10/2/2008

The curse of Bobby Layne on the Lions

By Bob Wojnowski

The curse of Bobby Layne on the Lions

January 20, 2011

It's half-myth, half-legend and all conjecture. Logically, it's hard to believe. But when dissecting the Lions' half-century of futility, why bother with logic?  Nobody seems to know if the Lions' greatest quarterback ever, Bobby Layne, cursed the franchise when he was traded to Pittsburgh on Oct. 6, 1958. Newspaper archives reveal no evidence of the phrase supposedly muttered by Layne -- that the Lions "would not win for 50 years."

It's not really important who heard it (officially, no one) or who believes it (um, you?). It's only important that the shadowy Curse of Bobby Layne expires in four days, on Monday, Oct. 6, exactly 50 years after Layne departed when the Lions were reigning NFL champs, a glory team of the 1950s.

This Sunday, the 0-3 Lions face the Bears in the first game after the dreadful Matt Millen Era, in the last game of the dreaded Bobby Layne Curse Era. Perhaps a public ceremony, with appropriate mystical chanting and jersey burning, is in order.

"I don't recall Bobby saying it, but if he did, it was probably in jest or frustration," said Lions great Joe Schmidt, who played with Layne and later coached the Lions. "Bobby gets credit for a lot of things he never did, sort of embellishing the Bobby Layne mystique. To me, the Lions' troubles are a matter of personnel -- not accumulating a nucleus of players."

Schmidt stopped, then chuckled.

"When does it end again? Monday? Maybe I'll get the guys together for a celebration. I don't think Bobby believed in curses, but he loved playing jokes. I guarantee you, he's up there laughing his (butt) off."

Curses are embraced by fans and media to explain long periods of ineptitude. They're excuses, and the Lions don't deserve any. But nothing else makes sense with this team, so for the heck of it, let's explore the lore.

Almost immediately after the Layne trade, the Lions began to falter in unfathomable ways. They've reached the playoffs only nine times in 50 years and won precisely once -- 38-6 over Dallas after the 1991 season. That's amazing failure largely pinned to owner William Clay Ford, who bought the team in 1963, and his band of mediocre loyalists, book-ended by general managers Russ Thomas and Millen.

OK, fine. Weak ownership hired weak GMs, who hired weak coaches, who couldn't do enough with weak players drafted by those weak GMs. That explains a lot.

Lions' woes seem supernatural
But how do you explain the Lions are the only NFL team to have a player die during a game? Receiver Chuck Hughes, 28, suffered a heart attack in the closing minutes against the Bears on Oct. 24, 1971 at Tiger Stadium. The Lions also lost head coach Don McCafferty after the 1973 season, felled by a heart attack while cutting his grass.

How do you explain, at the height of a short-lived renaissance in the 1990s, the Lions losing two offensive linemen to horrific fates? Mike Utley was paralyzed in a game against the Rams on Nov. 17, 1991. Inspired by Utley, the Lions reached the NFC championship game and lost to Washington, 41-10. That offseason, 25-year-old Eric Andolsek was killed as he did lawn work in front of his Louisiana home, run down by a wayward trucker.

How do you reconcile celebration doused by tragedy? With a momentous 13-10 victory over the New York Jets at the Silverdome in 1997, the Lions clinched a playoff spot and Barry Sanders topped 2,000 yards rushing. And linebacker Reggie Brown collapsed on the field after a tackle, stopped breathing and nearly died.

How do you explain the Lions' all-time leading rusher, Sanders, inexplicably walking away on the eve of the 1999 training camp, faxing in his retirement as he stood 1,457 yards shy of Walter Payton's NFL record?

How do you explain all those quarterbacks -- from Tobin Rote to Earl Morrall to Milt Plum to Bill Munson to Greg Landry to Gary Danielson to Jeff Komlo to Eric Hipple to Chuck Long to Rusty Hilger to Bob Gagliano to Rodney Peete to Erik Kramer to Andre Ware to Scott Mitchell to Charlie Batch to Joey Harrington to Jon Kitna -- who followed Layne, and in 50 years, only one (Landry in 1972) ever made the Pro Bowl. Only one.

How else do you explain it?

"I used to not be a believer in curses, but I'm a firm believer now," Lions receiver Roy Williams said. "Bobby Layne, right? I didn't know about it until I came here, but I'm learning, man. As the years go by, you see things happen with this football team that you just don't see nowhere else."

Williams confessed his belief two weeks ago, after the Lions executed one of the franchise's greatest comebacks. Down by 21 to Green Bay, they rallied for a 25-24 lead with 7:41 left. You might recall, Kitna followed with three interceptions and the Lions lost by 23.

Trading for misery
Makes no sense. But then, nothing made sense 50 years ago, with the Lions coming off their 1957 championship, capped by a 59-14 blasting of Cleveland in the title game.

The Lions were the NFL's best but started slowly in 1958, with a loss to Baltimore and a 13-13 tie with Green Bay. Rote, who had replaced an injured Layne late in 1957 and led the Lions to the championship, was splitting time with Layne, then 31.

It was an uncomfortable situation, with the swashbuckling Layne, one of the most popular Detroit athletes ever, gradually ceding control to Rote. So in a stunning move the day after the Green Bay tie, coach George Wilson traded Layne to Pittsburgh for 24-year-old quarterback Earl Morrall, a former Michigan State star, and two draft picks.

Shortly thereafter, the curse allegedly was uttered.

A week later, it was already believable.

Layne rejoined former Lions coach Buddy Parker (who led Detroit to world championships in 1952 and '53) and sparked Pittsburgh to a 24-3 stomping of Philadelphia in his first game.

Back in Detroit, misery set in. The day after Layne was traded, new starter Rote pulled a hamstring near the end of practice.

"I can't understand it," Rote told reporters. "I've never had a muscle injury in my life."

The headline in a Detroit newspaper the next day read: "We miss you, Bobby -- What a mess!"

Maybe Layne, for eight seasons the Lions' unquestioned leader, was nearing the end anyway, partly owing to his legendary hard-partying ways. He played five seasons in Pittsburgh and didn't win another title. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967 and died of throat cancer in 1986.

It didn't matter if Layne was fading or not. Players were shocked and angered by the trade and knew Layne was upset, although they didn't speak of any curse. It's now immortalized by a Web site -- curseofbobbylayne.com -- and NFL Films recently did a feature on it. The evidence might be circumstantial, but one piece is indisputable: The Lions never have had another longtime star at quarterback.

In the very next game, Morrall stepped in because of Rote's injury and, well, you can guess what happened. Tied with the Rams with 2:15 left and the Lions in field-goal range, Morrall threw an interception. The Rams scored twice in 31 seconds and won 42-28. The Lions lost the following week to Baltimore, 40-14, finished 4-7-1 and their dynasty was over.

The Lions didn't reach the playoffs again until 1970 and lost to Dallas 5-0. They returned with a 4-5 record in strike-shortened 1982 and lost to Washington, 31-7, scoring their first postseason points in 25 years.

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