The most bizarre rookie quarterback in NFL history
By Thomas Willoughby
The first weekend of the new NFL season feels like a holiday all of its own. Not, like Christmas Day, but the period in time. As you walk down the road, slowly more and more decorations start to appear each day, until you’re hit by the realisation that there’s only a week until the big day, and you’ve not bought anyone a single thing. Or, to be more apt, you’ve not renewed GamePass yet.
There’s so much to be excited for when the new NFL season rolls around. You’ve new head coaches and regimes looking to get off to the best possible start. You’ve superstar playmakers on both sides of the ball trying to further their legacy. And you’ve the next generation of franchise quarterbacks, fresh out of college, looking to get their foot on the ladder as securely as possible.
As Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, and Justin Fields, get ready for the first weekend of (hopefully) the rest of their careers, you can’t help but get excited. Nothing fires up a franchise like a rookie QB, and the potential to turn a team around singlehandedly allows fans to get carried away. But there’s a case of a quarterback stepping into the league for the first time in their lives under truly strange circumstances. It’s a story of one team’s struggle for consistency from the position, a city scorned by false idols previously, and a man only a few plays away from becoming a legend. This is the most bizarre rookie quarterback in NFL history.
Alabama Born, Auburn Bred
Our stories begin, as all great stories do, in 1974. The Miami Dolphins had bested the Minnesota Vikings 24-7 to become only the second side to secure back-to-back Super Bowl victories. Liverpool had traveled to Wembley Stadium to face Newcastle United in the FA Cup final, and emerged victorious. And little-known indie rock band, Queen, were gearing up to release their third album, Sheer Heart Attack, which would propel them into the stratosphere. The world was right.
Among the hustle and bustle, a young man has just graduated from Auburn. Hailing from Birmingham, Alabama, the man dabbled in football, playing quarterback, and being pretty successful, too. Unfortunately for him, the NFL didn’t come knocking. Not to be deterred, he looked north, and opted for a one-year contract with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, in the CFL. He spent his first season primarily as a back up, before taking the reigns full time in 1975. And he never looked back.
Over a 9 year stint with the Blue Bombers, the man they affectionately nicknamed “The Birmingham Rifle”, in honour of his cannon of an arm, became a mainstay in the CFL. Voted the league’s “Most Outstanding Player” in 1980 and 1981, he’d truly cemented himself as one of Canadian football’s most exciting players. Age began to creep into the conversation, however, and, in 1983, the Blue Bombers opted to trade him to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in exchange for Tom Clements, who’d only recently endured a failed stint with the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Tiger-Cats, however, were excellent. In 1984, The Birmingham Rifle led the Tiger-Cats right to the Grey Cup Championship Game. Opposite them, none other than the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Despite their best efforts, they simply couldn’t overcome the all-conquering Bombers.
And with that, he opted to call time on his CFL career. Without a Grey Cup to his name, an excellent career couldn’t truly be celebrated. But that wasn’t the end of the road for the man from Birmingham, Alabama. In 1985, at the age of 34 years old, he got a call. A team is looking for a quarterback, and they’re pretty good, too. They thought he could be the man to steady the ship at the position, and put them in the Lombardi conversation. Without hesitation, Dieter Brock headed south, with the NFL in his sights.
The City Of Angels
In 1985, the Los Angeles Rams were an odd side. They had some extremely talented players (look no further than Eric Dickerson, for proof of that), but they were never really able to put it all together. In ‘84, their season stalled in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs at the Giants. In ‘83, they were blown out by Washington 51-7 in the divisional round. It smacked of a side with an incredibly high ceiling, but a pretty low floor all said.
It certainly didn’t help that they’d opted for a fluid quarterback system. Depending on how things were going, either Jeff Kemp or Vince Ferragamo would take to the field, and the results spoke for themselves. It worked, but it wasn’t sustainable. What they needed was someone reliable, who knew how to win games, and had to arm talent to really unlock the potential in the explosive players in LA. A legend in the Canadian game was too intriguing to pass up.
