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Why is Norm Van Brocklin still a record holder?

Posted by Chase Stuart on October 8, 2010

Proof that we read your e-mails: Eddy Elfenbein e-mailed us on September 28th, asking:

I was curious if you had thoughts on the possibility of someone breaking Norm Van Brocklin's single-game passing mark of 554 yards. This might make for a good post. The odd thing about this record is that it doesn't seem at all "beyond reach." I don't know exactly how you can measure such outliers, but consider that there have been 227 400-yard passing performance, including five already this year. Yet no one has managed to catch Van Brocklin's record, which is 59 years old today. We all know that Joe DiMaggio's streak is in another realm. We get excited if someone gets half-way there. But with the passing mark, it's as if there are three or four 45-game streaks each season but they all seem to peter out.

That's a great question, Eddy. Why is NVB, in this modern age of passing, still a record holder? Consider:

  • On the other hand, Van Brocklin was no slouch: he's a Hall of Famer and came in at right behind John Elway in my final quarterback rankings. He also led the NFL in yards per attempt in '50, '51 and '52 (and again in '54), although he split time with Bob Waterfield in each of those seasons. He split some time with other quarterbacks for most of his career, in fact (this was common at the time), and a result, he never led the league in yards per game. On September 28th, 1951, Waterfield was out injured, enabling Van Brocklin to take all of his team's snaps.

High passing games weren't incredibly rare the '40s and '50s -- Jason's boy Johnny Lujack threw for 468 yards in 1948 against the cross-town Cardinals -- but they're certainly more common now. There have been 192 team passing games of 400 yards or more (this includes sack yards lost, which individual passing yards do not): 59 have come since 2000, 37 in the '90s, 47 in the '80s, 4 in the '70s, 25 in the '60s (16 by the NFL, 9 from the AFL), and 10 each in the '40s and '50s. It's tempting to think of NFL history as following a linear path, but that's not accurate: we think of modern times as a pass-heavy era and the '70s as the run-heavy era; but that doesn't mean the '50s and '60s were even more slanted towards the run. In fact the '40s, '50s and '60s had their pass happy moments, as Waterfield and Lujack (and Baugh, Luckman, Graham and Unitas) made evident. But we'd expect the biggest passing games to come now, when there are far more teams and many more games than ever before. Since 2002, there have been 512 team-games per season with a chance to put up 554 yards; in 1951, there were only 144. So how the heck did Van Brocklin throw for so many yards in one game?

The Rams of the early '50s

Joe Stydahar's Rams from '50 to '52 were the greatest show on grass a half century before the modern games. They ranked first in points in all three years, possessing a dominant offense in every way possible. Los Angeles led the league in passing yards in 1951, and as a team threw for 541 yards against the Yanks (13 yards lost due to sacks); the Rams threw for 427 in a game in 1950, and threw for over 300 yards in half their games that year. The '52 team broke 300 yards only twice, topping out at 358 yards, but that team led the league in net yards per attempt for the third consecutive year. They were the dominant passing offense of their day, but they were far from one dimensional. Two running backs made the Pro Bowl each season, with Glenn Davis (yes, Mr. Outside) and Dick Hoerner doing so in 1950, and then Dan Towler and Tank Younger earning those honors in each of the next three seasons. Towler, Younger and Hoerner were coined the "Bull Elephant Backfield:"

"The idea for the bull elephants," Dan recalled, "came during the 1950 season. We were playing a game in a sea of mud, and the coaches alternated backfields hoping to rest us. The coach then realized he had three fullbacks of equal running ability and saw what a powerful weapon he would have with two 200 pounders leading a third. "The next season, all of us were used together in rushing situations, as the year progressed, we were used as a unit more and more. We won the title that year, and I feel the `51 Rams was one of the greatest teams ever."

The passing game was even scarier, with Waterfield and Van Brocklin throwing to to two Hall of Famers (Elroy Hirsch and Tom Fears). A lineup of Van Brocklin at quarterback, Towler, Hoerner and Younger in the backfield, and Hirsch and Fears on the outside would cause nightmares for every defense they faced. But that was especially true on September 28, 1951.

554 -- Naming your number

If you look at the boxscore from this game, a bunch of things jump out at you. The first, of course, is Van Brocklin's stat line: 27 for 41, 554 yards and 5 touchdowns. And the Rams beat the New York Yanks, 54-14. But you'll also see that it was a Friday game. Why? I have no idea. On Saturday, USC would host San Diego Navy in the same Coliseum, in what would be a more compelling game (the Trojans won by only 34). The Rams and other teams occasionally played on Fridays in late September, but I don't know much beyond that. The game was the season opener for both teams -- clearly the Yanks needed some more pre-season games. As it turns out, the fact that the Yanks were playing on the same field that day goes a long way towards explaining why Van Brocklin was able to set that record.

We've written about Ted Collins' 1951 Yanks before. They went 1-9-2, finished last in points allowed and points differential, and were sold back to the NFL after the season (and purchased by Giles Miller's group and moved to Dallas). This was barely a professional football team, and they scored both of their touchdowns against the Rams on defense and special teams. They passed for a dismal 8 yards against Los Angeles on that Friday night, despite dropping back 41 times. In the rematch later in the season -- also in Los Angeles -- the Rams mercifully took the air out of ball, rushing 44 times for 371 yards and 6 touchdowns.

