Five weeks ago Norm Van Brocklin ranked up there with William Tecumseh Sherman in the esteem of most Atlantans—although his Falcons were a long way from marching through anything, particularly the National Football League. In fact, after overpowering New Orleans 62-7 in the season opener, they lost three games in a row without scoring a touchdown.
Van Brocklin, who had decided on his quarterback more by default than logic, was determined to prove that journeyman Dick Shiner could win for the Falcons, although he had never won consistently for any other team. The Dutchman was rescued from his mulishness in the fourth game of the season, when Shiner was injured playing against San Francisco, and Van Brocklin called on Bob Lee (no kin to Robert E., alas), whom he had picked up from Minnesota. Lee rallied the club from a 10-0 deficit to a 13-9 loss; since then, he has led the Falcons to five wins in a row, the most recent being last Sunday's 44-27 conquest of a surprisingly good Philadelphia Eagle team.
"The season turned around when Lee took over," Van Brocklin admitted after the game. "I guess the quality he has that Shiner and Pat Sullivan [the Heisman Trophy winner who disappointed the Dutchman in the preseason] lacked is winning. And experience. Lee was a winner when he played at Minnesota and he's a winner now."
Lee is an unlikely looking winner. Although he's listed at 6'2" and 201, he seems extraordinarily scrawny. He is lean from his ankles up, with a small birdlike head perched on a slim neck, and a freckled face dominated by a beaked nose. But he is an accurate passer and agile at eluding the pass rush; he doesn't have to be an acute play selector since Van Brocklin sends in the calls via messenger guards. Lee has another quality essential to all winning quarterbacks—a very strong sense of his own competence.
In the dressing room after the Eagle game he coolly answered the questions of a knot of writers, reversing a role he played as a teen-ager when he interviewed players for his father, a wire-service reporter. Lee was tucking himself into a spectacular shirt striped vertically in red and two shades of blue, and a blue denim suit. He has a thick shock of reddish-gold hair that falls over his eyes, and his face is a reddish tan. The explosion of color is oddly at variance with his quiet, measured voice.
Someone asked him if the team's sudden success was due to his taking over at quarterback. "You are asking me to evaluate myself," he said seriously. "I can't do that. I suggest that you ask that question of the other players." He thought about that for a moment and appeared to grow irritated. "What do you want me to say? If you want me to say it's because I'm the best quarterback, I think I am."
It would be difficult to quarrel with that estimate. Lee had not been at his best against the Eagles, which he freely admitted. "I wasn't as sharp as I have been," he said. "We came off two very emotional games, and it was hard to keep a peak this week. But we won, and that's what counts."
Van Brocklin said the same thing. "It wasn't artistic, but it was a win. The Eagles are a heck of a club. They score a lot, so we had to score a lot. We went four games this year without scoring a touchdown. So we went for five today. And Lee is a winner. I told you that."
The Eagles, under Mike McCormack, their new head coach, are an exciting team, a true test for any club. They have exceptional offensive personnel, and Roman Gabriel, the quarterback who cost them two players, two first-draft choices and a third, appears to be worth it.
"He's got a new lease on life since he left Fairyland," said Van Brocklin. Fairyland to the Dutchman is Los Angeles, where he spent most of his time as a player. "He stabilizes the club," Van Brocklin went on, "and he's got some great receivers to throw to in Charles Young and Harold Carmichael. That Carmichael's a great athlete. He can eat apples off the tree without using his hands." Carmichael is 6'8", and he caught six passes for 105 yards and a touchdown against Atlanta, which has the NFC's best pass defense.
Gabriel completed 21 of 33 for 221 yards against that defense. Lee was nowhere near as spectacular; he had 12 of 23 for 109 yards and one touchdown, but he handled the Falcon offense almost flawlessly, and the passes he completed kept drives alive.
