O'HARA: Matthew Stafford continues on the path of icon Bobby Layne

Posted Nov 17, 2013

Stafford begins Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers needing only 68 yards to break Layne’s franchise record of career passing yards

PITTSBURGH --  Matthew Stafford has followed a trail that was cemented in the Detroit Lions’ history by quarterback icon Bobby Layne, whose records set more than a half century about are being toppled one by one by Stafford’s golden passing arm.

Stafford begins Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers needing only 68 yards to break Layne’s franchise record of career passing yards. Layne passed for 15,710 yards from 1950 through 1958. Stafford has 15,643 yards.

Bobby LayneQB Bobby Layne (Photo: AP Images)

The two quarterbacks are joined by more than Stafford’s pursuit of Layne’s records. Call it irony, coincidence or just plain luck of the draw, it’s almost as if it were preordained that Sunday would be the day for Stafford to break Layne’s record for passing yards.

The path they took to the top spots on the Lions’ quarterback list is eerily similar.

Stafford and Layne both lived on Purdue Ave. in Dallas.

Both attended Highland Park High School.

Both played for the Lions, although they arrived by different means. Stafford was drafted first overall out of Georgia in 2009. Layne was drafted third overall by the Chicago Bears in 1948. He was traded to the New York Bulldogs in 1949 and to the Lions in 1950.

And Pittsburgh is a fitting spot for Stafford to break Layne’s record because of its place in the spectrum of their careers. Stafford is playing his first regular-season game in Pittsburgh, and it’s where Layne ended his career after the Lions traded him away to the Steelers in 1958.

Winning is foremost in Stafford’s mind, but he’s proud to be linked with Layne.

"I’m just excited to get to the game and play and hopefully win," he said.

There is no logical explanation for how Stafford has followed so closely in Layne’s footsteps.

"I haven’t gone about my life, trying to follow Bobby Layne, for sure," Stafford said, laughing at the coincidence. "It just happened that way. It makes for a good story."

The brilliance of Layne’s career is underscored by how long his passing records have held up in Detroit. Layne’s 118 career TD passes also are a franchise record.

"I guess there just hasn’t been a quarterback who stayed here long enough," Stafford said. "Guys have been in and out some. I’ve been lucky enough to be here five years, and hopefully a lot more."

Layne ended his career in Pittsburgh, where he played his last five sasons. He retired after the 1962 season with his legend intact as one of the most competitive and charismatic leaders in football history. Layne was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of  Fame in 1967. He died in 1986 – two years before Stafford was born – at the age of 59.

Stafford already holds many franchise passing records, including most yards (5,038 in 2011) and touchdown passes in a season (41 in 2011), passing yards in a game (520) and most games with five TD passes (3).

Where Layne has the edge on Stafford – and most quarterbacks on any franchise – is in championships won.

Layne led the Lions to NFL championships in 1952 and ’53. The Lions missed a three-peat in 1954, losing to the Browns in the championship game with a team that many old Lions thought was the best of their championship era.

Layne was leading the Lions to their last championship in 1957, but a broken leg late in the season put him out for the year and the playoffs. Tobin Rote took over and quarterbacks the Lions to the championship.

If there is any accomplishment of Layne’s that Stafford wants to match it’s the championships.

"Absolutely," he said. "That’s something every player strives for. Ask guys all the time. They’d give up every stat in the book for a ring. I’m no different than that."

Although Layne did not win another championship in Pittsburgh, he built on his aura and reputation after being united with Steelers coach Buddy Parker, his coach in Detroit through the 1956 season.

Parker was a hard-driving coach with a sharp offensive mine. He preferred a veteran team and swung a deal to acquire Layne early in the ’58 season. The Steelers went 7-4-1 in 1958 to post their first winning season since 1949. The Steelers’ 9-5 record in 1962, Layne’s last season, represented the most victories in franchise history until the 1972 team went 11-3.

A story on the Steelers’ website this week detailed how Parker and Layne combined to change the Steelers’ culture and give them a winning edge.

"I don’t even know if the word superstar was around in those days, but Layne was the first guy we had who was a nationally recognized player," current Steelers president Dan Rooney II said in the website’s story.

"It was the first time we had a team to be reckoned with week in and week out. As people say now, whenever you have the franchise quarterback you have a chance to win, and that’s what it was like with Layne.

"There were a lot of games where you didn’t feel like you were out of it because of Layne."