Moving on from Ferragamo, the Rams got in contact with someone they’d heard could throw a football the length of a field three times over. That man, as it turned out, was actually 34 years old. Undeterred, they brought him in for a trial, to see if the myth was as real as they heard. They signed him the same day. Dieter Brock, 11 years removed from graduating, was an NFL quarterback. And no one knew how to handle him.
The Rookie Sensation
The thing about the 80s is that, while technology wasn’t pre-historic, it was nowhere near the level you find in the modern-day. If you start hearing rumblings of a QB in the Canadian Football League who has the arm power of five men, you bet someone has a stream somewhere so you can see for yourself. In 1985, however? Not so easy. I guess VHS tapes existed, but then you’re relying on someone somehow getting their hands on one. Could you look at the college tape? Yes, but that tape is now over 11 years old. You’re going in blind. That was the issue NFL teams had when facing Dieter Brock’s Rams in 1985.
Despite Eric Dickerson holding out for the early parts of the season, the Rams jumped to a 7-0 start with Brock at the helm. The fact that it took Ben Roethlisberger in 2004 to break the record for most consecutive rookie QB wins kind of says it all. No, they weren’t dominant. But during that stretch, only 2 games were decided by a touchdown or less. Through the first half of the season, the Rams went 7-1. Brock himself was named NFC Offensive Rookie of the Week in week 4, for his two-touchdown effort. The Rams looked legitimate.
Things began to go awry right around the halfway point. Back to back defeats on the road to the Giants and Falcons, as well as a 29-3 dismantling in New Orleans 2 weeks later, threatened to derail the Rams. They managed to compose themselves enough to pull together another playoff appearance, however. 11-5, and NFC West champions. For Dieter Brock, the NFL seemed to be fairly straightforward. The Birmingham Rifle wasn’t perfect, of course. No rookie, not even a 34 year old one, is. Brock ended the season as the Rams all-time rookie leader in passing yards, touchdowns, and passer rating, with 2,658, 16, and 81.8 for each of those categories. It’s worth mentioning that those records have been reset in the modern era.
Brock and his band of all-stars marched into the playoffs, and, off the back of a first round bye, slammed the Cowboys 20-0. Brock kept the offense ticking, but Eric Dickerson was the star of the show that afternoon. Nevertheless, the old rookie had managed something none of his predecessors had managed in the years before him; a trip to the NFC Championship game. The 1985 Rams were confident there wasn’t a team in the conference who could hang with them. They were a game away from the big dance.
The problem with the 1985 NFL season is, to this day, it’s remembered for one team, and one team only. Unfortunately for our hero, Dieter Brock didn’t play for them. As the travelled east, to Soldier Field, there was a belief that their running back room, with the Brock offering a steady hand under center, could find a way through the Chicago Bears defense. The problem was that these were the ‘85 Bears. It takes a single search to see just how good that defense was. The fact that every decent defense is immediately compared to them speaks volumes.
There’s no happy ending for Dieter Brock’s rookie campaign. The Monsters of Midway absolutely dominated the Rams from minute one. Eric Dickerson managed just 46 yards, wich meant they were forced to rely on Brock. Brock ended the day with 66 total yards, completing 10 passes from 31 attempts. They lost 24-0. Brock’s rookie season ended in embarrassment.
What Happened Next
There was no follow-up season for Brock. An injury in the first pre-season game of 1986 saw him go under the knife, which came with a lengthy layoff, from which he wouldn’t return. The Rams did what they’d done before Brock, and added to their QB room. Jim Everett was acquired, as was Steve Bartowski. Tests on his knee led to a back injury, which could, ultimately not be remedied, as a result of his throwing motion. And with that, the ballad of Dieter Brock was over. He retired that season, and went into coaching.
The Rams returned to the playoffs in 1986, where they, once again, met defeat before the Championship game. It would be 4 years from that trip to Chicago before they returned to the NFC Championship game.
The debut seasons of the aforementioned young gunslingers will see peaks and troughs as they wrangle with the demands of the NFL. Make no mistake, however; no matter how wild it gets, not one of them will have a stranger year than that of The Birmingham Rifle in 1985.
Featured image credit: USAToday