The Curse of Bobby Layne
If the eighties and the nineties were promising but frustrating then the first decade of the 21st century was just plain painful. William Clay Ford Snr. the youngest grandson of Henry Ford had bought a controlling interest in the team in the 1970s and had decided after years of close-but-no-cigar seasons that the team needed a football man now to run the show. Enter former Raiders, 49ers, and Redskins Linebacker Matt Millen. With absolutely no front office experience whatsoever he was hired in 2001 with the dual role of General Manager and Team Manger, and so began one of the worst runs by any team in NFL history.
by Andy Ayrton
October 2nd 2011
September 25th 2011. Minnesota 20, Detroit 0. Half time. The Detroit Lions were, as usual, getting another beating. One of the NFL`s oldest franchises - founded in 1934 - the Lions had been the league’s whipping boys for nearly three generations. Apart from three division titles won in the eighties and early nineties, the Lions have won nothing but wooden spoons since they roared over the NFL in the fifties. But the 2011 Lions have started to prove they have a little more bite than previous teams which have frustrated and angered the city of Detroit for over half a century.
Against Minnesota, a fight back and a field goal in overtime led the Lions to a come from behind win and an NFC best 3-0 start, the franchise’s best since 1980.
So what led a once proud team being one of only four NFL teams never to have played in the Super Bowl? (Cleveland, Houston and Jacksonville are the other three.)
The most popular theory for the decades of disappointment is not one of bad coaching, bad players or bad management but pro football’s biggest ghost story: the Curse of hall of famer Bobby Layne. Layne was a Texan quarterback who once remarked he didn’t care how pretty the pass was or if it went end over end through the air. As long as it got to the receivers’ hands and in the end zone it counted six and that’s all that mattered. He was there to be a winner.
Bobby Layne liked the night-life - in some eyes a little too much. Up all hours, he often played with little or no sleep. Layne was sometimes seeing studying the playbook for the first time just hours before a game. Despite this lifestyle, at game time he was there and ready to play and it was joy to see for Lions fans. Bobby Layne led the Lions to back to titles in 1952-1953. In 1954 he led them to the title game against the Cleveland but failed to land the Lions a third consecutive title. At the latter half of the 1957 season Layne’s dubious lifestyle led him to injuring his leg, and he was replaced by Tobin Rote who quarterbacked the Lions to yet another championship. This was seen by many in Detroit now as a perfect chance to rid themselves of the big throwing, big drinking and big mouthed veteran.
The following year Layne was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers who were grateful for picking up the high calibre quarterback as this was a team who had nothing in their trophy cabinet but dust. They were still over a decade away from greatness of their own. Layne was angry. Angry with a team who he led to success and that, without him, would never have won four NFL titles in that era. Some say his parting shot was to proclaim that the Lions wouldn’t have success again for fifty years and so cursed the tea. It has become Detroit Lions folklore ever since.
The next fifty years did prove disappointing to say the least. The fifties teams aged and disbanded. There were a few bright spots. A wild game against the defending world champion Baltimore Colts in 1960 had many calling it one of the NFL greatest games. The Colts filled with future Hall of Famers Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry and others edged to a 15-13 lead and seemed to have the game won after an amazing Lenny Moore catch in the end zone.
The ensuing kick-off led to defensive tackle Art Donovan being ejected after drop kicking a Lions’ player in the face in retaliation to his team mate Alex Hawkins getting roughed up on the return.
With the game in the balance and the Hall of famer Donovan gone, Detroit’s quarterback and future Colts NFL MVP Earl Morrall (who had been traded to the Lions as part of the Bobby Layne trade) led Detroit to victory with a 65-yard pass to receiver Jim Gibbons.
The Lions had one of the fiercest secondaries ever to play the game in Dick “Night Train” Lane, Dick Lebeau, Yale Lary and Len Barney. They brought terror to every passing attack they faced, but weaknesses elsewhere in the team, dubious coaching and often just bad luck made Detroit a graveyard for success in the NFL.
The 1960s went and the 1970s gave the Lions fans more agony and frustration. In the new NFC Central division the Lions exploded to 10-4 record in 1970 and a wild card spot but were eliminated quickly in the playoffs. The teams Detroit fielded in that decade were not that bad but were never that good. Green Bay had faded and the Bears were just plain awful. Only the Vikings had any credibility but Detroit couldn’t take advantage of a weak division. The last year of the decade saw the Lions bottom out with a 2-14 record and with it a number one draft pick in the NFL draft in 1980.
