In all major sports there are records set that are considered unbreakable. In baseball, there is Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak. In hockey, there is Wayne Gretzky’s record of 92 goals in one season. In basketball, there is Wilt Chamberlain’s record of 100 points in a game.
In the NFL, there is one record that has been approached but never topped, even in this age of enhanced offense. On Friday, September 28, 1951, in the opening game of the NFL season, Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Norm Van Brocklin set a single game passing record of 554 yards that has been approached, but in 71 years, still has not been surpassed. Oh, in case you were wondering why the Friday game. In that era, college football was still king and USC owned Saturdays.
The Build up to the Game
Van Brocklin began his rise to greatness as the starting quarterback at the University of Oregon for the 1947 and 1948 seasons. In 1948, he was an All-American selection and finished sixth in voting for the Heisman Trophy. Hid Ducks finished that season 9-1 and in Van Brocklin’s final college game, they lost 21-13 to SMU in the Cotton Bowl.
After that, he decided to skip his final year of college eligibility and move on to the NFL. In the 1949 NFL Draft, Van Brocklin was selected in the fourth round, 37th overall, by the Los Angeles Rams.
He was the sixth quarterback taken in the draft that year and, surprisingly, the second quarterback selected by Los Angeles. In the first round, the Rams made quarterback Bobby Thompson out of VMI the seventh overall pick. His fall in the draft was explained as teams expected Van Brocklin to return to Oregon for his final season of eligibility.
What Van Brocklin found, when he got to Los Angeles was that the Rams already had an all-pro, future Hall of Fame quarterback in place, Bob Waterfield. Still, while Waterfield started, Van Brocklin did see action in eight game his rookie season.
In 1950, Joe Stydahar took over as the Rams head coach and found an innovative way to use both of his star quarterbacks. Each started six games that season, alternating week to week.
Los Angeles was 4-2 in Waterfield’s starts that season and 5-1 in Van Brocklin’s starts. He completed 127 passes in 233 attempts for 233 yards and four touchdowns. Both Van Brocklin and Waterfield combined for 3,601 yards of passing and 29 touchdowns.
The Dutchman Stamps the NFL Record Book
For 1951, Stydahar planned to stay with the same quarterback rotation that got the Rams to the 1950 NFL Championship Game. There was a problem though. Waterfield was nursing a leg injury and couldn’t start Los Angeles’ first game against the New York Yanks.
Van Brocklin stepped onto the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum turf slung two, long touchdown passes in the first quarter. He opened with a 41-yard touchdown strike to future Hall of Famer Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch. After a 22-yard rushing touchdown by left halfback Dick Hoerner, Van Brocklin struck again with a 67-yard touchdown pass to right halfback Vitamin Smith.
Heading into the second quarter, New York may have been finished but Van Brocklin was just getting started. He connected with Hirsch for a touchdown pass in each quarter of the game, 47 yards in the second, 26 yards in the third and a one-yard connection in the fourth quarter.
It was the one-yard touchdown that pushed Van Brocklin past Chicago Bears quarterback Johnny Lujack’s existing 468 passing yard record that he had set on December 11, 1949, against the Chicago Cardinals.
Van Brocklin finished his record setting day with 27 completions in 44 pass attempts. He threw five touchdown passes, four to Hirsch, and two interceptions for a passer rating of 128.3
Los Angeles’ 735 yards of total offense in that game is also a record that has gone unchallenged over the past 71 years.
In 2011, George Taliaferro, halfback, quarterback and defensive back for New York, recalled the game for Judy Battista of the New York Times:
“We didn’t rush him at all. We didn’t have that kind of a defense, so he could sit in the pocket and let it go. He didn’t have to scramble. Once he got back in the pocket, they were talented enough to divert us around the pocket. He took the ball from center, put it up beside his right ear and when he saw that the receiver had the defender beaten, he could let it go. It wasn’t that he threw a five-yard pass and then the runner ran 95 yards. He was throwing it 50 and 60 yards.”Judy Battista, New York Times, 9 28, 2011
After the Storm
Van Brocklin only started one other game in 1951 but still saw plenty of action stepping in for Waterfield when Los Angeles needed a big play downfield. He finished the season with 88 completions in 176 attempts for 1,566 yards and 13 touchdowns.
The Rams had lost the 1950 NFL Championship Game to the Cleveland Browns 30-28 on a field goal by Lou Groza with 16 seconds left.
In 1951, Los Angeles finished with an 8-4 record to win the National Division for the second year in a row to earn an NFL Championship Game rematch against the second time American Division Champion Browns. In the fourth quarter, Van Brocklin stepped in for Waterfield and fired a 73-yard touchdown pass to Tom Fears to give the Rams a 24-17 victory. It was the franchise’s first championship after relocating from Cleveland to Los Angeles.
Van Brocklin stayed with Los Angeles until 1957 when he briefly retired before accepting a trade to the Philadelphia Eagles. His final game in the NFL was in 1960, a 17-13 NFL Championship Game victory over the Green Bay Packers.
The “Modern” Era?
In the years since the single game passing record was set, 22 quarterbacks have passed 500 yards in a game but the one who came closest to breaking the record was Warren Moon. In December of 1990 against the Kansas City Chiefs, Moon completed 27 of 45 passes for 527 yards.
The quarterback who was most persistent in his chase for the record was Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. He exceeded the 500-yard mark three times. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees climbed past that milestone twice.
If you’re looking for the single-game passing record to fall there would have to be a perfect storm of variables that fall into place.
A quarterback would need a passing game plan against a below average secondary. At least two long completions and a handful of intermediate, 15 to 25 yard connections.
The game would have to be a shootout. A blowout would only cause a head coach to put his foot on the brakes, although that didn’t stop Stydahar in Van Brocklin’s effort.
It could also happen with a team around three scores down in the second half and making a desperate attempt to make a game of it. The problem with all of these scenarios is that time runs out before the magic number is reached.
Is the single game passing record really unbreakable? Will Van Brocklin finally take a back seat to one of the modern era star arms that we watch every weekend? Probably, all records fall in time. Still, nothing will ever detract from the arm and skill of The Dutchman, Norm Van Brocklin.
Header Image: Ron Reiring, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons