What Norm Van Brocklin did 68 years ago that Mahomes, Brady can't do today
When people talk today about great achievements by quarterbacks, they’re usually referring to Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers. But when they talk about great achievements by quarterbacks this weekend, spare me.
I want to hear of none of them.
Instead, give me everything you have on Norm Van Brocklin. Because it was 68 years ago on Saturday that Van Brocklin – then a backup quarterback with the Los Angeles Rams – set a record so remarkable that it hasn’t been broken by Mahomes, Brady, Brees, Rodgers or anyone since.
He threw for 554 yards in one game.
In and of itself, that’s an extraordinary accomplishment. But it happened in 1951 when nobody threw for more than 2,403 yards, and only two quarterbacks (Bobby Layne and Otto Graham) threw for 2,000 or more. Layne was the league’s leading passer that season, averaging 200 yards per game, and to put that into context consider this: Nobody beyond the NFL’s top 10 passers averaged more than 100 yards a game, with No. 10 – the Giants’ Charlie Conerly – checking in at 106.4.
Then along came Van Brocklin on Sept. 28, 1951 to throw for five times that figure in one contest, obliterating Johnny Lujack’s single-game record of 468 set two years earlier to lead the Rams to a 54-14 annihilation of the woebegone New York Yanks.
Astounding? Ask Mahomes ... and we did.
"It's pretty incredible when you think about the evolution of football ... and the passing game, specifically," he said. "The game is so much different now than it was in 1951.
"For Norm to set that record back then, and for it to stand nearly 70 years later is impressive -- especially considering the number of prolific passers that the NFL has seen over the years."
He's right, of course, and it got me to thinking: How would Van Brocklin's achievement translate to today’s game? Seven-hundred yards? Eight hundred? Nine hundred? I don’t know either. All I know is that among the thousands of quarterbacks who followed Van Brocklin, nobody has equaled or surpassed his record … and that tells me all I need to know.
“It’s one of the epic performances in the history of our game,” said former NFL general manager Ernie Accorsi, “and belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of NFL 100-year moments.”
Couldn’t agree more. We live in an era where stat geeks dissect numbers galore, and they have plenty to choose from quarterbacks who annually pile up yards, touchdowns and glittering passer ratings.
A year ago, for instance, Brees set the league mark for accuracy with a completion percentage of 74.4. In 1951, Green Bay’s Bobby Thomason led the NFL at 56.6, one of only six quarterbacks to complete 50 percent or more of his attempts.
A year ago, Ben Roethlisberger led the league with 5,129 passing yards, one of two quarterbacks to eclipse 5,000 and one of 12 to break 4,000. In 1951, Layne led the league at 2,403.
A year ago, Mahomes led the NFL with 50 touchdown passes. In 1951, Layne led it with 26. No other quarterback had more than 17.
I think you get the idea. Today’s NFL is so quarterback friendly that it’s never been easier to play the position. Quarterbacks are protected by rules that have them encased in bubble wrap and defenses bound in straightjackets, and the results are predictable.
Last weekend 11 quarterbacks – or more than one-third of the league’s starters -- threw for 300 or more yards, while six threw for three or more touchdowns and Jacoby Brissett … Jacoby Brissett … completed his first 16 passes vs. Atlanta.
Not to be outdone, Daniel Jones made history by becoming the first Giants’ quarterback to run for two touchdowns and throw for two more in the same game.
It was his first NFL start.
“What Van Brocklin was able to accomplish,” said Hall-of-Fame GM Ron Wolf, “is really remarkable in an age where the quarterback was always being hit … even after he threw the football. I had the privilege of watching some old films, and with what they did to passers in the ‘40s and ’50s it’s amazing they were able to survive.
“You watch how some people played defense, and it was obviously designed to whack the quarterback no matter what. That certainly had to be some football game.”
It was the first game of the 1951 season, and Van Brocklin started only because Bob Waterfield could not. He was one of four key players for the Rams sidelined by injuries. Nevertheless, Van Brocklin completed 27 of 41 passes for five touchdowns, including four to Hall-of-Famer Elroy Hirsch, as the Rams piled up 735 yards – another league record that still stands.
Afterward, the Yanks’ George Taliaferro approached Van Brocklin to congratulate him.
“You did it all,” he said. “But why didn’t you do something really extraordinary (like) run and catch it yourself?”
“That,” Taliaferro told the New York Times in 2011, “was the only thing he didn’t do.”
That game is notable not only because Van Brocklin did what nobody has before or since but because it was one of only two starts he made that season. Furthermore, his yardage that evening was so enormous it comprised 32.1 percent of his season total.
Granted, others have come close to eclipsing him, but so what? They haven’t gotten there. Houston’s Matt Schaub threw for 527 in a 2012 overtime defeat of Jacksonville. The Oilers’ Warren Moon had 527 in a 1990 defeat of Kansas City. Roethlisberger threw for 522 in 2014, and Boomer Esiason 522 in 1996.
There have been 22 500-yard passing games in NFL history, but none surpass what Van Brocklin put up 68 years ago Saturday.
“I’ve always believed you have to evaluate players within the context of the eras they played,” said Accorsi. “He had two Hall-of-Fame receivers, Hirsch and (Tom) Fears, and the best talent in the league around him on the Rams.
“But if it was so much easier to do it then than it is now … and if it shouldn’t be compared to today’s performances … then I have two questions: 1) Why didn’t anyone else do it? Great quarterbacks like Luckman, Baugh, Graham, Layne and Unitas? And 2) he had two ends, with only one split occasionally and maybe a flanker … but not always. He didn’t have spread formations, with wide receivers all over the place.
“Offensive linemen had to keep their arms and hands within the boundaries of their bodies, and defensive backs could bump and make contact all over the field. People can say, ‘Well, the defensive backs are so much better today.’ Yes, but so are the wide receivers.”
But no quarterback is better than Van Brocklin was on Sept. 28, 1951. It was, as Accorsi said, “an epic performance”… and with the NFL this year marking its 100th anniversary, one that should be celebrated now more than ever.
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