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The Best Eagles I Never Saw: Norm Van Brocklin

A complex career for a complex character.

Norm Van Brocklin had the greatest individual season any Eagle has ever had, but that only tells part of his story.

Norm "the Dutchman" Van Brocklin came to the NFL after a standout career at the University of Oregon, finishing sixth in the Heisman voting and being named an All American after his junior season. He left for the NFL early and was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the fourth round of the 1949 draft, falling after teams were unsure he was even eligible. There was a huge dilemma for Van Brocklin and the Rams though: Los Angeles already had a star QB in his prime, Bob Waterfield. Waterfield won the won the championship and league MVP as a rookie in 1945, and in in 1949 with Van Brocklin on the bench behind him, had his third All Pro season.

In 1950, new coach Joe Stydahar decided to platoon his quarterbacks, alternating them every quarter regardless of score or performance. Neither was particularly happy about it, but both realized that the other was extremely talented and so lived with it. For the most part, it didn’t matter who was playing, the results were spectacular. The Rams put up 38.8 points per game in 1950, a record that still stands. In half of their games they scored over 40 points, including back to back 70 and 65 point outings. But the defense couldn’t hold up its end of the bargain, finishing 9th and 10th in scoring and yards against, the Rams went 9-3 and lost the title game to the Browns 30-28. Despite throwing more passes and being more efficient than Waterfield in the regular season, Van Brocklin threw only one attempt, Waterfield threw four interceptions. Stydahar stuck with the veteran Waterfield because he was more coachable, whereas Van Brocklin wouldn’t hesitate to call an audible and he was much more of a gunslinger. Styles of play weren’t the only way the two were opposites. Waterfield was one of the league’s brightest stars, crossing his playing career over to the silver screen, appearing in three movies and marrying Jane Waterfield while in college at UCLA. Van Brocklin on the other hand was a polarizing figure to all who encountered him. Loved by some teammates, he was despised by others who found him abrasive and short tempered. But even those who hated him greatly respected his ability, which allowed him to be a strong leader. Off the field he could charm women and anger men, be warm to children and surly to their parents, and be a mentor to teammates or a berating brute.

In 1951 Stydahar kept the platoon system, even after Van Brocklin, finally playing a full game due to an injury to Waterfield, threw for 554 yards in a 54-14 opening day drubbing of the New York Yanks, a record that still stands. The Rams again faced the Browns in the title game, and Van Brocklin was still regulated to the clear second string for that game, though he did throw the only touchdown pass of the game, a game-winning 73 yard strike to Tom Fears as the Rams won 24-17.

Waterfield retired after the 1952 season, giving Van Brocklin the outright starting job. As the full time QB, the Dutchman firmly established himself as one of the top passers in the league. He led the league in passing yards in 1954, and after reaching three straight Pro Bowls while splitting time with Waterfield, reached three more without him. In 1955 the Rams faced the Browns in a third title game, and Van Brocklin played terribly. He threw six interceptions as the Browns won 38-14.

After the 1957 season, Van Brocklin retired. He then unretired and requested a trade to "anywhere but Pittsburgh and Philadelphia". So of course that’s exactly where he wound up. New Eagles coach Buck Shaw was turning over a terrible Eagles team and wanted Van Brocklin to run his offense, offering full playcalling control. Instead Van Brocklin threatened to stay retired. To smooth things over, Van Brocklin claims that Eagles ownership and he made a pact, overseen by NFL commissioner and former Eagles owner Bert Bell, that Van Brocklin would be named Shaw’s successor when Shaw, who only wished to coach for a few more years, retired.

Under Van Brocklin, the Eagles took off. The 1957 team had the worst offense in the league, finishing next to last in points scored and last in yards. In 1958 the team made modest improvements in those areas, to tenth in scoring and seventh in yards, but more importantly had two breakout receivers. Shaw saw pass catching potential in Tommy MacDonald, who had no defined position in 1957; and Van Brocklin saw excellent route running in running back Pete Retzlaff, after combining for 19 catches in 1957, the duo had 85 receptions. Van Brocklin was also a pretty good punter, for the final ten years of his twelve year career he was his teams punter and finished top five in average punt length six times. 1959 saw the Eagles offense become a top 5 unit and the team post its' first winning record in five years, highlighted by coming back from a 24-0 deficit against the Cardinals to win 28-24 thanks to two Van Brocklin touchdowns. This season set the table for Van Brocklin’s greatest season, 1960.

