- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 2004

In baseball they’re OD-ing on “flaxseed oil” so they can hit 73 homers, but in football they’re taking quarterbacks out of the game so records won’t be broken. Figure that one out.

I refer to Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb, who the last two weeks have flirted with some serious history. On Thanksgiving against the Lions, Manning threw six touchdown passes in less than three quarters — one shy of the all-time mark — only to be “rested” the final 17 minutes by Colts coach Tony Dungy. Then, this past Sunday against the Packers, McNabb had 464 yards passing with 11:16 left — just 90 short of a record that has stood for 53 years — only to be “rested” the rest of the way by Eagles coach Andy Reid.

Funny, isn’t it? Sportswriters level forests bemoaning the decline of civility in sports — the taunting, the trash-talking, the self-celebration and all the rest — and yet here we have two instances, prominent ones, of just the opposite, of coaches being way ahead in games and calling off the dogs, even with their QBs knock, knock, knockin’ on destiny’s door.

Of course, football is different from other sports, especially for quarterbacks. There’s a much higher likelihood that a participant will need smelling salts, possibly even a priest. And if a team has more important battles to fight — as the Colts and Eagles assuredly do — it’s foolish to expose the most important player on the offense to needless harm.

That said, everybody likes to see records broken, if not atomized. “Citius, Altius, Fortius” — faster, higher, stronger — isn’t just the motto of the Olympics, it’s the byword of all athletics. And really, how many things are more fun than a “live look-in” of, say, Pete Rose trying to chase down Joe DiMaggio? Thanks to the wonders of technology, we’re able to experience such joys all the time.

Indeed, we’ve become junkies of sorts, addicted to assaults on the record book — so much so that we feel deprived when Manning and McNabb are denied their chance at (temporary) immortality. And the players, no doubt, feel the same sense of loss. As McNabb put it Sunday, “When you’re in a game like that, you never want to stop, and you just keep hoping the next play is a pass play.”

It makes you realize how hard it is to break certain records, particularly single-game passing records in the NFL. The single-game rushing mark, you’ll note, has been eclipsed twice in recent years — first by Corey Dillon in 2000 (with 278 yards), then by Jamal Lewis last season (with 295). But it’s easier to keep giving the ball to a running back, even when you’ve got a big lead, because, after all, you’re just running out the clock. But if you keep passing when you’ve got a big lead, you open yourself up to charges of poor sportsmanship — of rubbing it in, of making the other team look bad.

Which might explain why no quarterback has had seven touchdown passes in a game since 1969 — even with the advent of overtime — and why no QB has topped Norm Van Brocklin’s record, set in the Rams’ ‘51 season opener, of 554 yards passing in a game. The right combination of circumstances just hasn’t come up.

By “right combination of circumstances,” I don’t just mean a hot quarterback crossing paths with a sieve-like secondary. That happens almost weekly. No, for one of these records to topple, you’d also need a relatively close game — either that or a come-from-behind scenario — so the QB could keep firing until the very end. The final score in Manning’s game was 41-9; in McNabb’s it was 47-17.

Then again, maybe you just need the right coach. Van Brocklin’s boss was Joe Stydahar, a former Bears lineman and a graduate of the No Mercy School. Stydahar had no qualms about pulverizing his opponents. In 1950, his Rams hung 70 points on the Baltimore Colts not once but twice — 70-21 in the preseason, 70-27 in the regular season. In the first game, the Rams were still throwing in the closing seconds and scored another TD that would have made it 77, but a penalty nullified the play.

“Sure, we poured it on,” “Jumbo” Joe said afterward. “I wish we could have beaten them by 100 points.”

The next year, when Van Brocklin was racking up his 554 yards against the New York Yanks — a mark that has withstood the test of time and Dan Marino — Stydahar didn’t think twice about leaving his starter in there. The game, after all, was a white-knuckler, a 54-14 squeaker.

Perhaps another Joe Stydahar will come along, a coach untroubled by conscience — and blessed with a Hall of Fame quarterback. That might be the only way we get to see seven touchdown passes or 555 passing yards in a game. Records, they say, are made to be broken, but these two have proven strangely enduring.

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