September 28, 2010

1951: Norm Van Brocklin Passes for 554 Yards vs. NY Yanks

The high-powered Los Angeles Rams offense of the early 1950s was capable of big performances. In 1950, they scored over 50 points in three games that included a 70-27 thrashing of the Baltimore Colts, newly arrived from the AAFC, and 65-24 pounding of the Detroit Lions a week later. Not surprisingly, they ran up a record 466 points in ’50 and nearly won the NFL championship. While at it, they set another standard with 5420 total yards.

As one would expect, Head Coach Joe Stydahar’s offense was loaded with outstanding players. The quarterbacking was split between two future Hall of Famers, Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin. The stable of running backs included power-running fullbacks Dick Hoerner and Dan Towler and speedy halfbacks Glenn Davis, the former Heisman Trophy winner out of Army, and Verda “Vitamin” Smith. Ends Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch and Tom Fears provided a Hall of Fame tandem for the Canton-bound passers to throw to.

On September 28, 1951 the Rams opened a new season against the New York Yanks at the Memorial Coliseum. With Waterfield sidelined by a knee injury, Van Brocklin had an opportunity to play the entire game and made the most of it.

The Yanks, a third-year franchise coached by Jimmy Phelan that played at Yankee Stadium (and paid a $25,000 annual fee for the right to play in the Giants’ territory), had been a respectable 7-5 in 1950. However, QB George Ratterman left the club to play in Canada and the suspect defense of ’50 had further degraded.

There were 30,316 fans on hand for the Friday night game, and they saw a record-setting offensive display. LA was up 21-0 after the first quarter as Van Brocklin threw touchdown passes of 41 yards to Hirsch and 67 yards to Smith. In between, Hoerner ran for a 22-yard TD. The Dutchman connected with Hirsch for a 47-yard touchdown in the second quarter, after he had already scored on a quarterback sneak, and the Rams were comfortably in front at halftime by a 34-7 margin.

The final score was 54-14. The Rams set new team single-game marks with 735 yards and 34 first downs. By contrast, the Yanks managed just 111 yards and 13 first downs, with only 8 net passing yards as a result of losing 55 yards on six sacks by the Rams defense.

The Dutchman completed 27 of 41 passes for 554 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions. Four of Van Brocklin’s touchdown passes were to Hirsch (pictured at left), who had a total of 9 receptions for 173 yards. Tom Fears had 7 receptions for 162 yards and Vitamin Smith gained 103 yards on just two catches that included a 67-yard TD. The 554 yards broke the record set by Johnny Lujack of the Bears with 468 yards in a 1949 contest.

Most of New York’s offense came from punt returns by halfbacks Buddy Young and George Taliaferro, with Young returning one in the second quarter for a 79-yard touchdown. The only other score the Yanks managed was on a 30-yard interception return by DE Art Tait in the fourth quarter. Any chance for the offense to make something happen ended when QB John Rauch was ejected for fighting late in the second quarter. They ended up punting 14 times.

The Rams again went on to place first in the National Conference, this time with an 8-4 tally, and succeeded in defeating the Browns for the NFL title. While they didn’t reach their record scoring total of 1950, their 392 points still ranked at the top of the league and they did exceed their total yardage mark with 5506. The Yanks suffered through a 1-9-2 season to finish at the bottom of the National Conference and folded (remnants of the club, including Buddy Young and George Taliaferro, became part of the Dallas Texans franchise in 1952).

Van Brocklin’s single-game passing record continues to hold up, despite the development of the passing game in the years since. Warren Moon’s 527 yards for Houston against Kansas City in a 1990 contest has, to date, been the closest that any quarterback has come to The Dutchman’s performance.

For the 1951 season, Van Brocklin finished behind his teammate Waterfield in the passing statistics (based on yards per attempt, the edge was a very narrow 8.898 to 8.892. By the modern rating system, Waterfield’s edge was 81.8 to 80.8). As a team, the Rams topped the NFL in passing yards (3199) with Van Brocklin throwing for 1725 and Waterfield 1566.

“Crazylegs” Hirsch built upon his outstanding performance in the opening game to lead the league with 66 pass receptions and set then-NFL records in receiving yards (1495 – a full 669 yards more than runner-up Gordie Soltau of the 49ers) and touchdown receptions (17). The yardage record lasted ten years and the touchdown record for 33.