Billy Sims was drafted by the Lions and exploded for the team in his rookie season - before faltering through injuries for the next five. Later in the decade they drafted one of the greatest players ever in running back Barry Sanders who self propelled the team to the playoffs in, most notably, head coach Wayne Fontes’ run-n-shoot offence. But time and time again they were beaten in the playoffs.
Layne had passed away in 1986. He had been a fair success with the Steelers, going to the Pro Bowl in 1959 and making them at least competitive for a while. He retired in 1962 and went to Canton Ohio a few years later enshrined as an NFL great. His lifestyle and been seen by many contributing to his death at only fifty nine years old. But also his death had some fans wondering if the curse maybe be lifted early and the glory years would then return.
Year after year the Detroit Lions struggled. Draft bust after draft bust piled up, coaches were hired then fired. Despite this Millen was a constant in the Lions woes and was defiant in his manner of scouting, drafting rookies and free agents. With fans on the point of mutiny and a new near empty stadium, Millen in 2008 was finally removed and the Lions finished with an 0-16 record, the first and currently only team ever to record this feat. This was the fiftieth year of Bobby Layne’s Curse. Surely the Hall of famer was chuckling to himself above? What was needed was a clean-up of one the weakest franchises in NFL history.
2009 and Detroit had hired former Tennessee Titan defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
Schwartz was brought to note during a hiring drive at the Cleveland Browns during Bill Belichick’s Head Coach there. He began in the office as a researcher and came through the NFL coaching ranks. Despite missing out on the San Francisco 49ers head coaching position to Mike Nolan in 2005, Schwartz was seen as a rising star and after two interviews was hired January 15th and charged with one simple mission. Make the Detroit Lions competitive.
In the draft that year the Lions had the number one spot and the franchise wanted a franchise quarterback. They drafted Matthew Stafford, a big armed quarterback who had led the University of Georgia to great success and eerily had attended the same high school as... Bobby Layne.
Stafford finished on injured reserve and the Lions dropped to 2-14 but the seeds had been planted.
He passed for 422 yards, a then rookie record, and five touchdown passes against the Cleveland Browns despite suffering a separated shoulder during the game. That was toughness in a quarterback that had not been see in Detroit since... you know who!
In 2010 the Lions drafted a defensive lineman seen by many as a reincarnation of legendary Steeler “Mean” Joe Greene, Ndamukong Suh. He was a sensation from the start, throwing players round like a child throws a rag doll. No surprise from anyone he was named NFL rookie of the year. Another player to come through and thrive was receiver Calvin Johnson. Johnson was drafted in 2007 but got injured and for the next couple of seasons didn’t play to his full potential. Some touted him as another Matt Millen-esque bust, yet in 2010 he flourished earning himself a Pro Bowl spot along with Suh.
The future was starting to turn bright. The Lions won their last four games to finish with a 6-10 record in 2010. Not a winning season, but it marked an improvement over the last few seasons and gave the Lions a rare opportunity not to finish in fourth place. Matthew Stafford meanwhile had yet another season ending injury and was placed on injured reserve. His injury woes don’t seem to have deterred the young quarterback though, as so far in 2011 he has come back healthy.
In all, the past few weeks of the 2011 season the Lions have turned into a team to watch. The drafting of Nick Fairly have given them another potential great defensive player and the Lions have been turned into a pressure defense wanting to smash offenses to bits - with Suh doing most of the smashing. Titus Young from Boise State has given Calvin Johnson a partner in crime and another target for Matthew Stafford and Detroit seem to be like the pass happy Lions of half a century ago.
After a close game in Tampa Bay in week one the Lions finally ended their 26 road game losing streak, the first time since 2007 Detroit had won away from home. If week one was a taster of things to come then the Lions exploded in week two, with a 48-3 drubbing of the Kansas City Chiefs, the largest margin of victory for the team ever. Stafford was named player of the week and Suh and his defensive army terrorised the Chiefs’ offence. Then came the Minnesota Vikings in week 3 - could the Lions win two road games consecutively? The first half had many people shaking their heads. Same old Detroit, same old problems.
Twenty point downs. Detroit could have put their tails between their legs and meowed into the night, but the Lions came roaring back like the kings of the jungle they purport to be. Matthew Stafford showed his leadership and rose to the occasion, leading them efficiently and with great gusto to a field goal in overtime and a 3-0 record.
This marks a seven game winning streak for the Lions, the longest in the league. With only the Buffalo Bills sharing a 3-0 record the Lions are, for now at least, at the top of the NFL and eager to show the whole league what they are capable of. They might just be able to put to the rest the oldest ghost story ever told in sports.