Is the curse of Bobby Layne still in place for the Lions?

Matthew Stafford and the Lions took a huge step backward in 2012, and the franchise is still waiting for their first playoff victory in more than two decades.

The playoffs are over, and the combatants for Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans are set — Niners vs. Ravens — while Detroit Lions fans have been looking forward to next year since the final game of the regular season.

It’s been a long time since the Lions won a playoff game — January 5, 1992, to be exact, when they took their franchise best 12-4 record into the second round to beat the Dallas Cowboys, 38-6, in the Divisional Playoff.

The Lions were still playing in the Silverdome in 1992. Wayne Fontes was head coach, and Rodney Peete and Eric Kramer split quarterback duties, while Andre Ware sat on the bench. Pro Bowl running back Barry Sanders was in his third season. Herman Moore was in his first year as a wide receiver, while placekicker Eddie Murray was in his final year; the Lions would sign Jason Hanson for the 1992 campaign.

Kramer completed 29 out of 38 passes for 341 yards and three touchdowns, including a 31-yard score to wide receiver Willie Green, a six-yarder to Green, and a seven-yarder to Moore. Defensive back Melvin Jenkins returned an interception 41 yards for a touchdown, while Eddie Murray added a 36-yard field goal, and Sanders rushed for a 47-yard score. Dallas quarterback Steve Beuerlein was held to just 7 of 13 completions for 91 yards.

Sadly, that win against the Cowboys accounts for the only playoff win the Lions enjoy under their current ownership, as they went on to lose to the Washington Redskins, 41-10 the following week in the NFC Championship game.

Prior to the Lions’ win against Dallas, the last time they won a playoff game was in the 1957 National Football League championship game, the league’s 25th. The game, held on December 29 at Briggs Stadium in Detroit, paired the Lions against the Cleveland Browns, the fourth pairing of the two teams in the title game.

Having won the Eastern Conference, the Browns brought into the championship game their 9-2-1 record; while the Lions, with their 8-4 record, had been forced to play a playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers the week before.

The Lions were without their star quarterback, Bobby Layne. Five years earlier, Layne led the Lions to their first NFL championship in 12 years. He did it again the following year; but he fell short of a three-peat when the Lions lost to the Browns in the 1954 championship game. In 1957, Layne was leading the Lions toward another championship when his leg was broken in three places during a game against the Green Bay Packers. His replacement, Tobin Rote, finished the season and led the Lions into the 1957 championship game.

Rote, who played for the Lions for only three seasons, did his best Layne imitation on that day in late December, throwing four touchdown passes, completing 12 of 19 passes for 280 yards, and rushing for another score. The Lions beat the Browns 59-14 in a romp, scoring 17 points in the first quarter and 14 points in each the three remaining quarters.

Rote would lead three different teams to championships during his career, and he remains the only player ever to quarterback a team to championships in both the NFL and AFL. Yet he remains outside of Canton, while Layne was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1967.

The Lions, buoyed by Rote’s performance and dismayed by Layne’s off the field drinking habits, traded Layne to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1958. Angry about the deal, legend has it that Layne stated that the Lions would suffer for another fifty years.

Some would argue that Ol’ Bobby was correct. For many years the franchise languished in mediocrity. In the 1980s they lost a playoff game to the Niners in excruciating fashion, saw star running back Billy Sims career ended due to injury, and plummeted in the standings. In the ’90s they had the greatest running back in the history of football, but still always seemed to be a rung below the Packers and Vikings in their own division.

In 2008, the Lions faithful believed the curse over, culminating in their perfect winless season, 50 years after the curse was put into place. Certainly in 2012, when the Lions made the playoffs, it looked as if the Lions were finally poised on the brink of becoming one of the NFL’s elite teams. But this last season the Lions suffered through an eight-game losing streak and losing many games by slim margins.

Bobby Layne passed away in 1986. Apparently he didn’t think it important to remove the curse before departing. The curse now stands at 55 years and counting.

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About J. Conrad Guest

J. Conrad Guest is the author of The Cobb Legacy, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, and other novels. He resides in Northville. Visit him at www.jconradguest.com.