New Purple People Eaters? The originals want to see more

MINNEAPOLIS -- For the Vikings' regular-season debut two weeks ago at glitzy U.S. Bank Stadium, the Purple People Eaters were honorary captains. Legendary defensive linemen Alan Page, Carl Eller, Jim Marshall, Gary Larsen and Doug Sutherland went...

The "Purple People Eaters" — Jim Marshall (70), Alan Page (88), Gary Larsen (77) and Carl Eller (81) — line up during a game in the early 1970s. The foursome formed a dominating defensive line for the Vikings in the late 1960s and early '70s. (Courtesy Minnesota Vikings)

MINNEAPOLIS - For the Vikings' regular-season debut two weeks ago at glitzy U.S. Bank Stadium, the Purple People Eaters were honorary captains.

Legendary defensive linemen Alan Page, Carl Eller, Jim Marshall, Gary Larsen and Doug Sutherland went out for the coin flip before Minnesota faced the Green Bay Packers at the $1.1 billion venue. So, what has happened in the two games since?

The Vikings have recorded 13 sacks, five against the Packers and eight last Sunday at Carolina.

"I think that having us there in some weird, psycho way, I think that really gave them inspiration,'' Eller said.

After the sack fest against the Panthers, defensive end Brian Robison made a comment that evoked memories of the Purple People Eaters, the team's historic defensive line from the late 1960s to the late 1970s.


"We have confidence in this D-line," Robison said. "The sky's the limit for us. We feel we can be one of the best to ever wear purple."

It would be a tall order for Minnesota's line to approach what the Purple People Eaters did. Page, a defensive tackle, and Eller, the left defensive end, made the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and many believe Marshall, the right end, should be inducted into the Canton, Ohio, shrine.

Larsen, a defensive tackle, made two Pro Bowls until suffering a knee injury in 1974 and retiring after the season. He was replaced that year by Sutherland, who helped keep the tradition alive by starting in two of the four Super Bowls the Vikings played during the 1970s.

Minnesota lost them all, but members of the Purple People Eaters are hoping the Vikings' latest dominant defense can lead them to their first title.

"They're off to a tremendous start," Page said. "(Hall of fame coach) Bud Grant used to say that offense sells tickets and defense wins championships. They've been able to get off to a phenomenal start (that) I don't think anyone would have anticipated after the injuries they've had on offense."

Staying aggressive

Gone for the season are quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (knee) and left tackle Matt Kalil (hip), and running back Adrian Peterson (knee) is out until at least December.

The defense, though, has picked up the offense. Minnesota leads the NFL with 15 sacks, four by Everson Griffen and three apiece from Linval Joseph and Danielle Hunter.


The starters on the defensive line are Griffen at right end and Robison at left, Joseph at nose tackle and Shamar Stephen at three-technique tackle. Hunter, an end, and Tom Johnson, a tackle, are the top reserves.

"I really like the aggressiveness they are playing with," Marshall said. "I have a great deal of respect for them."

But could this group even approach the dominance of the Purple People Eaters?

"Given the start they've had, I wouldn't disagree with it," Page said. "It would be exciting if they could do it over a period of time, and put in those kind of performances they're having week in and week out."

Eller agreed the defensive line would need to produce over a long period of time to be in the same conversation as the Purple People Eaters.

"It would be a tremendous task for them to live up to that," Eller said. "I'm not saying they can't, but it would be great if they did. That's a good goal for them to shoot for. It's a proud history. They're definitely on a mission, and that's great."

Page, Eller and Marshall all live in the Twin Cities, and Sutherland makes his home in Duluth. Gary Larsen lives in Lacey, Wash., and doesn't make it to Minnesota very often.

Before the opener against Green Bay, the five members of the Purple People Eaters hadn't been together since a Vikings' 50th-anniversary event in 2010, when the top 50 players in team history were announced. All five made the list.


"It was a great time," Larsen said of the latest reunion. "It was nice to see all the guys and the new stadium and that game. And that line, they're playing very well."

It isn't just the defensive line that has been excelling in Mike Zimmer's third season as coach. The Vikings have a pair of top linebackers in Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, and a solid secondary led by safety Harrison Smith.

The Vikings rank No. 6 in the NFL in total defense and No. 3 in points allowed. They're second in the league with nine takeaways and tied for second with five interceptions.

"They're good, they're really good," Sutherland said. "They don't let up. They basically have the total package. If there are any weak spots, I can't find them on that defense."

Still, when members of the Purple People Eaters are watching Vikings' games, they invariably concentrate on the defensive line. Marshall pays close attention to Griffen, who plays the same position he did.

"Griffen is one of my favorites," Marshall said. "I watch him quite a bit and I like his technique. I like the techniques he uses to get to the passer."

Griffen played in his first Pro Bowl last season. While Robison never has made one, Eller admires the way he is manning his old spot.

"I just want to compliment him. I think he has really stepped up to be a real leader on this team," Eller said. "He's playing with that kind of determination and enthusiasm that's great to see. I'm really happy for him."

The Vikings have been moving Robison around on the line, sometimes playing him inside and sometimes having him stand up. That versatility has helped get second-year player Hunter in for more than half the team's snaps after he played about a third as a rookie.

One of the biggest differences between this Vikings line now and the Purple People Eaters is how players are rotated. Linemen of yesteryear rarely came out.

"It's dramatically different, but it cuts both ways," Page said. "On one hand, you can stay fresher; but on the other hand, I think it would be harder to get into the rhythm of the game."

The Purple People Eaters played before sacks became an official NFL statistic in 1982. One way, though, to gauge their effectiveness is how few points the Vikings allowed during their heyday.

Minnesota gave up just 138 points in 14 games in 1969, an average of 9.9. Between 1969-76, when they made four Super Bowls, the Vikings were No. 1 in the league in fewest points allowed three times, and were either second or third the other four times.

So, obviously, there's plenty of work to do for these Vikings.

"Right now, they're doing what they're supposed to do and throttling the other team's offense, but it's going to take a while to see how it all pans out," Larsen said.

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