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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Heat

A loss, a Dutchman, and a cautionary tale

NBA: Miami Heat at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Last night, somewhere between the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth, I found my mind fixating on the sporting life of Norm Van Brocklin.

What others do in the face of an impending defeat seems to vary greatly, but I’ve always found that there’s no time like a blowout loss to let one’s inner consciousness wander. There’s a certain freedom in knowing that I’ll be able to freely meditate on a variety of subjects until the end of the game that I appear to be watching intently. Most often I’ll begin analyzing overall performances or fantasizing about potential improvements and various lineups. I suppose it’s no coincidence that some of my most focused writing has come on the heels of an absolute arse-whooping.

But almost as frequently the vagaries of one sporting event will trigger thoughts of another. Which is probably how I ended up contemplating the coaching career of one of the NFL’s greatest enigmas.

Van Brocklin, as you may know, was an incredibly gifted football player. His statistics pale in comparison to those of the modern-day NFL, but he was an absolute gunslinger for football in the 1950’s. Playing in Sid Gilman’s high-flying offense he helped the Los Angeles Rams average 38.8 points per game in 1950, a record that still stands. The following season he would also set another still-standing passing record, throwing for 554 yards in a single game.

By the time of Van Brocklin’s retirement as a player he had taken two different teams to a combined four championship games, winning two; one against Paul Brown and Otto Graham, the other against Vince Lombardi’s Packers dynasty. His Philadelphia Eagles were the only team to defeat the Packers in the postseason during Lombardi’s time as head coach, something they accomplished thanks to a fourth quarter comeback engineered by Van Brocklin, who had been given total control of the offense.

In twelve seasons he had been named a Pro-Bowler nine times and won the NFL MVP in addition to his championships. Well known for his work ethic, his smarts, and his essential toughness, it was hardly surprising that a player of his pedigree was immediately offered a job coaching an NFL team.

And so began a coaching career that can only be described in the most generous of terms as the polar opposite of his playing career. Van Brocklin’s teams would go 66-100 in the thirteen seasons he coached. He would have only three winning seasons as a head coach, none of which were consecutive. And in a final indignity, after his Atlanta Falcons team was shellacked by a different championship-contending Miami team 42-7 in 1974, a reporter pointedly questioned whether his team had any fight left in it, an insinuation that the temperamental ‘Dutchman’ took as a direct assault on *his* character.

Van Brocklin’s even-keeled response was to challenge the journalist in question (and then every person in the room) to a fistfight. He was fired the next day, his time as a coach all but officially over; an ignominious end to a thoroughly contentious second career.

But I wasn’t thinking about Van Brocklin’s coaching failures as much as I was thinking about the ‘why’ behind them.

You see, in many respects Van Brocklin was a good coach. His teams played disciplined football. They were tough. They stayed in good physical shape. And eventually, they had talent. But for Norman Van Brocklin, a man whom former teammates claim played each game as if it were a matter of life and death, this was not enough.

A competitor straight out of the school of Ricky Bobby, Van Brocklin could not accept losing, no matter the reason, and had a habit of fixating on the flaws and deficiencies of his players, correctable or not, and berating them for it.

Having been a trailblazing passer for a trailblazing coach, one would think that Van Brocklin would have embraced change and innovation. But instead, he spurned everything from soccer-style field-goal kicking to running quarterbacks, infamously shipping Fran Tarkenton out of Minnesota for his scrambling ways.

A keen surveyor of talent, Van Brocklin drafted three of the four linemen who would become the famed ‘Purple People Eaters’ as well as roughly a third of the offensive and defensive players who would play on the Minnesota Vikings’ 1969 Super Bowl team, including Tarkenton himself.

He would turn a similar trick with the Atlanta Falcons, drafting a significant number of the defensive players who would go on to make up the famed ‘Gritz Blitz’ defense of the 1977 season (A defense that allowed only 9.2 points per game. Still an NFL record.) including Hall of Famer Claude Humphrey.

So why was his coaching career so very unsuccessful? I suspect that it’s largely because Van Brocklin lacked one very crucial trait: patience.

It was impatience that drove Van Brocklin to berate and demoralize his own players, many of whom were still developing. Impatience with the process of losing that accompanies the first seasons of just about any expansion team in the world of professional sports. Impatience with a gifted yet atypical quarterback, who would go on to lead the Vikings to three Super Bowls once they reacquired him from the New York Giants in the years after Van Brocklin resigned.

If not for impatience, Norm Van Brocklin might be a name that NFL fans know for reasons unrelated to threatening to brawl with reporters. He drafted the talent, he taught them professional discipline, but he just couldn’t wait for them to work their way to greatness.

Watching Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, and Josh Primo go a combined 6-34 from the field last night, I could feel the frustration building within me. After all, I don’t like losing much myself. I doubt that anyone really does. And the potential was there, hovering near the surface, just beneath the inconsistent execution.

It would have been so easy to simply turn off the television and air my petty grievances via twitter. I considered doing it more than once. But then I thought of Norm Van Brocklin. And instead, I turned down the volume and focused on the little positives.

I noticed how smoothly and intuitively Primo was already moving without the ball. I noticed how sharp Vassell’s defensive rotations had become. I watched as Keldon took eight threes with unwavering confidence in his shot, even though it was clear that he just wasn’t going to get the benefit of the shooter’s roll.

And as I watched minute yet gradual improvements it occurred to me that while I don’t know if this team is as loaded with potential the way that Van Brocklin’s teams were, I do know a surefire way not to find out.

It wasn’t easy. But then, to quote that great poet-prophet, Thomas Earl Petty: “The Waaiiiting is the hardest part.”

Takeaways:

  • Thad Young finally got his first start of the season. Unfortunately, it came against Bam Adebayo, one of the few centers against whom going small is of little use. Adebayo’s speed for his size completely negated any advantage that might have resulted against less athletic big men and allowed him to all but overwhelm Young at the the point of attack. Still, it should be noted that Thad is more ideally used in a (consistent) role coming off of the bench, and that he almost certainly offered up more resistance than Drew Eubanks has in the past. Plus, Young’s abilities as a passer were sorely needed for a team missing one of their two best distributors, and he supplemented the starting unit nicely on the offensive end.
  • Speaking of which, it was nice to see Derrick White step in for Dejounte Murray so effectively as the next man up. It’s been a bit of an up-and-down season for Derrick offensively, but you wouldn’t have known that watching his quality of play last night. Scoring on all three levels while handling the ball and doing his best to stifle the Heat’s versatile group of guards, he was a big part of keeping the Spurs close in the first half. Hopefully we’ll see more of this Derrick for the rest of the season.
  • Lonnie Walker on the other hand, seemed to shrink rather than rise to the occasion. Adding only seven points on a night that the Spurs desperately needed more, Walker continued to be a puzzle while managing to commit as many turnovers as he had takeaways. It’s always a bit of a roller coaster with him, but a few more games like that and he might have difficulty staying in San Antonio, much less quickly finding a new home with another NBA team.
  • It was a very small sample size, but one player who came out with plenty of energy was Devontae Cacok. I haven’t given him much thought since he signed his two-way contract, but he was all over the boards in a way that reminded me of a young Kenneth Faried, something that surprised me less once I discovered that Cacok had led the entire NCAA in rebounding during the 2017-2018 season. While he seems a bit limited offensively, he might be able to serve as a spot solution for San Antonio’s rebounding ills in the event that Young is traded. Whatever the case, he certainly plays with the kind of effort that the Spurs front office prizes. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up earning himself another two-way contract at the very least. Which would almost make up for potentially having to remember whether I’m writing about Dejounte or Devontae.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

The Waiting by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers