This Day In Football: The Dutchman’s Masterpiece

Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams, Steve Seidman, Tales from the Vault, This Day in NFL History

In what might be thought of today as the NFL’s “Kickoff Game” of the 1951 season, the Rams’ Norm Van Brocklin unleashed aerial hell on the sad sack defense of the New York Yankees.  Sixty years ago today, “The Dutchman” set an NFL single-game record by passing for 554 yards. In front of only 30,000 fans in the cavernous Los Angeles Coliseum, Van Brocklin threw five touchdown passes and led the Rams to a 54-14 victory over a Yankees  team that had nothing in common with their baseball namesakes:  they  didn’t wear pinstripes, they rarely won, and in this game especially, they gave up a lot of long balls.

Norm Van Brocklin as Eagles QB (AP)

Van Brocklin shattered Johnny Lujack’s mark of 468 passing yards, which had been established two years earlier.  Of all the long standing records in sports, Van Brocklin’s is one of the least venerated, perhaps because it seems like one of the most vulnerable.  After all, the NFL has been firmly established as a passing league for some time now, and passing strategies have evolved to a level of sophistication unimaginable in Van Brocklin’s era.  Moreover, countless rules changes have been established to favor the offense and to protect the quarterback.  Four of the ten 500+ yard passing games since Van Brocklin’s have occurred during the past 12 years, including Tom Brady’s 517 yard performance in Week 1 of this season.  Yet no quarterback has managed to equal or surpass “the Dutchman’s” masterpiece.

Van Brocklin started his Hall of Fame career during a time when Milton Berle reached a wider TV audience than pro football.  Yet in 12 pro seasons, Van Brocklin was a colorful player who attained legendary status.  This fiery leader earned the respect of his teammates, but his combative nature put him at odds with officials, opponents, and sportswriters.  Rarely prone to tirades, Van Brocklin’s specialty was the sarcastic needling remark.  His running battle with Rams’ head coach Sid Gillman resulted in a trade to the Eagles in 1958.  Two years later, Van Brocklin led Philadelphia to a championship.   He remains the only quarterback in league history to lead two different teams to an NFL title; in the same season of ’51 that he passed for 554 yards against the Yanks, Van Brocklin threw the game winning touchdown against Cleveland to clinch the league championship.

Although his playing days were over before NFL Films was founded, the company has celebrated his career in productions such as Best Ever Quarterbacks and 75 seasons. In 2001, an entire episode of NFL Films presents was devoted to “the Dutchman”.   In 2009, he appeared on the countdown of The Top 100 Greatest Players.

Van Brocklin was an intelligent man who knew how to dissect a defense, but as the head coach of the Vikings and Falcons, but lacked the people skills to mold a team.  Although Van Brocklin had been an iconoclast as a player, he had little tolerance for facial hair or free spirits.  Van Brocklin helped form the player’s union during the 1950’s, but he cut Falcons who walked the picket line during the 1972 strike.   While he had a keen mind, he also had a sharp tongue – and a short fuse.  Players who failed to meet Van Brocklin’s rigorous standards were likely to be subjected to a fuselage of withering insults.

Norm Van Brocklin as Falcons Head Coach in 1970

When NFL Films convinced Van Brocklin to wear a wireless microphone during a 1968 game, the result was one of the most revealing wires in the company’s history.  This vivid document showed a man hell-bent on attaining perfection, who stung with cutting comments anyone standing in his way.  The audio suggested why the belligerent Van Brocklin was seen as an anachronism to the new breed of player.   His 66-100 career coaching record didn’t help much, either.  He coached his final game in 1974, and by then, his rants and derisive remarks probably sounded like a broken record.   But it’s the still-unbroken passing record he set on this date 60 years ago that helped make “the Dutchman” one of the game’s all-time greats.

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