67, they were Thomas, Jones, Morrison, Ernie Koy, and Tucker Frederickson, the last two of which were also on the ’66 squad. Four starting offensive linemen returned, and the only new one was 1966 eighth-round pick RT Charlie Harper.

This time, the Giants were 3rd in the league with 369 points and 3rd in yards, finishing 7-7. The only difference on offense was Fran Tarkenton.

Tarkenton did have two ugly games in 1967: in a 34-7 loss to the Bears and a 30-7 loss to the Lions, he was a combined 8-36 for 111 yards with 0 TD and 4 INT. Unitas’ lows weren’t quite as low, and the Colts only lost once. But in a 24-3 win vs. the Bears and a 30-10 victory over the Saints, Unitas was a combined 29-61 for 297 yards and 1 TD w/4 INT.

That leaves us with their 12 best games of the season, in which Tarkenton and Unitas did this:

  • Unitas: 3131 yards, 19 TD, 8.35 y/a, 90.7 rating, 7.92 AY/A
  • Tarkenton: 2977 yards, 29 TD, 8.73 y/a, 96.4 rating, 8.45 AY/A

One need not make too many such apologies for Tarkenton, however. Over the course of the entire season, he did manage more touchdowns, a better rating, and better adjusted yards per attempt than Unitas.

The NFL was expanding in response to the AFL by now, resulting in some interesting opposition for Unitas and Tarkenton. The NFL alignment in 1967 looks rather foreign to a modern observer. The New Orleans Saints began play in ’67, a year after the Atlanta Falcons. The Colts were in the Coastal Division with the Rams, 49ers, and Falcons,1 while the Giants played with the Browns, Steelers, and St. Louis Cardinals in the Century Division. The other divisions went Cowboys-Eagles-Redskins-SAINTS in the Capitol, and a very normal-looking Bears-Lions-Packers-Vikings in the Central.2

Unitas had to face the strong defense of the L.A. Rams two times, but also got to beat up on the expansion Falcons twice—in one of those games, he managed what would become a perfect rating when the stat was invented: 17-20 for 370 yards and 4 touchdowns without a pick. His 22.5 ANY/A remains one of the greatest single-game performances of all-time. Meanwhile, the Browns, Steelers, and Cardinals were all very mediocre in 1967.

Both quarterbacks also faced off against the Packers once. The Colts won 13-10, but Unitas was just 15-32 for 126 yards (2 TD, 1 INT), while the Giants got creamed 48-21 as Tarkenton went 14-27 for 203 yards (3 TD, 3 INT).3 Those games are basically a draw, but they are interesting to note.

If we consider Tarkenton, however, we probably have to take a look at Sonny Jurgensen as well, who led the NFL in yards and touchdowns for a 5-6-3 Redskins squad. While that’s a losing record, there are more wins and ties than losses, so Jurgensen wasn’t necessarily piling up yards and touchdowns while way behind. In fact, only two of Washington’s losses were by multiple possessions, and none by more than 16 points, a game in which Jurgensen threw for just 214 yards. That game, a 30-14 loss to the Saints, featured Jurgensen’s approximately only garbage time TD, which made it 23-14 in the fourth quarter.

Here are Jurgensen’s 1967 numbers, by the way:

288-508 (56.7%) 3747 yards (7.4 y/a) 31 TD 16 INT (87.3 rating, 7.2 AY/A)

Half of Washington’s wins and ties were comebacks, including 2 of their 3 ties.

Jurgensen doesn’t have quite as dramatic a story as Tarkenton, however. 1967 is probably the one season where a large part of my decision is based on narrative. The Redskins went 7-7 in 1966, so they were slightly worse in ’67. If it had been the Redskins who were 1-12-1 in 1966 with a different quarterback and then brought on Jurgensen, who posted the same 1967 as he did, then Sonny would probably be the MVQB. That said, his yards per attempt and adjusted yards per attempt were still noticeably lower than Tarkenton’s; by passer rating, Jurgensen was 1.6% better than Tarkenton in 1967, but by AY/A, Tarkenton was 3.9% better than Jurgensen. It’s just about a draw statistically.4 so the one-win-to-.500 narrative wins out.

There’s also the matter of rushing; Unitas and Jurgensen combined for 135 yards on 37 attempts, while Tarkenton had 306 yards on 44 carries and still only fumbled 4 times. When all three of them were nearly equally efficient through the air, rushing matters somewhat more.

It’s obvious why Johnny Unitas took home the All-Pro recognition in 1967—great stats, great team, consensus best quarterback in the league. However, Fran Tarkenton essentially turned a one-win team into a .500 team almost by himself, and had stats rivalling Unitas to back it up.

Fran Tarkenton is the NFL’s MVQB for 1967.5

Signature Game: September 17, 1967: In Tarkenton’s first ever start with the Giants, New York defeats the St. Louis Cardinals, 37-20. The Giants trail 10-7 at halftime but in the second half Tarkenton hits Jones for touchdowns of 70 and 38 yards, then finds Del Shofner for a 33-yard touchdown and a 34-13 lead. (It is the last touchdown of Shofner’s career as he catches only 7 passes in his final season.) Although Tarkenton completes just 7 of 19 passes, they go for 232 yards and 3 touchdowns, with no interceptions and no sacks, as he adds 24 rushing yards on 2 carries. Jones is on the receiving end of 5 of Tarkenton’s 7 completions, gaining 175 yards.

