May 26, 2014

1958: Eagles Obtain Norm Van Brocklin from Rams

On May 26, 1958 the Philadelphia Eagles traded OT Buck Lansford, DB Jimmy Harris, and a 1959 first round draft pick to the Los Angeles Rams for QB Norm Van Brocklin. According to Philadelphia GM Vince McNally, the deal had been in the works for some three months and at least two other teams were in the bidding.

The Eagles were coming off of three straight losing seasons, including a 4-8 record in 1957, and had a new head coach in Buck Shaw. QB Bobby Thomason had retired, and while rookie Sonny Jurgensen showed his potential in limited action, Shaw wanted to add an experienced quarterback.

The 32-year-old Van Brocklin had been with the Rams for nine seasons and was widely considered to be the best pure passer in the NFL. Drafted in the fourth round in 1949, his strong and accurate arm, combined with a quick release, made him one of the league’s most productive quarterbacks. He split time with Bob Waterfield through 1953, an arrangement neither player liked but that also helped make the LA offense one of the NFL’s most potent.

Van Brocklin led the league in passing three times, yards per attempts on four occasions, yards per catch twice, and completion percentage and passing yards one time apiece. He threw a 73-yard touchdown bomb to end Tom Fears that won the 1951 NFL Championship game and set a still-standing record for passing yards in a game with 554 against the New York Yanks, also in ‘51. In addition, Van Brocklin was an outstanding punter and led the league in that category in 1955.

The player known as “The Dutchman” had his detractors, to be sure, especially with regard to his lack of mobility. He was also volatile and acerbic, and locked horns with intense Head Coach Sid Gillman, especially when Gillman insisted in calling the plays and had Van Brocklin once again splitting time, in this case with Bill Wade, who was drafted out of Vanderbilt in 1954. A poor six-interception performance in the 1955 title game against the Browns did not help matters between star quarterback and head coach, and Van Brocklin believed that Gillman lost confidence in him as a result. In any event, things came to a head when Van Brocklin announced that he would retire following the ’57 season rather than continue to play under Gillman, forcing a trade.

The Eagles were not a team that “The Dutchman” wished to play for, but he later insisted that he had received assurances that he would succeed the 59-year-old Shaw as head coach if he came to Philadelphia. The Eagles went just 2-9-1 in 1958, but Van Brocklin led the NFL in pass attempts (374) and completions (198) while throwing for 2409 yards and 15 touchdowns. He was chosen to the Pro Bowl. He also showed a gift for developing talent as he helped hone the skills of second-year end Tommy McDonald and Pete Retzlaff, a converted reserve halfback who, as an offensive end, broke out to co-lead the NFL with 56 pass receptions.

The team improved to 7-5 in 1959, with Van Brocklin again receiving Pro Bowl recognition while throwing for 2617 yards and 16 TDs, and it set the stage for a MVP season in ’60. The overachieving Eagles went 10-2 to top the Eastern Conference and then defeated the Packers for the NFL Championship. “The Dutchman” passed for 2471 yards and a career-high 24 touchdowns while averaging 8.7 yards per attempt, adding 204 yards and a TD in the title game triumph. Moreover, his determined leadership was viewed as essential to the team’s overall success.

Both Coach Shaw and Van Brocklin retired following the 1960 triumph, and bitterness ensued. The Philadelphia front office balked at replacing Shaw with the strong-willed Van Brocklin. Trying to get him to come back as a player, they offered him a chance to be player/coach, which he disdainfully rejected (he was quoted as saying derisively “that sort of thing went out with Johnny Blood!”). When Nick Skorich was elevated to the position, Van Brocklin was hired to be the first head coach of the expansion Minnesota Vikings. While the relationship between the team and the star quarterback ended on a sour note, it also paid off over the course of three years, culminating in a NFL title.

With regard to the players that the Rams received for Van Brocklin, Buck Lansford was the most accomplished. The 6’2”, 232-pound lineman had been a second-round draft pick by the Eagles out of Texas in 1955 and was selected to the Pro Bowl in ’56. Capable of playing both at tackle and guard, he moved into the starting lineup for the Rams and lasted three seasons.

Jimmy Harris was a rookie in 1957, drafted out of Oklahoma by the Eagles in the fifth round. Playing at safety in ’57, he intercepted three passes, one of which he returned for a TD, and he went on to start at defensive halfback for the Rams, although he was gone after one year.

The 1959 first draft choice ultimately yielded the highest return. It was used to take FB Dick Bass from the College of the Pacific, who went on to a productive ten-year career in which he became the first Ram to rush for a thousand yards in a season (1033 in 1962). He retired as the leading rusher in franchise history at the time, with 5417 yards.

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