The Eagles finished the season with the league’s best record, 10-2. Van Brocklin finished second in the league in TD passes, passing yards and passer rating; leading the Eagles to six come from behind victories. The Eagles couldn’t run the ball, finishing last in the league in yards per carry and total yards. The defense had some excellent players in Chuck Bednarik, Tom Brookshier and Maxie Baughan and Marion Campbell but overall they struggled, finishing seventh in points against and ninth in yards against. To win, the offense had to flow through Van Brocklin. After a 41-24 loss on opening day to the Browns, the Eagles went on their eight game winning streak, clinching the Eastern division title and winning the rematch against the Browns 31-29 on the strength of Van Brocklin’s three touchdowns. During the eight game winning streak the Eagles trailed in the fourth quarter five times. Van Brocklin threw a game winning touchdown pass against the Cardinals, led a game winning field goal drive against the Browns, both the last scores of the game and against the Giants and Redskins gave the team the lead in the fourth quarter before tacking on more points. In nine games he threw multiple touchdowns, demonstrating his gunslinger mentality he threw multiple interceptions in six games. But most importantly, with no running game and a poor defense, he won.

But Van Brocklin already knew what regular season success was like. To truly cement his place among the greats he needed a championship that wasn’t shared with Waterfield, something he failed miserably at in his only previous chance. On his first attempt of the game, his second attempt to win a title started off just as poorly as before. Van Brocklin threw a screen pass to running back Billy Ray Barnes on the opening play of the game, but the ball deflected off Barnes’ hands and directly into the hands of Packers defender Bill Quinlan, who was immediately tackled at the 14 yard line. The Eagles defense held the Packers to just three points. Van Brocklin had another near interception when a swing pass intended for Ted Dean was blocked by Willie Davis, but it deflected back to Van Brocklin, who threw--illegally, it was a second forward pass--incomplete. Green Bay would tack on another field goal early in the 2nd quarter to take a 6-0 before Van Brocklin led the Eagles on a touchdown drive, highlight by a 22 yard pass to McDonald and a 35 yard touchdown pass to him as well. On the next drive Van Brocklin hit Retzlaff for 41 yards to set up a field goal and extend the Eagles lead to 10-6. With a chance to take an 11 point lead, Van Brocklin threw an interception in the end zone. The Packers would regain the lead off of a Max McGee touchdown reception, but the Eagles and Van Brocklin responded with a touchdown drive of their own to make it 17-13. Green Bay had the ball to end the game but the defense held on and the Eagles won their third championship in team history. Van Brocklin didn’t have a great game as a passer, but he ran the offense that gave Vince Lombardi his only loss in the playoffs to give himself the solo championship that cemented his greatness.

For his performance that season both as a passer and the leader of the Eagles offense, Van Brocklin was named MVP. Giants star Sam Huff said that without him the Eagles "would have been lucky to break even." Van Brocklin retired after the game, saying he "never wanted to see [his] damn [jersey] again." At 34 he felt that football was a young man’s game and that it just wasn’t the same for him.

His sentiment would prove correct in his coaching career. After the season Buck Shaw retired, and Van Brocklin assumed his verbal agreement with the Eagles to replace him was still in place. But Burt Bell passed away in 1959 and without him or anything in writing to verify, Van Brocklin was left out in the cold. The team offered him the job if he would stay on as a player/coach, Van Brocklin refused The Eagles then hired Nick Skorich, so the Dutchman took the expansion Vikings coaching job. Skorich would last only three seasons, going 10-4 in his first year then winning five games combined in his next two. Van Brocklin did no better, as a head coach he was in over his head. In six seasons in Minnesota he went 29-51-4, in 1968 the Falcons hired him to coach their expansion team, and he went 37-49-3 and was fired during his seventh season. As a coach the qualities that made him a great player didn’t apply, but the qualities that made him despised by some of his teammates made him hated by practically all his players. The intensity that drove him to success on the field made him a tyrant on the sidelines. NFL Films has multiple games of Van Brocklin wired up during both his coaching tenures constantly losing his temper and verbally abusing players and refs. In the midst of a 2-6 start in 1974, a reporter asked him if he was still the fighter he said he was at the beginning of the year. Van Brocklin’s response was to challenge the writer to a fight. The next day he was fired, he never coached again.

Despite his infamous foul temper, he could be incredibly gentle and generous. For as crude as he could be to adults, he had a giant soft spot for children. While with the Eagles he raised money for the widow of a sportswriter and in 1959 Eagles trainer Tim Dowd died and Van Brocklin became a surrogate father for his children. After being fired by the Falcons he retired to rural Georgia, his neighbors were killed in a car accident leaving behind three children, the oldest was eight years old. Van Brocklin adopted them because he did not want them to be orphans.

Norm Van Brocklin's Eagles career was almost as short as his temper, but its impact was immense. He launched the careers of Eagles greats and turned a losing team into a champion. He wasn't the quarterback in team history or even the greatest Eagle on his team. But he was as important a player as any who wore an Eagles uniform.


More of "The Best Eagles I Never Saw"

Bill Hewitt, the Eagles' First Star Player

Pete Retzlaff, One of the Best Pass Catchers in Franchise History

Tommy Thompson, A Forgotten Title Winner

Norm Willey, Sack Master

Al Wistert, Hall Of Fame Snub

Tom Brookshier, A Legend On and Off the Field

Timmy Brown, Jack of All Trades

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