  1. I can’t help but notice the Coastal Division cities are Baltimore, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The name may be apropos, but that must have been travel hell in 1967. []
  2. It gets weirder. The divisions were aligned in the same way in 1969, but in 1968, the Saints and Giants swapped places. Here are the links to the standings in 1967, 1968, and 1969. 1967 and ’69 are the only two years the Giants have been separated from the Eagles, Redskins, and Cowboys in the seasons each of these teams were extant since divisions were first created in 1933. []
  3. New York actually got out to a 14-10 halftime lead before getting blown to smithereens in the second half. Tarkenton’s third TD made it 34-21. It’s not as if Tarkenton and the Giants fell behind 41-0 and then put up three garbage time touchdowns []
  4. AY/A is a better stat, so perhaps a small advantage for Tarkenton. []
  5. Unitas fans will have to be content with his other five. []
  • sacramento gold miners

    Yes, I would agree Tarkenton edging Unitas for the most valuable QB in 1967. As a matter of principle, I could never vote for a QB MVP on a losing team. In addition to the numbers inside those games, the games themselves mean something more when the club is a contender. Tarkenton was a great QB, it was disappointing to see how badly the Vikings defense was pushed around in those three SB defeats.

    • Mark Growcott

      Tarkenton struggled too in those SBs, throwing 6 INTs and only 1 TD. The Offense as a whole struggled with the Running game virtually non-existent.

      Going back to the MVP voting for the 1967 season, Unitas won with 40 votes and Tarkenton got none.

      • sacramento gold miners

        Agreed, Chuck Foreman and the Vikings offensive line were below par as well in those Super Bowls. It was very surprising to see that fabled Minnesota defensive line handled like that.

  • I also went with Tarkenton as the 1967 MVP because I interpret the term “value” to mean the person who means the most to his team. Unitas was incredible, but he played on a team that went 13-1 in dominant fashion the following year with his backup. In 1967, Unitas didn’t have the benefit of playing with a bunch of HOFers in their primes, but the Colts were a deep team with a great coach.

    In some seasons, I named an MVP who was a QB but wasn’t my first team QB (e.g., this year Matt Ryan was my QB1, but Aaron Rodgers was my MVP). In 1967, Tark earned MVP honors, while Jurgensen was QB1 for me.

  • JeremyDeShetler

    I read somewhere (don’t remember where at the moment) that the Giants-Saints swap was to satisfy the Giants who wanted to keep their rivalries with Cleveland, as well as I-95 opponents. They agreed to swap over in 1967 and 1969 to extend the Browns rivalry, but when Cleveland opted to join the AFC in 1970, NY gladly slid back into the East with the Eagles and Skins.

    As a side note, all 5 final merger realignment plans had the Giants, Eagles, and Redskins in the NFC East.


    • Mark Growcott

      The Giants and Browns had a great rivalry in the 50s and 60s.

  • Mr. Dunwich

    Excellent write up Hscer, and while I believe Jurgensen was the all-around best QB in the league that season, I would agree that Tarkenton likely represented the greater absolute value for his team than any other QB that season.

  • Tim Truemper

    As a person who grew up in this era and used to have several books on 1960’s football, I found the above article to be quite fun to read and fascinating in its analysis. A few pointers– The Western Conference tended to be somewhat stronger than the Eastern Conference during the 60’s. Also, 1967 was the first year of the division format as before it was just two conferences with no divisions. Hscer mentioned that Cleveland was mediocre that year but even the conference champion Cowboys (who creamed Cleveland in the first NFL divisional playoff) was only 9-5. Insofar as claiming that Tarkenton lifted the Giants to a 7-7 record all by himself, I wonder how much defensive personell changes occurred and how much the NY Giant defense improved.I could look that up but am posing the question here anyway. Further, in 1965 an Earl Morrall led NY Giant team went 7-7 a year after a 1964 year in which they won only 2 games in YA Tittle’s last year as a starter. So just a small fact to consider that the 1965 squad with some likely similarity had an identical record to the one Tarkenton led two years later.

  • Joseph

    Very interesting project! Look forward to future installments. It’s always a challenge to “tease out” individual performances for team sports, especially in football, where the performances of the defensive and offensive sides obviously impact on each other. Since Jurgensen’s sensational 67 season is mentioned in the analysis, I might just add that Sonny put up those numbers with virtually no ground game to speak of: Skins ranked 14th out of 16 teams (Fran’s Giants were 6th, Johnny U’s Colts 11th). On the defensive side of the calculus, the Skins again were truly dreadful, ranking 15th. Sonny was once interviewed on Johnny’s local sports show and he made the amusing comment, “It was always second and long …” The defenses knew he had to pass, which allowed the line to charge all out and the secondary to load up the coverage (a factor in Sonny’s yards per attempt average — he simply had to unload quickly). Another relevant amusing anecdote. In the 69 season Sonny was sacked 40 times, and “hurried” on an untold number of attempts. In a post-season chat with Lombardi, Sonny reminded him that Vince had promised improved line protection, despite Sonny’s skepticism. Lombardi’s reply: “Well, you knew the personnel better than I did!”