"A quarterback should run only from sheer terror," said Norman Van Brocklin a few years ago when he was a non-running quarterback. In his fifth year as a head coach and the Minnesota Vikings' fifth year as a football team, Van Brocklin conceivably could win the Western Conference championship of the National Football League with Fran (Peach) Tarkenton (see cover), a quarterback who runs from sheer delight. "I can't change him," Van Brocklin says philosophically. "Scrambling is his style. When it gets to third and 40, I let him call the play."
This is an article from the Sept. 13, 1965 issue
The Vikings, who open the season next week against the Western champion Colts in the day's big game, probably have the best third-and-40 offense in football—a doubtful but electrifying distinction for a team that rarely gets into that kind of a jam. Their third-and-40 play is almost always the same: Tarkenton takes the ball, retreats hopefully into the blocking pocket, then begins to improvise. He leaves the pocket, tripping nimbly a step or two ahead of 260-pound defenders and confusing his blockers beyond repair. As he wanders farther and farther behind the line of scrimmage, he seems to know exactly where the tacklers are and just how to avoid them. He watches as his receivers invent patterns downfield. Finally he throws, and as often as not he gets the first down and occasionally he gets a touchdown. This may be the single most exciting play in football—exciting to the fans and to Van Brocklin, who is far more active following Tarkenton from the sideline than he ever was as a quarterback on the field.
Van Brocklin was a stationary quarterback for two reasons. First, he could not run fast enough to escape from an enraged turtle and, second, he was taught early in his career that a quarterback is not supposed to run.
"I learned quarterbacking from Jim Aiken at Oregon," Van Brocklin said the other day at Jack's, the Toots Shor's of Bemidji, Minn., which is the Vikings' training town. Van Brocklin had gone to Oregon from Acalanes High School in Walnut Creek, Calif. He was a tailback in high school—which tells all you need to know about the running ability of the football players at Acalanes. "All I had to do was throw," said Van Brocklin. "I didn't need to run."
When Aiken took over the Oregon club in Van Brocklin's sophomore year he appointed him quarterback and gave him and the offensive line a brief lecture.
"You run out of the pocket and you're on your way home," he told Van Brocklin. "Anyone who lets anyone into the pocket is on his way home," he told the offensive linemen.
"I rolled out one time," Van Brocklin recalled. "I ran over toward the sideline, and somebody knocked me right into the middle of a big hedge that ran alongside the field. I was trying to fight my way out of the hedge when Aiken came right in after me.
" 'Van Brocklin,' he hollered, 'you got a million-dollar arm and a 10¢ head. Don't ever do that again!' "
Van Brocklin never did, not in two years on the Oregon varsity and 12 years in pro football. He was the prototype of the drop-back passer, yet he chose Tarkenton with his eyes open. Hired in 1960 to be head coach of the Vikings after he had quarterbacked the Philadelphia Eagles to a world championship, the Dutchman studied movies of 25 college senior quarterbacks before settling on Tarkenton.
"He had a quick arm, and he could take charge," Van Brocklin says. "He is a minister's son and I thought for a while he might be too nice, but he isn't. The defenses in this league are tougher than Japanese arithmetic, and the linebackers come after a quarterback like he was chocolate cake. But Tarkenton learned fast, and no one could put much pressure on him, because he got out of the way so fast. I used to protect myself with a quick release; he's got that, plus the ability to scramble. I still think the best way to beat the rush is with your play calls, but I'm not going to try to change Peach."
One thing Van Brocklin did change, however, was the trajectory of Tarkenton's passes. When Tarkenton came to the Vikings from Georgia he threw rainbows. After watching him for a few moments in training camp that first year Van Brocklin said, "Peach, they'll put you on waivers if you throw pop flies. Hum the ball." He made Tarkenton exercise with weights and practice throwing long passes on a line, and now Tarkenton hums it. Dutch adjusted Tarkenton's drop-back from the five yards he had become accustomed to in college to the pros' seven yards, but no amount of instruction could make him stay put.
"He stays in the pocket more than he used to," Van Brocklin says. "That still isn't very much."
Tarkenton and first draft choice Tommy Mason were Van Brocklin's only high-quality athletes in his first year with the Vikings. The team was stocked with expensive castoffs from the rest of the league, most of them overage and out of condition, plus other rookies obtained in the draft.
"We've got a couple of dogs from every club in the league," Van Brocklin said then. "But we still may win a couple of games. Once these guys get rid of their beer tumors we may have some kind of ball club."
In their maiden year the Vikings surprised a lot of people by winning three games. Among the most amazed was Line Coach Stan West; his original Minnesota linemen were the smallest and slowest he had ever seen on a pro team. In 1962 the Vikings won only two games, but they began to accelerate in 1963 (five victories), and last season they climbed into a tie for second with Green Bay, with eight victories against five defeats and a tie. The improvement has been due partly to intelligent drafting, partly to an intangible quality imparted to the team by Van Brocklin.
