The University of Georgia has produced some great athletes over the years, but none better than Francis (Fran) Asbury Tarkenton. The son of a Methodist minister, Tarkenton was born on Feb. 3, 1940, in Richmond, Va. He attended Athens High School in Athens, Ga., then went on to the University of Georgia where he was the quarterback. Under Bulldogs head coach Wally Butts and Tarkenton, Georgia won the 1959 Southeastern Conference championship. Tarkenton was a first-team All-SEC selection in 1959 and 1960.
TUESDAY, JUNE, 3, 1986, SPORTS
Copyright 1986/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
Nobody Ever Had Him In His Pocket
They called him frantic Francis. They couldn’t keep him in the pocket, not two generations of coaches, not relays of 250-pound defensive ends, blitzing linebackers, not life itself. He gave elusivity a new dimension.
The eyes give him away. He’s not physically prepossessing at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, but the eyes are the eyes of a forest creature on the prowl for food and on the lookout for enemies. Or of a guy with his own deck looking for suckers. They are survivors’ eyes, wary inquisitive, quick.
This is the look of a guy asked to go through Indian territory at night with only a map and a canteen, which is a fair description of his life in the NFL. You can tell that every sense is alert. He looks like a guy who never sleeps and rarely stands still.
He is football’s equivalent of Bugs Bunny. His whole career was a Saturday afternoon serial. He made ‘The Perils of Pauline’ look like ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.’
In the NFL, the suspense is supposed to be whether anybody can catch the ball. With Francis, the suspense was whether he would ever throw it. He ran for more yards than any quarterback who ever lived. And that was only the ones beyond the line of scrimmage. If you counted the yards behind, he has more yards than any running back who ever lived.
He wasn’t fast. He didn’t have the strongest arm. He tended to dart, duck, twist and squirm. “Hit ’em where they ain’t” was baseball player Wee Willie Keeler’s motto. Francis threw it where they weren’t.
By any yardstick you want to use, Francis Asbury Tarkenton was the best quarterback pro football ever had. He threw for more touchdowns, 342, more yards, 47,003, and more completions, 3,686, than any other quarterback. He took his team to three Super Bowls in four years. He ran for 30 touchdowns and 3,669 yards.
Which makes you wonder why Fran Tarkenton didn’t get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame until this year, three years after his initial eligibility. He threw for 52 more touchdowns than any quarterback, had nearly 1,000 more completions and almost 7,000 more yards. You would think the Hall of Fame would have come to him.
The rap against Fran Tarkenton has always been that he threw short passes, that his completions were just complicated handoffs. The spuriousness of this argument can be seen in the yards rolled up, four to 20 miles more than other Hall of Fame quarterbacks like John Unitas, Sonny Jurgensen or Roger Staubach.
Tarkenton rebuts the charge. “In the first place, the long ball is the easiest to throw,” he says. “The Hail Mary is a test of luck, not skill. It’s like putting a note in a bottle and launching it over the side. If the arm were all there were to quarterbacking, a guy named Rudy Bukich was the greatest quarterback who ever played. He could throw the ball overseas.”
Tarkenton also says that his scrambles were actually artful geometric patterns. They looked on paper like a chart of a Rube Goldberg invention. Player A takes ball to Point B where he bumps into Defensive End C and reverses his field to Point D where water is dripped into a hole that makes Linebacker E slip and allows Player A to duck under arm (F) and release ball (G) into air when it skids off helmet (H) of Cornerback I into waiting arms of Tight End J, who falls over Safety K into end zone for touchdown.
“I was never out of control back there,” Tarkenton says.
“You see, what the drop-back quarterbacks would do, they would peel back 20 yards or roll right 15 yards, then they would throw to a wide-out who had gone down the field 15 yards and then ran an ‘out’ to the left sideline. So what you’re talking about is a 50- or 60-yard pass to make 10 or 15 yards.
“I would scramble to a prepared position. I would never release a ball 30 or 35 yards behind the line of scrimmage. My purpose in scrambling was two-fold: tire out the pass rushers and psych out the secondary.
“So the theory gained credence: If Tarkenton has to scramble and run, he must not be a very good passer. If you can punch, why box? One time, the Green Bay Packers decided, ‘OK, we won’t rush him.’ They stopped their pass rush. I picked them apart. The next time, they came in with their ears laid back and growling again.
“A quarterback is a passer, not a thrower. Fernando Valenzuela doesn’t need a 100 m.p.h. fastball. Putting the ball where you want it is more important than putting it in orbit.”
No one was any better at putting the ball where he wanted it than not-so-frantic Francis.
The world still can’t keep him in the pocket. Tarkenton was through town the other day, and he still manages to go through a hotel lobby as if it were stacked with Deacon Joneses, who used to say he trained for a game against Tarkenton by locking himself in a roomful of mosquitoes and turning out the lights. You find Tarkenton by looking for the nearest cloud of dust.
He looks at an interviewer as if he were deciding whether a down-and-out, a simple swing pass or a quarterback sneak were called for. His television career — ‘That’s Incredible’ and ‘Monday Night Football’ — behind him, he now is concentrating on his advertising and motivational business, Tarkenton Production Group.
“We deal in telling company executives how to be executives,” he said. “We tell them you cannot ignore good behavior and only attend to the bad behavior, which is the way most people seem to run their businesses — and lives.”
Tarkenton should know. He spent 17 years listening to the negatives — “He can’t do that. He can’t run around outside the cup like that” — to the point where it took the Hall of Fame three years to realize he was their shiniest ornament.
They probably figured they couldn’t keep him in one place long enough and didn’t want to plan an induction where they have to chase the honoree down the street to enroll him. If he had a football, they’d never catch him.
Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.
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