Hailing from frigid north of Minneapolis Minnesota, the Vikings, and their feared defense, tormented offenses like no other during a 10-year run from 1968-1977. The main reason for the success of the Vikings during this time was the stellar play of their outstanding front four, known as “The Purple People Eaters”.
The Purple People Eaters were Jim Marshall, Carl Eller, Gary Larsen and Alan Page. The Vikings assembled this defensive line through the draft and trades, as free agency did not exist in the NFL at this time. That allowed Minnesota to be able to keep these feared defenders together for nearly a decade. So how did the Vikings assemble this group, also known as the “Purple Gang”.
The first of these players to man the line for the Vikings was Jim Marshall. Marshall was drafted in the fourth round of the 1960 draft by the Cleveland Browns. The Browns traded Marshall, along with four other players for two draft picks in the 1961 NFL Draft. All Marshall did was play 19 years for the Vikings, manning the inside of the defensive line. Big number #70 was 6’4” tall, but was a slender 248 pounds. Jim was adept at knocking down passes, and was a major disrupter to running games. In his 19 seasons with the Vikings Marshall had 29 fumble recoveries, one that he took the wrong way for a self-score.
The second player added to the fold was Carl Eller. The Vikings drafted Eller in the 1964 draft as the sixth overall pick. Eller was also drafted as the fifth overall draft pick by the Buffalo Bills of the AFL,but Eller decided to go with the Vikings and the NFL. The 6’6” 247 pound Eller played his college football for Minnesota, so he was very familiar with the city already, and made the choice to stay in Minneapolis and play for the Vikings. Eller was a speed rusher on the outside, but also strong enough to shut down the run. Big #81 was credited with 23 fumble recoveries in his time with the Vikings. He would play defensive end for Minnesota for 15 years, was named to six pro bowls and became of Hall of Fame Inductee in 2004.
The third player to join the group was Gary Larsen, the Norse Nightmare. Larsen was drafted in the 10th round of the 1964 draft by the Los Angeles Rams. At that time Larsen was stuck playing behind the Fearsome Foursome: Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen, Lamar Lundy and Rosie Grier. That meant that Larsen was outside looking in at becoming a starter with a great defensive line. Before the 1965 season Larsen was traded to the Vikings as a throw in to close a deal. The Vikings drafted receiver Jack Snow, who did not want to play for the Vikings, so they traded him to the Rams for a once great receiver in Jimmy “Red” Philips, but the Vikings needed more and Gary Larsen was added to the trade. That would end up being a great move by the Vikings, as the 6’5” 261 pound Norse Nightmare would play for the Vikings for 10 years, and be named to two pro bowls. He manned the inside of the line next to Jim Marshall, and helped shut down opposing running backs.
The final piece to the puzzle came to the team in 1967. The Vikings drafted the 6’4” 245 pound defensive end Alan Page from Notre Dame with the 15th overall pick. Page may have been the best of the bunch. The feared rusher was named to nine pro bowls, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988. Big #88 was a member of the Vikings for 12 seasons, and during his reign of terror he amassed 19 fumble recoveries. When Page was added to the front four it only took one season before they became the best defensive line in the game.
In 1967 the Vikings finished the year with a 3-8-3 record, but Purple People Eaters began to show their strength as they helped the team improve to 8-6 in 1968. The following three seasons the Purple People Eaters became the best defense in the league and carried the Vikings to a 35-7 record during this span. From 1969-1971 the Vikings allowed the fewest points in league every season. They never gave up more than 143 points in any season, and only surrendered 415 points over the span. That is an amazing average of 9.88 points against per game over a 42 game stretch.
The Purple Gang was amazing, but their offense could not finish the job, as they only made it to one Super Bowl during that stretch, Super Bowl IV, which they lost 23-7 to the Kansas City Chiefs. I wish I could tell you about all the sacks, tackles, passes tipped, quarterback pressures, and forced fumbles all of these defenders had in their careers, but the NFL did not keep any of those stats until 1982. Although, in 1971 Carl Eller was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, while Alan Page was named NFL MVP, which was the first and only time a defensive lineman has won this honor. In addition, all four men were named to the Pro Bowl in 1968, which had never happened before.
The defense was dominant during this three year span that after completing only 8 of 22 passes in a game, quarterback Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts called the Vikings the best pass rushers he had ever seen. In a 1969 game, quarterback Bart Starr was upended eight times, and the longest play of the day was only 13 yards. The Purple People Eaters also brought the pain to the Detroit Lions forcing them to commit 11 fumbles in a game. The NFL had not seen a defensive that was this strong, not even the Fearsome Foursome.
From 1968-1977 the Purple People Eaters led the Vikings to nine division titles and four Super Bowls. The Vikings amassed a record of 104-35-1 during this span, and only surrendered 13.25 points per game during that 10-year run. The Purple Gang led the league in points against three times, and finished second and third two times each. This defensive front was simply a force that imposed their will on the offenses that they faced. If the Vikings had a better offense during this time period they would have definitely won a Super Bowl, and maybe then the Purple People Eaters would get the respect they so richly deserve.