"Playing for a coach who was a great quarterback has advantages," he said. "He's been there so he knows your problems. But it has disadvantages, too. He was a tremendous quarterback who demanded perfection from himself and he demands it from his quarterbacks, too. There is no admiration for second place in our society."
Then he said something about Van Brocklin that may never have been said before. The Dutchman, for good reason, had complimented Lee, and a reporter passed on the approbation to the quarterback. "Mr. Van Brocklin has been very gracious to me," Lee said. "He is a gracious man."
He was not always that gracious to Lee. The Falcons, a solid team in every respect except quarterback and field-goal-kicking, went to camp with Lee, Sullivan and Shiner, and Van Brocklin said the quarterback and kicking jobs were wide open. Lee injured the ulnar nerve in his passing arm in a scrimmage—he hit Defensive Tackle Mike Tilleman on the helmet with his elbow—and he was unable to throw well. Out of action for two weeks, he performed poorly after that. Van Brocklin shrugged off the injury. "You gotta play hurt sometimes," he muttered.
When Lee came back, he was unimpressive in a couple of exhibitions, throwing with what was, in effect, a dead arm. Sullivan, short for a pro quarterback and handicapped by a baseball-like throwing stride that reduces his 6-foot frame to about 5'3" when he lets fly, looked no better than Lee. So Van Brocklin turned to Shiner, who was slow setting up and couldn't scramble.
Then came the 49er game, in which Lee brought to life a moribund club. Asked the difference between the ineffectual Lee of the exhibition season and the Lee who vitalized the team against San Francisco, he said, "It's nice to have a good arm again."
Lee started the next week against Chicago and completed 11 of 13 passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns, as the Falcons won 46-6. He led the club to a 41-0 victory over San Diego; then, in a key game he demonstrated his winning capability by completing 11 of 13 passes for 236 yards, two touchdowns and a 17-3 victory over San Francisco that put the Falcons in the race for the Western Division championship of the NFC.
Lee underlined that challenge when the Falcons defeated Los Angeles two weeks ago 15-13 on five Nick Mike-Mayer field goals. Lee did not throw for a touchdown in that game, but his passes accounted for 222 yards and positioned the Italian-born Hungarian placekicker for his winning field goals.
By triumphing over Los Angeles, the Falcons posed a genuine threat for the division title. They have only one really tough game remaining on their schedule—Monday night against the Minnesota Vikings in Atlanta. Then they go down the homestretch against the Jets in New York, and Buffalo, St. Louis and New Orleans at home.
All the Falcons now believe they can win from here in. Philadelphia was an important test—they came in flat, fell behind 7-0, then were tied 20-20 before taking the lead for good on Eddie Ray's two-yard run.
"Winning is a state of mind," Lee said after the game. "I never thought we would lose today. You have to assume that you will win. If you think you will lose, you are going to get whipped."
When the Falcons were having difficulties during the exhibition season, some Atlanta writers speculated on the possibility of Van Brocklin making a trade for Craig Morton, the Dallas quarterback now playing behind Roger Staubach. At that time Van Brocklin had gone on record as saying that in Shiner, Sullivan and Lee he had three quarterbacks as good as anybody's. He batted .333 on that bit of bluster, which is better in baseball than it is in football.
He told an Atlanta writer, anent the trade for Morton, "To heck with Morton and to heck with your readers." The Dutchman comes up a little short as a P.R. man, although he has his warm moments. Just after abruptly cutting off his postgame interview in Philadelphia because of what he considered a stupid question, he asked an old friend into the coach's dressing room so that he could recommend a young Atlanta reporter for a promotion.
But just before that, a writer using a tape recorder thrust the microphone under his nose. Said Dutch, "Don't put that thing in my mouth, Sonny, or you'll be wearing it in a different part of your anatomy."
That hardly fits Lee's assessment of Van Brocklin as a gracious man. But, of course, all coaches are gracious with quarterbacks who put up five wins in a row. If Lee can add four more, the Dutchman will be positively genial.