Getting to the bottom of the Bobby Layne curse: Was this the start of the losing Lions' woes?

Detroit Lions haven't been the same since Layne was traded

Photo by Getty Images
Photo by Getty Images

Is this fable or fact? 

Tale or truth?

An unprecedented amount of futility within the NFL’s history has brought about such questions, and as the league prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary season, it’s definitely a topic for discussion from a historical perspective.

Is the curse of Bobby Layne real? 

It might not seem like it over the past 60 years, but in the early days of the National Football League, the Detroit Lions were one of the most successful franchises.

The Lions won NFL championships in 1952, 1953 and 1957, but then came what turned out to be a fateful day that has altered the franchise’s fortunes for all time.

On Oct. 6, 1958, Layne, the team’s star quarterback, was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers for quarterback Earl Morrall and two draft picks.

After finding out the news, Layne allegedly made a proclamation of impending failure over the organization. 

Or did he? 

And if so, is it at least partly to blame for the struggles of the Lions?

It's something that's still up for debate, more than six decades later.

What started all of this?

Traded to the Lions from the Chicago Bears in 1950, Layne was the glue for Detroit’s franchise over the next eight seasons, leading the Lions to NFL titles in 1952 and 1953 and being named to four Pro Bowls.

The Lions also won the title in 1957, but did so with backup quarterback Tobin Rote, who finished the championship season off for the Lions after Layne suffered a broken leg in the second-to-last game of the regular season.

Besides football, Layne’s other passion was reportedly booze.

Despite Layne’s success, his hard-partying ways did not sit well with head coach George Wilson, who, according to a Detroit News article, had enough after Layne showed up drunk to a team meeting the day before a game. 

With Layne aging (he was 31 years old at the time), injured and living it up off of the field, and Rote already in the fold having led the Lions to the championship the year prior, the Lions pulled the trigger on the trade.

Then, the legend began.

While cleaning out his locker, Layne allegedly was heard saying that the Lions wouldn’t win anything for another 50 years.

The debate

Newspaper writers were in earshot of hearing Layne say that, but never reported it in their publications, according to a Bleacher Report article from October 2016.

Varying reports offer different opinions of whether Layne said those words.

Longtime Detroit News writer Jerry Green, who has covered every single Super Bowl, said in 2008 that the curse was “sheer nonsense.” 

However, in 2016, Layne’s son, Alan, did spill the beans to Terence Moore of Sports On Earth in a December article

“Actually, my dad did say the Lions wouldn’t win another world championship for 50 years, but (it) wasn’t a curse, per se,” Alan Layne said in the article.

Bobby Layne died in 1986 at the age of 59.

Alan Layne said as a teen, he approached his mother and Bobby’s wife, Carol, to find out if Bobby Layne’s tirade the day of the trade was true.

“My dad had a temper,” Alan Layne said. “That’s why, as he was leaving town heading for Pittsburgh, my mother said people were talking to him or something, and he turned around and said, ‘Well, you no-good, lousy, blankety-blanks won’t win another championship for 50 years.’ Yeah, that’s what she said he said, and he was just mad.”

The aftermath

As it turns out, Bobby Layne’s supposed forecast of doom wasn’t exactly accurate. It’s been more than 60 years since the Lions won a championship, not 50. 

Of course, pundits and Lions fans chalk a great deal of that losing up to incompetent ownership and horrific management decisions. 

The facts for the Lions are ugly. 

  • Since 1958, the Lions are 390-514-17, which is a winning percentage of .423.
  • The Lions are the only team in the NFC never to appear in a Super Bowl. The three other teams in the NFL that have never been to the Super Bowl — the Jaguars, Browns and Texans— all are expansion franchises. Cleveland was awarded a new franchise after the original one moved to Baltimore. They have been in the league since 1994.
  • Detroit has had just 20 winning seasons since the Layne trade.
  • The Lions have made just 12 playoff appearances since their last title in 1957, or a ratio of once every five years. 
  • Detroit has won one playoff game since 1957.
  • The Lions haven't won a playoff game since 1991, the second-longest drought in the NFL behind the Cincinnati Bengals. The nine consecutive playoff losses by the Lions is the most in the league. 
  • The Lions haven't hosted a playoff game since 1993.
  • In 2008, the Lions became the first team in NFL history to go winless in a season when they went 0-16, a mark that was matched by the Browns in 2017. 
  • The Lions own two of the three longest road losing streaks in league history. From 2001 to 2003, the Lions lost a then-record 25 straight road games. In 2010, they broke their own record by losing their 26th consecutive road game. Cleveland lost 25 straight road games from 2015 to 2018.

In 2009, there was talk that any "curse" was going to be lifted as the 50-year mark from Layne's original declaration passed.

The Lions drafted quarterback Matthew Stafford, who went to the same high school as Layne in suburban Dallas and lived on the same street as Layne's uncle and aunt, with the No. 1 overall pick. 

But curse or no curse, failure for the Lions has lived on.

The Lions haven't won a playoff game in Stafford's 11 years as the franchise quarterback, let alone they haven't gotten close to winning the championship Layne allegedly said would elude them for decades on that fateful day in 1958. 

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