There may have been some outstanding passing performances during the first week of the 2020 season but no one has ever had a better opening day than Norm Van Brocklin. Even in an era when most passing records are being set, broken and then broken again, what “The Dutchman” did on September 28, 1951 still hasn’t been touched. He’s a Hall of Famer, but it’s worth owning at least one of his football cards for that day alone.
Or rather, that night alone.
Van Brocklin had been drafted by the Los Angeles Rams a couple of years earlier, despite the presence of veteran Bob Waterfield. The two would split the duties for much of their time together, but an injury to Waterfield opened the door for Van Brocklin to set a single-game NFL passing record that still stands. It’s not just the Week 1 record, it’s still the all-time mark.
The L.A. Coliseum wasn’t even half full on Friday night when Van Brocklin took advantage of the opportunity by producing the most prolific passing performance in NFL history. He threw for 554 yards and five touchdowns in a 54-14. The yardage mark came on only 27 completions.
“It’s the finest exhibition of passing I’ve ever seen,” said Rams coach Jimmy Phelan after the game. “Van Brocklin was hitting them in the eye practically every time he threw the ball.”
Van Brocklin, who passed away in 1983, remained subdued about the performance. “Everything I threw seemed to be caught and run for a long gain,” he said.
In all, the Rams ran up 735 yards in total offense.
It was a 21st century performance midway through the 20th century, when the run was still the dominant form of offense.
Van Brocklin’s record has stood for the past 69 years but has had some challengers. Matt Schaub and Warren Moon have come the closest to breaking it. In 2012, Schaub, then with the Houston Texans, passed for 527 yards against Jacksonville on November 18, while Moon had a 527-yard day for the Houston Oilers against Kansas City on December 16, 1990. The closest to Van Brocklin’s Week 1 record is Tom Brady, who threw for 517 yards when the Patriots kicked off the 2011 season. Brady is the only player in league history to have two 500-yard games, the other coming in Super Bowl LII.
Remarkably, Van Brocklin’s big day didn’t earn him the Rams’ outright starting job. He’d continue to split time with Waterfield for the rest of the season as the Rams captured the 1951 NFL Championship.
Fortuitously, Van Brocklin’s rookie card arrived that season in the 1951 Bowman football set. As a key card in what was just the second full-color post-War issue, it’s a great one to own for a number of reasons. Better copies start at $175 or so but can go much higher.
Van Brocklin continued to appear in Bowman’s sets until the company went out of business after the 1955 season. His 1952 Bowman Large is a single print and as such, is his most expensive card. His ’54 and ’55 Bowman cards can often be acquired in nice condition for under $30.
He also has inexpensive cardboard in the 1956 and ’57 Topps sets, but a retirement announcement after the ’57 season probably caused Topps to pull him out of plans for their ’58 set. In fact, Van Brocklin would disappear completely from the company’s products after that, even following his move to Philadelphia where he’d win a championship with the Eagles in 1960. The 1960 Topps Eagles team set doesn’t include a quarterback.
Van Brocklin then went into coaching and appears on the Minnesota Vikings team cards in the 1965 and ’65 Philadelphia Football sets.
He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1971 and died of a heart attack in 1983 at age 57.