Five weeks ago Norm Van Brocklin ranked up there with William Tecumseh Sherman in the esteem of most Atlantans—although his Falcons were a long way from marching through anything, particularly the National Football League. In fact, after overpowering New Orleans 62-7 in the season opener, they lost three games in a row without scoring a touchdown.
Van Brocklin, who had decided on his quarterback more by default than logic, was determined to prove that journeyman Dick Shiner could win for the Falcons, although he had never won consistently for any other team. The Dutchman was rescued from his mulishness in the fourth game of the season, when Shiner was injured playing against San Francisco, and Van Brocklin called on Bob Lee (no kin to Robert E., alas), whom he had picked up from Minnesota. Lee rallied the club from a 10-0 deficit to a 13-9 loss; since then, he has led the Falcons to five wins in a row, the most recent being last Sunday's 44-27 conquest of a surprisingly good Philadelphia Eagle team.
"The season turned around when Lee took over," Van Brocklin admitted after the game. "I guess the quality he has that Shiner and Pat Sullivan [the Heisman Trophy winner who disappointed the Dutchman in the preseason] lacked is winning. And experience. Lee was a winner when he played at Minnesota and he's a winner now."
Lee is an unlikely looking winner. Although he's listed at 6'2" and 201, he seems extraordinarily scrawny. He is lean from his ankles up, with a small birdlike head perched on a slim neck, and a freckled face dominated by a beaked nose. But he is an accurate passer and agile at eluding the pass rush; he doesn't have to be an acute play selector since Van Brocklin sends in the calls via messenger guards. Lee has another quality essential to all winning quarterbacks—a very strong sense of his own competence.
In the dressing room after the Eagle game he coolly answered the questions of a knot of writers, reversing a role he played as a teen-ager when he interviewed players for his father, a wire-service reporter. Lee was tucking himself into a spectacular shirt striped vertically in red and two shades of blue, and a blue denim suit. He has a thick shock of reddish-gold hair that falls over his eyes, and his face is a reddish tan. The explosion of color is oddly at variance with his quiet, measured voice.
Someone asked him if the team's sudden success was due to his taking over at quarterback. "You are asking me to evaluate myself," he said seriously. "I can't do that. I suggest that you ask that question of the other players." He thought about that for a moment and appeared to grow irritated. "What do you want me to say? If you want me to say it's because I'm the best quarterback, I think I am."
It would be difficult to quarrel with that estimate. Lee had not been at his best against the Eagles, which he freely admitted. "I wasn't as sharp as I have been," he said. "We came off two very emotional games, and it was hard to keep a peak this week. But we won, and that's what counts."
Van Brocklin said the same thing. "It wasn't artistic, but it was a win. The Eagles are a heck of a club. They score a lot, so we had to score a lot. We went four games this year without scoring a touchdown. So we went for five today. And Lee is a winner. I told you that."
The Eagles, under Mike McCormack, their new head coach, are an exciting team, a true test for any club. They have exceptional offensive personnel, and Roman Gabriel, the quarterback who cost them two players, two first-draft choices and a third, appears to be worth it.
"He's got a new lease on life since he left Fairyland," said Van Brocklin. Fairyland to the Dutchman is Los Angeles, where he spent most of his time as a player. "He stabilizes the club," Van Brocklin went on, "and he's got some great receivers to throw to in Charles Young and Harold Carmichael. That Carmichael's a great athlete. He can eat apples off the tree without using his hands." Carmichael is 6'8", and he caught six passes for 105 yards and a touchdown against Atlanta, which has the NFC's best pass defense.