He's got the arm. All he needs is a few games under his belt. I can teach him the rest."
This was Norman Van Brocklin, the matchless Philadelphia quarterback, speaking over the hubbub in the Eagles' dressing room after they had won the pro football championship last winter. He was talking about a cheerful redhead named Sonny Jurgensen, who for three years had occupied a seat on the Eagle bench waiting for Van Brocklin to retire.
"The guys like him, and they'll play for him," Van Brocklin said. "We're not gonna hurt too much at quarterback."
The "we," as it turned out, was editorial since the Eagles passed by Van Brocklin, now the head coach of the new Minnesota Vikings, to hire Nick Skorich as coach, but the rest of Van Brocklin's analysis qualifies him as a prophet—on the basis of Jurgensen's first effort as quarterback of the Eagles.
August 13, 1961
He led the club surely and confidently to a 28-14 victory over a College All-Star team which was probably the best of the last 11 years. He threw three touchdown passes during the evening, completed one Bob Cousy-type basketball pass behind his back to Pete Retzlaff, the Eagle end, which turned a probable 10-yard loss into an actual 14-yard gain and, most important, he guided the Eagles with Van Brocklinlike confidence.
After the All-Star Game Tommy McDonald, who rooms with Jurgensen and who caught three touchdown passes, said: "You should have been in that huddle. You should have heard him run the club. No doubts, no hesitation. Boom, boom. We knew he could do it. We knew it."
Jurgensen's teammates and coaches were the only people in Chicago last week who did know it. The tenor of most newspaper stories was that Jurgensen was no Van Brocklin, and without a Van Brocklin the Eagles were not much of a club. The world champions went into the game the shortest-priced favorites in its long history.
"Sure, he's got the arm," one pro scout said. "Everybody knows that. But the word on Sonny is that he can't take pressure. The All-Stars have got the kind of defensive line that can put pressure on him. If they red dog [rush him with one or more linebackers as well as the line] he'll be in trouble."
"I'm not worried," Jurgensen said. He and McDonald were in their hotel room at the Del Prado Hotel, watching the sad TV fare available in Chicago on a Friday afternoon. "If we can't handle a red dog, no one can," he went on. "The Giants used it on Dutch [Van Brocklin]. I guess our blockers know more about it than any others in the league."
Jurgensen is a rather wide young man—not fat, just wide. He has a pleasant face, and his normal expression is one of amusement. ("He was the club comedian up until the last two or three games of last year," one Eagle coach said. "Then he realized that he was going to be the No. 1 quarterback, and it made him a hell of a lot more serious.")
"I learned a lot about the red dog, just watching Dutch," Jurgensen said. "I looked at movies a lot to find out how he managed to avoid the linebackers when they always belted me."
He got up and demonstrated, taking an imaginary snapback from center and fading back across the hotel room.
"I used to drop back, and I didn't have my head turned far enough toward the line of scrimmage. I didn't even see a backer coming in from behind me until wham! he'd belt me before I could unload. I got in for a little while against San Francisco last year, and in the movies Nomellini would be going back with me about two steps away. When I set, he had me. Now I turn my head as far forward as I can, and I can pick up a linebacker coming in out of the corner of my eye and avoid him."
McDonald, lying on the bed in shorts watching an old movie, laughed.
"Not by running," he said. "If you think Van Brocklin was a slow runner, wait till you see Sonny." He got out of bed and ran in one spot, kicking his heels up and to the side. "Like that," he said.
"I'm not so bad," Jurgensen said. "The only time I carried, I gained about 10 yards last year. Anyway, I agree with Van. A quarterback should only run from sheer terror. You're taking too big a chance on getting racked when you run, and you could hurt the team."
Bigger than Dutch
He sat down again, sprawled in an easy chair not quite broad enough for his comfort. He has the same thick, strong arms that marked Van Brocklin but wider, bigger hands.
"Anyway, getting back to the red dog," he said. "They may put me on my back a couple of times. But we got plays to sting 'em. They like to red dog from the strong side, and we can hit on short passes there. We'll chase 'em out of it."
Friday night the All-Stars did not put Jurgensen on his back much. They tried shooting their linebackers in, got stung as Jurgensen had predicted and quit. The few times they penetrated the good Eagle blocking and put Jurgensen on his back, he accepted his adversity with enough aplomb to disprove the theory that he cannot throw under pressure.
The behind-the-back pass to Retzlaff was no accident, incidentally. Jurgensen was a fine basketball player at Duke University, where he played quarterback on the football team under Bill Murray. In those days Murray regarded the forward pass as a weapon to be used only on third down with eight yards to go, so Jurgensen's tutoring in throwing a football came mostly from Van Brocklin.
"I threw a behind-the-back pass once at Duke," he said after this game. "I completed it, and Murray took me out and dang near kicked me off the squad."
Skorich, who succeeds Buck Shaw as head coach of the Eagles, took Jurgensen's unorthodox passing with much more equanimity. "As long as he hits," he said, grinning. He watched Jurgensen, who by now was answering questions from a large group of sportswriters, handling himself surely and giving articulate, brief explanations of his strategy.
"I think this game made Sonny," said Skorich, who himself did a fine job of coaching. It may have made the Eagles, too, who must have had some doubts. They should not have any now. They are a championship club.