Passing enough to make any of today's QBs blush

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 18, 2011 - 7:10 AM

As prolific as Drew Brees is, throwing for 554 yards like Norm Van Brocklin did 60 years ago is difficult to fathom.

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Norm Van Brocklin’s single-game passing yardage record has not been challenged in 60 years.

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You almost expect Drew Brees to show up for kickoff wearing a safari hat, khaki shorts, boots and an elephant gun slung over his shoulder.

This is, after all, a big-game hunter in a small quarterback's body. He doesn't pursue passing records as much as he stalks them like a man trying to bolster his trophy room wall with the heads of Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas and, who knows, perhaps even Norm Van Brocklin.

Norm Van Brocklin? Passing record?

Yep, Norm Van Brocklin. The Hall of Famer and Vikings head coach from 1961 to '66 set the single-game NFL record for passing yards on Sept. 28, 1951. So long ago that virtually nobody in the NFL seems to know the number -- 554 -- even exists.

"Wow," said Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. "Now that's a big number."

Sunday, Brees returns to the plastic-grass prairie of the Metrodome, where he mowed down defenseless Gophers more than a decade ago. In three starts against Glen Mason's Gophers, Brees led Purdue to three victories while completing 92 of 127 passes (72.4 percent) for 1,214 yards, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions.

As a junior, he threw for 522 yards and six touchdowns without playing the fourth quarter. Three days later, Mason engaged in some gallows humor when he said, "Drew's probably still icing his arm down."

Mason wouldn't be Brees' only aerial victim. Now in his 11th NFL season, the 32-year-old Brees has a Super Bowl ring, a growing number of passing records and no signs of slowing down any time soon.

Sunday should cause at least a twinge of deja vu for Brees as he looks around Mall of America Field and across the line of scrimmage at a decimated secondary that's given up 2,035 yards and 20 touchdowns since the team's last interception back in Week 5.

Trouble ahead?

So what in the world is in store for a Vikings team that let Tim Tebow throw for 179 yards on 6-for-9 passing in one half two weeks ago? A single-season record 11th 300-yard game from Brees seems a foregone conclusion. But what about 400 yards ... 500 ... 522?

Heck, what about 554, a number that no one at Winter Park recognized this week?

"No clue," said Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who holds the NFL's single-game rushing record (296). "554? I'm surprised it's still standing. You look around the NFL and see Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and some of the young guys like Cam Newton, I'm sure that record won't last long."

Vikings nose tackle Remi Ayodele, who won a Super Bowl as Brees' teammate two years ago, agrees.

"I just hope it's not this week, because when Drew is on, Drew is on," Ayodele said. "I'd be lying if I didn't say I was a little nervous that, dang, you know Tebow threw for so many yards against us and now we got Drew Brees coming to town."

No one, of course, actually expects the record to fall this week. After all, it has stood since Van Brocklin and the Rams' 54-14 season-opening victory over the New York Yanks at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Since then, only 10 quarterbacks have thrown for 500 yards in a game. But the last to do it came just 14 weeks ago when Brady threw for 517 in the Patriots' season-opening win over the Dolphins. Three have done it since 2006, including Brees, who threw for 510 yards in the Saints' 31-16 loss to the Bengals in 2006.

"I'm sure it will be broken," Brees said. "That's a lot of yards. But Tom Brady threw for what? I mean if he really wanted to break the record in that game, I'm sure he could have. But you do have to be in a pretty crazy game for that to happen."

Lopsided game

In Van Brocklin's case, it was the perfect storm, a game between a high-powered team that would win the NFL title that season and a Yanks team that would finish 1-9-2 and fold after the season.

Van Brocklin wasn't even the Rams' regular starting quarterback. He and Bob Waterfield split time in 1950, with Van Brocklin leading the league in passing and Waterfield ranking second.

When Waterfield was injured heading into the 1951 opener, Van Brocklin, the "Dutchman," got what would be one of only two starts that season. He made it count, completing 27 of 41 passes for 554 yards, five touchdowns, two interceptions and a 128.3 passer rating.

Van Brocklin averaged 20.5 yards per completion with touchdown passes of 67 yards to Vitamin Smith and 47, 41 and 26 yards to Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch. Meanwhile, the Rams also ran for 181 yards, giving them 735 yards of total offense, another record that still stands.

Football was mostly a run-oriented battle of muscle and determination between the tackles in 1951. But the Rams and Browns, who joined the NFL from the defunct All-America Football Conference in 1950, began to challenge that philosophy.

Articles printed about the game in which Van Brocklin set the passing record mention how the Yanks were baffled by the Rams' three-receiver formation, an unheard-of tactic at the time. Van Brocklin had never thrown for more than 297 yards before that game, but he ended up smashing former Bears quarterback Johnny Lujack's record of 468 yards set two years earlier.

Comeback stats

Of the 11 quarterbacks who have thrown for 500 yards, nine have done it since 1982. Five of the 11 have been the losing quarterback.

"Typically, from my experience, if you're coming close to that number nowadays, it's probably not a good thing," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "You're probably in more of a comeback mode."

Despite today's wide-open passing attacks, Lions coach Jim Schwartz doesn't envision the record being broken.

"Games are only 60 minutes, so you need a lot of big plays," Schwartz said. "And it's a lot harder to get big plays in the NFL today, with the Cover-2 defenses and more defensive backs on the field.

"It's just a lot harder to get those really, really big chunks. You might get one or two in a game nowadays. Plus, it's important to throw the ball in the NFL, but you want to be efficient throwing the ball. You want to score, so it really doesn't matter what you throw for."

Vikings cornerback Benny Sapp believes the record will fall. Soon. Sapp speaks from the experience of having been released by the Dolphins immediately after Brady threw for 517 yards. Sapp's missed tackle led to a 99-yard touchdown by Wes Welker.

"I'm surprised it's only 554," Sapp said. "This is an offensive game. It's built for those guys. It's kind of like D-backs are already at a disadvantage, yet every year, the league comes up with a different rule to favor the offense."

Record pace

Brees has bagged or is stalking some of the top passing records in NFL history. Two years ago, he completed 70.6 percent of his passes to break the record set by Ken Anderson (70.55) in 1982. This year, he's completing 70.9 percent with 4,368 yards and needs to average only 239 yards over the next three games to break the single-season mark of 5,084 set by Marino in 1984.

And, oh yeah, his streak of 40 games with a touchdown pass has moved him within seven games of matching Unitas' NFL record. It's considered the NFL's version of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak record, and Unitas set the 47-game mark from 1956 to 1960. No other quarterback had done that in 40 consecutive games until Brees reached that milestone last week.

Brees wasn't even aware of the Dutchman's record when asked about it on Wednesday. The Vikings might wish he hadn't been informed of the record before Sunday's game.

"Obviously, there's a reason it has stood for so long," Brees said. "But, hey, records are made to be broken."

  • VIKINGS VS. NEW ORLEANS

    Noon at Mall of America Field

    TV: Ch. 9 (100.3-FM) • Saints by 7

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