Cheers for Norm! The mark where nobody knows his name


By Clark Judge

Talk of Fame Network

I called former Baltimore coach Brian Billick, now an NFL Network analyst, the other day to tell him that Sunday marks a notable anniversary — the day the NFL record for most yards passing in one game was set. He wasn’t impressed. But then I asked him if he knew who did it and when … and, suddenly, he was.

“Oh, my gosh,” he said. “The obvious choices would be (Peyton) Manning or (Drew) Brees, but I’ll go old-school. I’m going to say Otto Graham.”

Wrong. But not by much.

Try Norm Van Brocklin. Honest.

He threw for an NFL-best 554 yards on Sept. 28, 1951 — or 63 years ago — to lead the Los Angeles Rams to a 54-14 demolition of the New York Yanks, a club that would be sold and moved within a year. But forget the Yanks. Let’s concentrate on Van Brocklin. He set the record when passing was a glance, not an art, and he did it in a year when Bobby Layne led the league with 2,403 yards for the season.

Since then, the league has loosened the rules, gone to wide-open offenses and strengthened the passing game so dramatically that not only aren’t 4,000-yard seasons uncommon; 5,000-yard years aren’t, either, with quarterbacks reaching that figure six times the past three years. A 5K-season is over twice what Layne accomplished in 1951, and maybe now you get an idea of just how staggering Van Brocklin’s record is.

Put in today’s game it would translate to, oh, say about …

“A 750-yard game,” said former Dallas executive Gil Brandt, now a senior analyst for NFL.com.

“I’m going higher,” said Billick. “I would think it’s got to be 800 to 900 because of the percentage of passes thrown.”

He has a point.

Van Brocklin had only 27 completions. But he was so accurate … or his receivers so good … or the Yanks so bad … that he averaged a whopping 20.5 yards per completion, with three of his receivers breaking 100 yards each — including Hall-of-Famers Elroy Hirsch and Tom Fears. Starting in place of the injured Bob Waterfield, Van Brocklin was part of a newfangled offense that was the brainchild of coach Joe Stydahar — a three-receiver scheme that befuddled the Yanks as completely as the Wildcat did New England the day Miami sprung it on the Patriots.

In both instances, the losers got waxed.

But there have been routs galore in the 63 years since, and nobody … not Manning, not Brees, not Tom Brady, John Unitas, Joe Namath, John Elway, Dan Marino, Brett Favre, nobody … eclipsed Van Brocklin’s record. Granted, the game’s changed, but it changed to make life easier for quarterbacks; to allow them to take a run at Van Brocklin.

And many have. It’s just that nobody caught him.

“It’s astounding,” said Brandt. “Those were the days of the Bull Elephant backfield, but I guess everyone expected them to run. It was like taking candy from a baby.”

No, it was easier. Van Brocklin threw for five touchdowns, barely missed a sixth when Tommy Kalmanir was pulled down at the 1 and scored once himself. Now the kicker: It was one of only two starts for him that season.

“It’s hard to believe,” Billick said of the record, “mostly because the rules have changed so much. Other records are notable because nothing changes, like,, say, the 100 yard dash. It’s still 100 yards. But this is like taking the 100 and marking it off at 85 yards — yet still no one can break it.”

That makes it remarkable. But so does this: Virtually nobody knows about the mark or who set it, with Arizona coach Bruce Arians flummoxed when I posed the question to him this week. He guessed Manning. Then he guessed Tom Brady. Now he knows.

And now so do you.

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(Photo Courtesy of the St. Louis Rams)

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