Published October 24, 2016
The Texan quarterback swaggered into the huddle, perhaps with a hint of whiskey on his breath.
It was a grey, blustery day at Briggs Stadium. This was the championship game of the NFL. The date was December 27, 1953.
The Detroit Lions, defending league champs, were trailing the Cleveland Browns, 16-10 with about two minutes to play. The year prior, almost to the day (December 28), the Lions whipped the Browns in the title game, 17-7, in Cleveland.
But for the Lions to successfully defend their crown, they would have to drive the length of the field—some 75 yards—and score a touchdown and boot the extra point, against a good Browns defense. The playing conditions weren’t the greatest—certainly not friendly to the passing game.
Bobby Layne looked each of his offensive linemen in the eye before calling out the first play in the huddle.
“Y’all block,” Layne said. “And I’ll pass us to the championship.”
The Lions linemen knew that if Bobby said it, it likely would come to pass. And they knew they’d better block; Layne was known to kick his linemen in the shins if they missed an assignment that led to his being sacked.
The big uglies blocked and Layne methodically drove the Lions down the frozen field of Briggs Stadium. The crowd of 54,000-plus roared just as their Lions did during that final drive.
Layne, like a surgeon, used his arm for his scalpel, dissecting the Browns in the waning moments. The end result was almost fait accompli, because this was Bobby Layne and nobody was better in his day at leading a game-saving charge down the gridiron than no. 22.
Sure enough, Layne capped the thrill ride with a 33 yard pass to Jim Doran for six points. Doak Walker kicked the extra point and the Lions were two-time defending NFL champs.
Never a doubt.
Some 55 years after Layne’s title-winning drive, the new Lions head coach referenced ole Bobby.
“It’s probably time to find a replacement for Bobby Layne,” Jim Schwartz told the media with a smirk at his introductory presser.
A few months later, the Lions snapped quarterback Matthew Stafford from Georgia off the board with the no. 1 overall draft pick.
The ties that Stafford had to Layne were both ironic and haunting.
Stafford attended the same high school that Layne attended, in Dallas—which was also the same school that Walker, another Hall of Famer, attended. Layne and Walker were high school teammates.
And Stafford was being asked to exorcise the demons that the QB position carried with it in Detroit since, well, Layne was traded in 1958.
No pressure, right?
The Lions today are living a perilous life. Three weeks in a row now, Matthew Stafford has had to rescue them with pulsating, race-against-the-clock drives.
On Sunday, Stafford led the Lions to his 24th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter and overtime. This is out of 100 career starts, meaning that one-quarter of the time, Stafford has had to pull a Bobby Layne.
Just as Layne exuded in his day, Stafford oozes confidence in these high leverage situations.
“In the huddle, (Stafford) was like, ‘We got this’,” receiver Golden Tate told the media after Sunday’s 20-17 thriller over the Washington Redskins at Ford Field.
With the Lions trailing 17-13 and with 75 yards to traverse, Stafford had 65 seconds and three timeouts in his pocket. The way he’s playing, that’s like giving a riverboat gambler x-ray glasses at the blackjack table.
With Layne no doubt tipping his whiskey glass in the sky in approval, Stafford used his gun slinging arm and his feet to vex the Redskins. Bing, bang, boom, Stafford toasted the ‘Skins—culminating in a threaded needle of 19 yards to Anquan Boldin for the game-winning touchdown. Stafford only needed 49 of his allotted 65 seconds.
On the field moments after the final gun, Stafford told Fox Sports that he craves those spine-tingling scenarios.
“Sure, I’d love to be up 21, but I enjoy this,” Stafford said of his late-game heroics.
The Lions are 4-3 but as I said, they’re living on the edge. The defense doesn’t really scare anyone—except Lions fans—and you wonder how many times you can go to the Stafford well before it comes up dry.
They say that Bobby Layne never lost a game in his life—he just ran out of time.
That’s fine and dandy, but even Layne had the clock run out on him. And so will Stafford.
But this is the NFL, where more games seem to be lost than won, and where so many contests come down to a handful of plays here and there. And if you can keep making the right plays at the right time, despite your warts, you can win more than you lose.
Stafford, since the firing of offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi early last season and the promotion of QB coach Jim Bob Cooter to OC, has been way more Bobby Layne than Andre Ware. The interceptions are down, the wins are up, and the confidence is palpable.
Further proof that it’s the quarterback—not the receiver (*cough* Calvin Johnson *cough*)—that makes the offense hum.
This is Stafford’s eighth year in the league, and if Cooter can put on his resume that he was the one who finally turned Matt Stafford into an elite signal caller (32 TDs and five interceptions in the past 13 games), then Cooter will have no trouble finding his next job if there’s a purge of the Lions coaching staff under new GM Bob Quinn, as might happen after this season.
As for Stafford, some observers around the NFL are whispering those three mighty letters that have never been seriously associated with any Lions quarterback since perhaps Layne himself.
I hope I didn’t cause your eyes to roll out of your head. But it’s true.
The Stafford critics will tell you that this stretch of brilliant play is all well and good, but he still hasn’t won a playoff game.
But there can be no doubt, now, that the Lions have a franchise quarterback, for however far he is able to take them.
Stafford doesn’t play defense, though.
Where’s Joe Schmidt when you need him?