"They never quit hitting," another Western Division coach says. "I've never seen a Viking team down for a game."
"That's the big thing Dutch has," says one of his assistants. "He can get the club up. I don't know how he does it. I've never seen anyone else who could keep a club up for 14 games, but Dutch can."
Van Brocklin was a leader as a player, and a leader he still is. Furthermore, he has a comprehensive knowledge of football, plus an intuitive sense of strategy; he knows how to attack almost any defense. He allows Tarkenton to call his own plays, knowing that Tarkenton's tactical philosophy is essentially the same as his own. When Dutch was playing he was a gambling, unorthodox play-caller, and so is Tarkenton.
Van Brocklin is a wide, strong man, with light-blue eyes that on occasion can be as cold as the winter's ice on a Minnesota lake. Much of the time he is a cheerful, laughing man and the light-blue eyes twinkle.
He married his college biology teacher. There is a story that this was the only way he could pass biology, but he actually was a good student. He chose to finish college in three years, informing the Rams of his intentions because he wanted to play for them. That bit of knowledge enabled the Rams to get Van Brocklin for the ridiculously cheap price of a fourth-draft choice. The rest of the league laughed when the Rams' owner, Dan Reeves, chose him; they quit laughing when Van Brocklin took his degree and so became eligible for the college draft.
Dutch's career with the Rams was stormy. He played in the 1949 All-Star Game in Chicago and came to the Ram camp in Redlands, Calif. to find three fine quarterbacks already there. Bob Waterfield was No. 1; he had won the league championship for the Rams in his rookie year, 1945, and by 1949 he was firmly established as not only one of the best tactical and technical quarterbacks in football but also one of the best punters and place-kickers as well. Behind him was veteran Jim Hardy, and behind Hardy was a remarkable young rookie from Virginia named Bobby Thomason. Thomason could dribble a football the way Bob Cousy could dribble a basketball. In the Ram intrasquad game he had performed so well that his team had beaten Waterfield's.
So, coming in, Van Brocklin had no reason to be optimistic. He spent a good deal of his first year with the Rams on the bench, which he did not relish. Clark Shaughnessy was the coach of the 1949 Rams. Halfway through the season Van Brocklin told him that if he would play him he would break every passing record in the NFL book. Eventually Dutch almost did, but in his rookie year he had to be content with battling Waterfield for playing time.
After a couple of years the Ram fans—and the Ram players, sadly—split into Van Brocklin and Waterfield factions. At almost any game there would be a group chanting for Waterfield if Van Brocklin was in the game, and vice versa. Then Waterfield retired, and the Rams drafted Billy Wade. Van Brocklin became the Waterfield of the duo—the veteran quarterback being pursued by a rookie. By this time Sid Gillman was the Ram coach. He preferred Wade to Van Brocklin for reasons still unclear. Van Brocklin finally decided that it would be better to retire than to play for Gillman, and he announced that he would. Reeves, a man who has made few mistakes in his pro-football career, thereupon made a big one. Allowing Gillman to sway him, he let Van Brocklin go. Great quarterbacks are rarities; coaches are not so rare and not so important to their teams.
Van Brocklin went to the Eagles and to Buck Shaw, a coach who gave him his head and for whom he won a world championship. "He was the best," says Van Brocklin. "I liked playing for him. He left the quarterback alone. You have to do that. I got more information accidentally on the field than any coach can get on the sidelines. The receivers tell you who they can beat, and the blockers know what they can do to the defensive line. You can't get that on the sideline."
Van Brocklin won the 1960 championship with an Eagle team most observers considered no better than third best in the East, behind Cleveland and New York. Van Brocklin beat the Giants twice that year. The second victory was the key to the Eagle championship, and it was won on a typically ingenious and audacious call by the Dutchman.
Under the permissive Shaw, Van Brocklin was in effect the offensive coach. He and Charley Gauer, one of Shaw's assistants, chose the plays. For the second Giant game they had doped out a special play to capitalize on Sam Huff's habit of coming up fast from his middle linebacker post to meet running plays. The play was a fake trap on which Van Brocklin pretended to hand off to a back going into the line and then dropped back to throw a pass to the Eagle fullback, Ted Dean.
At the beginning of the fourth period the Eagles were behind 23-17. Huff had been reading Van Brocklin's audible signals very well, notably on a dive play that the Dutchman had called several times at the line of scrimmage. The number designating the dive was 21; whenever Dutch said, "Twenty-one," Huff hollered, "Dive!" and moved up to stop the play.
On the first play of the fourth period Van Brocklin called the fake trap pass in the huddle, then told the team that he would call, "Twenty-one," at the line of scrimmage.
