They say that Bobby Layne cursed the Detroit Lions on his way out of the Motor City, that he declared the team would not win another championship for fifty years.
That's what they say.
Was the Hall of Famer, who led the Lions to two championships and got them started on their third actually guilty of this crime? Probably not. But that doesn't mean that there hasn't been a curse, due to both bad luck and self imposition, on the Lions for the past fifty years.
From the end of the Eisenhower Presidency to the beginning of the Obama Administration, the Detroit Lions have had competent or more than competent athletes at every position on the field, save for one.
They've had linebackers, safeties that could get the job done. Linemen built like tanks who more than capably provided protection or advanced on the enemy. They've had running backs. One with a number 20 stitched on his jersey sticks out in the memory. They've had wide receivers and, in fact, have right now one of the best in the league (proving that for Matt Millen, the third time was definitely the charm).
The one thing, though, that the Lions have not had since trading Bobby Layne to Pittsburgh is an outstanding player at the position at which he played, quarterback.
Two seasons removed from the first 0-16 campaign in NFL history, Lions fans head into a new season with higher hopes than they've had in years (or, in other words, before the awful reign of Matt Millen). And much of that belief centers around a twenty-two year old kid, born and raised in Tampa, Florida and a product of the University of Georgia.
His talents are impressive, his potential sky high, even if only comparing him to the the man who proceeded him as starting quarterback for the Honolulu blue ad silver, Daunte Culpepper. Or, more accurately, it should be said, the ghost of Daunte Culpepper, as in Detroit he was but a whisper, a shadow of the quarterback who had enjoyed some seriously impressive seasons in Minnesota.
While little could have been expected of Culpepper coming out of retirement in the middle of the 2008 season, the following year, alongside a rookie Stafford, Culpepper was afforded some real opportunities to prove himself at both the beginning and end of the season. And what did the Lions not do with Culpepper at the helm? Win a game. Daunte Culpepper never won a single game as the starting quarterback for the Detroit Lions, proving that unless your name is Brett Favre, it's usually a good idea to stay retired once you've hung up your cleats.
The writing, in fact, could clearly be seen on the wall in Week 12, when head coach Jim Schwartz chose to play an injured Matthew Stafford over an ineffective Culpepper, who reportedly was quite angry over the decision. The game, which was the annual Thanksgiving Day Classic, had come a mere four days after the infamous (at least in Detroit) Lions-Cleveland Browns game, where, with the Lions behind and with time winding down, Stafford led his team down the field, and, after having suffered a separated shoulder, would, after a somewhat misguided timeout by Browns coach Eric Mangini and after he had eluded Lions medical personnel, throw the game winning touchdown.
It was, in effect, with what surrounded it, an injury that electrified a team and a fan base, standing in stark contrast to the injury to Lions quarterback Charlie Batch in the last game of the 2000 season, a game which the Lions lost on a last second field goal, forcing them out of the playoffs. The loss would lead to wholesale changes in the organization, changes that would essentially kill the franchise for the next decade and deflate the fan base. One of these poorly conceived changes stands out more than most, its damaging effect more obvious than that silly rabbit's desire for Trix.
Incompetence, thy name is Matt Millen.
Let's study one of Matt Millen's first major moves as GM. In the 2002 draft, coming before he started picking up wide receivers like they were going out of style, Millen chose Joey Harrington out of Oregon with the third pick. While Harrington ranks third all time for the Lions in pass completions, not many of those yards translated to victories. While those lack of triumphs certainly upset Lions fans, they would eventually become more irked by Harrington's seeming cluelessness, his blind and dopey optimism that led the signal caller to receiving the not so affectionate nickname, "Joey Blue Skies". Harrington simply ended up sounding disingenuous, whereas Stafford comes across as refreshingly honest and down to earth, a trait that midwesterners, who have no patience for B.S., are known to appreciate.
Other characteristics of Stafford's that Lions fans have latched onto are his apparent toughness, as evidenced in the Cleveland game, and his maturity, a maturity that some have said is beyond his years as a fairly novice pro quarterback, emanating a confidence not often seen in a quarterback heading into only his second NFL season.
The kid does not seem to rattle easy, which stands in contrast to the Lions starter sandwiched between Harrington and Culpepper, Jon Kitna, who rattled about as easily as a china cabinet in the middle of an earthquake. To be fair, Kitna showed himself to at least be competent in the role of a starter and one could certainly make the claim that the Lions would not have gone without a win in '08 had Kitna not been injured in Week 5.
Kitna showed definite talent in each of the two seasons in which he started every game, 2006 and 2007, throwing for over 4,000 yards in each, a franchise record. While 2006 provided a disappointing 3-13 record, the team began 4-2 in '07 before winning only three of their last ten games. Though Kitna would still show flashes of brilliance as the Lions once again fell apart, he would also show that he was perhaps a little too emotional for his own good.
One of the things a team needs in a quarterback is a stable presence. Someone like Peyton Manning. Cool, calm, collected. What the Lions got was a guy on their sideline who liked to yell like a crazy person barking on a street corner, and though Kitna's last real game as a Lion was in Week 5 of 2008, it seems that he had really already checked out emotionally in Week 2, when, after the Lions had stormed back against a tough Green Bay Packers team, Kitna, clearly rattled and unable to handle the pressure, threw three interceptions in the fourth quarter to hand away the game. On the last interception, Kitna, instead of chasing after the man who had just intercepted the ball, simply walked, like a depressed Charlie Brown, off the field.
Contrast that with a guy who can suck it up enough to play with a busted shoulder because he's so desperate to win a game that, in reality, doesn't mean a darn thing, and you see why Stafford really is the quarterback Lions fans have been waiting for.
One could go on, comparing and contrasting Stafford with Lions signal callers throughout history such as Scott Mitchell, Rodney Peete, Eric Hipple, Gary Danielson, Greg Landry, Bill Munson, Karl Sweetan, Milt Plum, or Jim Ninowski. While some of these men led the Lions into the postseason, it's a well known fact that the Lions have only one playoff victory since 1958 (bravo, Erik Kramer), when Tobin Rote took over for an injured Bobby Layne and led the Lions to their final NFL championship. This would be the last truly "great" year for any Lions quarterback.
Bobby Layne would be traded after the season and Tobin Rote's performance on the field would fall off the map in '59. The curse, real or not, it seemed, had already begun, a curse that would last until 2008, when the Pride of Detroit would hit their lowest point. But then, in the draft that followed, they selected a player whom I believe will lead them back into football relevancy and heights they haven't seen for over half a century.
If there's any hype surrounding Matthew Stafford, let me be the first to buy in. I suggest you do the same.
And, yes, Matt Millen is still an idiot.