If you put Peyton Manning against a semi-pro team, he could surely throw for 560 yards if he wanted to. The question is, why would he want to? In the opener, the Rams were up 21-0 after the first quarter, and 34-0 in the first half. A punt return for a touchdown by the Yanks before half-time may have helped L.A. keep their foot on the gas; similarlly, a 30-yard fumble return score in the 4th quarter might have been the motivation Stydahar and Van Brocklin needed to keep passing. Still, 42 passes in a 40-point win seems a bit high, no? There have been only 9 games in league history where a team was up by at least 25 points at halftime and still threw over 40 times in the game. Two Belichick teams are on the list (the '09 curb stomping against the Titans and the Sunday Night masscare against the Bills in '07), and Brady had over 370 yards in both games and 11 combined touchdowns. Another came by the Bengals where they threw 40 times and ran 39 times, in a 38-7 win over the Vikings fueled by 7 Minnesota turnovers.

Another came by Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb, although McNabb threw 28 times for 303 yards and 5 touchdowns by half-time. Then we've got Marino against the Jets (when the margin was cut to 11 early in the 4th), Daryle Lamonica, when he threw 6 touchdowns in the first half against the Billas in 1969, Johnny Unitas against the 49ers in '67, and a blowout by the Eagles in 1954 when both Bobby Thomason and Adrian Burk played against the Cardinals. The 9th game? Van Brocklin's record-setting performance against the Yanks. I wasn't there, but we can safely assume that NVB padded the stats just a little bit. A New York Times report indirectly backs it up:

Van Brocklin almost made it six touchdown passes in the closing moments but Tommy Kalmanir was pulled down a yard short and Dan Towler punched it across. The Rams set a league record when they piled up 735 total yards, topping the old mark of 682 set by the Chicago Bears in 1943. Their 34 first downs beat by two their own record.

It's unclear how many times the Rams threw up by 33 in the 4th quarter against a team that hadn't scored a point on offense all day, but it's hard to see why the answer would be more than zero. Without a play-by-play listing of the game, it's tough to know exactly how many of Van Brocklin's 554 yards came in "garbage time," but it highlights a key reason why he still holds the record: teams don't pad their stats the way they used to.

In the '50s, if a team was throwing for 450 yards in a game, it was probably because the other team was really bad. Parity didn't exist 50 years ago, and the spreads between the great teams and the bad ones was enormous. Van Brocklin throwing for 554 against the Yanks was a "name your number" sort of game, similar to when the Florida Gators play the Citadel. Van Brocklin could have been pulled at half time (and perhaps would have if Bob Waterfield was healthy) and it would have had no impact on the game. Now, quarterbacks set passing records when they play "good" teams, not "bad" teams. A high-scoring shootout could produce a 500-yard game; but if your opponent isn't keeping pace, you're not going to keep throwing passes all game (unless your team keeps turning the ball over near the goal line). The stats back this up: take a look at the the history of 400-yard games over the last 70 years. The table below shows the number of games in each decade (lumping the 4 weeks so far this season with the '00s) with a 400-yard passing team, their number of attempts, their opponent's number of passing yards and attempts, and the points margin after the first, second, third and fourth quarters.

        Gms  Pyd   Att    OPyd  OAtt   Q1     Q2     Q3     Q4
2000s   59   432   48.1   246   32.7   0.0    0.8    0.2    1.1
1990s   37   432   49.0   259   35.3  -1.6   -1.1   -1.0    4.2
1980s   47   434   47.7   252   34.3  -3.0   -1.8   -2.2    2.5
1970s    4   454   38.0   174   26.0  -1.3    1.8   -1.5    3.5
1960s   25   432   40.2   209   32.2   4.4    9.5   12.0   17.5
1950s   10   437   40.4   132   33.4   5.4   13.3   24.6   26.6
1940s   10   436   38.7   202   31.7   1.0    9.3   12.5   18.8
       192   437   43.1   210   32.2   0.7    4.5    6.4   10.6

In the '40s and '50s, 400-yard games often came in blowouts; now they almost always occur during close games. Six of the 10 games from the '50s came when the 400-yard passing team was up by at least 14 points at halftime; of the five 400-yard passing games this season, three of them came with the big passing team down by at least 10 points at the break. In Van Brocklin's era, you put up huge numbers against terrible teams; now, quarterbacks put up huge numbers when they're forced to throw from behind.

So how does a modern passer throw for 555 yards? Clearly, they need to throw early and often. That can come from a great, accurate quarterback playing a team with a terrible pass defense and a high-scoring, high-octane offense (think this Drew Brees game against the Broncos in 2008); or if you don't allow a ton of points, be sure to turn the ball over a lot and have your linemen forget to block for your running backs (as in this Brian Griese performance against the Bears two years ago - and getting to overtime helps, too). The classic shootout is always nice: Ben Roethlisberger threw for over 500 yards in a 37-36 win over the Packers when Aaron Rodgers was similarly efficient for Green Bay, evoking memories of a Manning-Favre classic from '04 when both went over 350 passing yards. If you can get as many of the ideal factors below into one game, you're in good shape (great quarterback play, assumed):

  • Ineffective running game
  • Ineffective red zone play, by either settling for field goals, failing to convert on downs, or turning the ball over
  • A defense that gives up big plays, and an opposing offense that can move down the field quickly
  • An opposing defense that isn't very good, and is also prone to big plays (lots of completions and long drives drain the clock)
  • Overtime.

Get all of those factors into a game played by Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Schaub, Jay Cutler, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, or Kyle Orton, and NVB's record just might fall. Tom Brady threw for 345 yards and 5 TDs against the Titans in the first half of a game last season; he ended the day with 380 yards. If there's one thing you've learned from this post, it should be that the "name your number" days of football are over.

This entry was posted on Friday, October 8th, 2010 at 7:01 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.