"When I do, forget it," he said. "We'll go with the play I just called. The 21 is for old Sam. He's been reading our audibles and we're going to sting him."
At the line of scrimmage, Dutch hollered, "Set 21," and Huff reacted like a Pavlov dog, yelling, "Dive!" and moving up. Van Brocklin made a purposely sloppy fake to Dean, showing the ball to the defense so they would let him slip through the line unimpeded. Then he made a good fake to the other back, Billy Barnes, and Huff tackled Barnes at the line of scrimmage. Dean looped into the area that had been vacated by Huff, and Van Brocklin hit him with a perfect short pass over the middle. Dean carried the ball all the way in for the touchdown that put the Eagles ahead and, as much as any play, won the division championship for them.
Van Brocklin was voted the most valuable player in the league after he led the Eagles to the championship with an upset victory over Green Bay. He had joined the Eagles as a quarterback on the understanding that he would succeed Shaw as head coach when Shaw retired, but when the Eagle management asked him to be a playing coach Van Brocklin refused.
Bert Rose, general manager of the Vikings, signed him on. It was a courageous move for Rose; no player in the modern era of pro football had ever moved directly from the playing field to a head coaching position. Also Rose was warned by several of the people he consulted that Van Brocklin had a hot temper (which he had) and that he was not notably tactful (he was not). When Van Brocklin finished his pro career by playing in the Pro Bowl in Los Angeles, he was interviewed by the Los Angeles press. The writers, some of whom had not been kind to Van Brocklin when he was with the Rams, were in a mellow and admiring mood. Van Brocklin was not.
"What are you going to do now?" one of them asked.
"Get the hell out of this damn town as fast as I can," said the Dutchman, and he did.
He still erupts occasionally during the course of a game, but by and large he keeps his temper under control. Van Brocklin spends a good deal of time in the off season speaking at luncheons and dinners, selling the Vikings, and although he is not fond of the task he is good at it. "I'll keep doing it until there's a fanny on every number," he says, meaning until there is a customer in every seat of Metropolitan Stadium.
Persuasive though he is, Van Brocklin is more likely to sell seats by producing exciting and victorious football teams. He is good at that, too. Indeed, he has proved that he is as good a coach as he was a quarterback.
This he demonstrated in his first season with the Vikings. With a patchwork team of the very young and the very old, he decided that the first thing he had to do was pump pride into the veterans. They had been publicly declared expendable by their former clubs. They considered it anything but an honor to come to the Vikings.
"Training camp that first year was a real country club," one of them says. "Dutch didn't work anyone very hard. He made us feel like he was glad to have us. He knew that you can't work old hands too hard in training anyway. But the second year! I've been in lots of training camps and I never saw a tougher one. He worked us until our tails dragged and then worked us some more. He even made us scrimmage in the middle of the week during the season, and nobody does that."
"They forgot that football is a hitting game," Van Brocklin explains. "So I thought I would remind them."
He did not have to remind Tarkenton. Fran got the message the first season. "Don't stand around," he had been told. "After you hand off or throw the ball, keep moving. Don't give 'em a standing target."
In a game with the Colts, Tarkenton completed a screen pass, his first in pro football. In his excitement he forgot Van Brocklin's warning and stopped to watch the play. Billy Ray Smith, one of the Colt defensive tackles, promptly hung him on a clothesline—whipped him across the face with an extended arm.
He was led to the sideline with a bloody nose and only a vague idea of where he was. As he lay down to try to recover his senses, Van Brocklin walked over and looked at him.
"Welcome, kid," he said. "Welcome to the National Football League."
"Right now," says Van Brocklin, "Tarkenton is only this far from being the best." He held up his thumb and forefinger half an inch apart. "All he needs is the experience."
Entering this season, the Vikings as a team are only that same half inch from a championship. This is the soundest, deepest team the Dutchman has had. His only real lack is depth in the offensive and defensive lines and in running backs. The starters are very good starters, but their replacements are not.
He is exceptionally well stocked at quarterback. Behind Tarkenton is Ron Vander Kelen, much the same kind of quarterback and one of the best second quarterbacks in the league. And the Vikings have a rookie from Van Brocklin's alma mater, Oregon, who may be another Van Brocklin in time. He is Bob Berry, a rather small man with poise and an accurate, strong arm. Tarkenton and Vander Kelen are 25: Berry is 22. The Vikings should be solid at the most important position in pro football for years to come.
In Bill Brown and Tommy Mason, Van Brocklin has as good a pair of running backs as any team, including Green Bay and Cleveland. Mason has been a star since his rookie year, but the stubby Brown did not develop until last season.
"He improved 200% in one year," Van Brocklin says. "I can't really understand how he did it, except that he worked hard."
One of Van Brocklin's assistants had another explanation. "Bill was a kid who had to be handled gently," he said. "He didn't react well to being chewed out, so Dutch went the other way. He made it a point to praise Brown."
Whatever the reason, Brown now ranks with Jim Taylor as a fullback. Van Brocklin feels that he is the equal of Jimmy Brown—and a better blocker. Behind Brown is Bill McWatters, who is good but not exceptional.
Last year the Viking offensive line opened holes so well for Mason and Brown that both backs ranked in the top eight in the league in rushing, and the Viking team was second only to Green Bay. Despite Tarkenton's tendency to leave the pocket, he got enough protection from the scrambling blockers to rank second in the league in passing and to put the Vikings on top in passing yardage.
In Tackle Grady Alderman, Guard Larry Bowie and Center Mike Tingelhoff the Vikings have three topnotch offensive linemen. The rest of the line is competent. According to Van Brocklin, Hal Bedsole, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound tight end who was a rookie in 1964, could become another Ron Kramer or Mike Ditka. He is a fine blocker and a strong receiver.
"He can run over safety men," Van Brocklin says, "and he can catch the ball in a crowd. He could be a great one."
Paul Flatley, now in his third pro season, is an excellent flanker; he caught 28 passes last year. Oddly, Brown led the club in receiving, with 48 catches; Tarkenton completed more passes to his two running backs than he did to his flanker and spread end, indicating that many of the passes were thrown out of a scramble into a broken pattern. With better protection and more confidence this year, Tarkenton probably will throw more often to the traditional receivers.
The Viking defensive line is sturdy but, again, not deep. Jim Marshall, the big defensive end who earned a niche in football history last year by recovering a fumble and running the wrong way with it to score a safety against the Vikings, is one of the quickest pass-rushers in football. Carl Eller, in his second season, is still learning the intricacies of defensive-end play, but he is enormously strong and quick and eventually should take his place as the Viking equivalent of the retired Colt terrorist, Gino Marchetti.
"He has more strength in his arms and shoulders than anyone I ever saw," says Van Brocklin. "When he learns how to use it no one will be able to stop him." Like Marchetti, Eller is powerful enough to absorb a tackle's block with his arms and hands, then toss the man either way to get to the passer or to the ballcarrier.
Defensive Tackles Jim Prestel and Paul Dickson are good NFL players. The addition of Gary Larsen, obtained in a trade with Los Angeles, gives the Vikings a bit more depth at tackle than they had last season.
Probably the strongest segment of the Viking defense is the linebacking. The best of a strong trio is Middle Linebacker Rip Hawkins. Hawkins is 6 feet 3, weighs 235 pounds and has extraordinary mobility for his size. He was in the Vikings' original draft. Experience has cured him of making the mistakes that cost the Vikings first downs in his early years. Flanking Hawkins are Roy Winston and Bill Jobko—both better-than-average linebackers. Lonnie Warwick, a big rookie from Tennessee Tech, has been a pleasant surprise in training camp and in exhibition games. So the Vikings are both deep and strong in the most vital position on defense.
In training camp Van Brocklin juggled his secondary, testing Corner Back Ed Sharockman as a safety and shifting other personnel as well, looking for the most effective combination.
"Sharockman is a tremendous tackler," Van Brocklin said. "He can use that ability more as a safety than as a corner back. He hurts people."
The four deep defenders will come from a group composed of Sharockman, Dale Hackbart, Larry Vargo, Lee Calland, Karl Kassulke and George Rose. All of them are experienced and most of them are good; the only rookie given a chance to make the squad as a defensive back is reed-slim Jeff Jordan from Tulsa.
In Bobby Walden, Van Brocklin has the league's No. 1 punter. Fred Cox, the field-goal and kickoff specialist, ranked third in the league on 21 field goals in 33 attempts.
Blessed with unaccustomed riches, Van Brocklin believes that, barring injuries, the Vikings should be a contender for the Western championship. "You have to pick Green Bay," he said at Jack's. "They've got the studs. They are young, and Lombardi is deep everywhere. They have a higher percentage of superior ballplayers on their club than any other team in football. But if our front-line players hold up and if we don't get any injuries to key men, we'll be right in there. Tarkenton is better than he ever was. When he went to the Pro Bowl last year he found out for himself that he's as good as any quarterback in pro football. He went in and moved the club when Johnny Unitas couldn't, and that had quite an effect on him. He is sure of himself and cool and in charge."
With ability and depth at quarterback, strong running from Mason and Brown, a big group of good receivers bolstered by the addition of Jim Phillips from the Rams and a better-than-adequate offensive line, the Vikings could take over the league offensive lead from the Packers. The defensive secondary still seems a bit unsettled, but it performed well enough last year and should be better now. If the Dutchman had two more good running backs and a little more depth in both lines, this would be the year of the Vikings.
It may be anyway, with luck. The Dutchman has always been a lucky man.