Twelve Months That Made Bobby Layne a Legend for the Lions

Charismatic quarterback Bobby Layne led the Detroit Lions to back-to-back NFL titles in the early 1950s.

Charismatic quarterback Bobby Layne led the Detroit Lions to back-to-back NFL titles in the early 1950s.

More than a half-century after he last suited up for a game, Bobby Layne remains one of the greatest and most colorful quarterbacks in league history. The paunchy quarterback with the fiery will to win is justifiably remembered as the heart and soul of those dominating Detroit Lions teams of the 1950s, which won four division titles and three NFL championships.

Curiously, though, all of Layne’s postseason wins came within a single twelve-month period: between December 21, 1952, when he quarterbacked the Lions to a divisional playoff win over Los Angeles, and December 27, 1953, with the second of back-to-back title-game victories over the Cleveland Browns. After that burst of championship success, he seemed invincible. In the fall of 1954, Time magazine made the “Blonde Bomber” the first pro football player ever to grace its cover.

“The best quarterback in the world is Robert Lawrence Layne, a blond, bandy-legged Texan with a prairie squint in his narrow blue eyes and an unathletic paunch,” Time said.

Although nobody would have predicted it at the time, the 27-year-old quarterback’s postseason heroics were finished. After 1953, his right arm would never again pitch his team to a postseason victory. In the 1954 championship game, in which the Lions were favored to become the first team ever to win three straight NFL titles, Layne was picked off six times as Cleveland crushed Detroit, 56-10. And three years later, when the Lions returned to the postseason, it was Tobin Rote, not Layne, who guided the club to a 31-27 comeback win over San Francisco in a divisional tiebreaker and then a 59-14 ass-whipping of the Browns in the 1957 title game. Layne, who had snapped his ankle late in the season, could only watch on crutches from the sidelines as the Lions captured their last championship to date. Layne got a championship ring in ’57, but it was Rote who earned the postseason accolades.

Another curious aspect of Layne’s postseason play are his numbers. The cumulative postseason stats posted by other QBs who have won multiple championships—guys like Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Terry Bradshaw, and Bart Starr—are as gaudy as one might expect, whereas Layne’s overall statistics for the four postseason games he appeared in are downright abysmal. He completed only 47% of his 97 passes, unless you want to count the 12 he threw into the hands of opponents. Against those dozen picks his ledger shows a single touchdown pass. But characteristically, Layne came out on top in the only statistic that truly matters: victories. The Lions won three of those four games, and Layne’s sole TD pass was a clutch throw that delivered the 1953 championship.

(At this point a refresher course might benefit younger fans. The modern NFL postseason tournament, with its wild cards, four rounds of playoffs, and February Super Bowls, didn’t exist when Layne played. Getting into a single postseason game was a big deal, as it invariably meant you were playing for all the marbles. Until 1966, the NFL’s two divisional champions met in the title game, usually played the Sunday immediately before or after Christmas, and that was it. The same single-game postseason existed in the rival American Football League, which began play in 1960. Occasionally a special divisional tiebreaker was necessary at the end of the regular season to determine who would advance to the championship game; the Lions played in two of them, in 1952 and 1957. The first Super Bowl between the champions of the NFL and the AFL was held after the ’66 season. But the first scheduled round of playoffs within each league wouldn’t start until 1967 in the NFL and 1969 in the AFL. The leagues merged in 1970 with two realigned conferences, the NFC and AFC, each being carved into three divisions.)

Layne was starting his third season in Detroit in 1952. He hadn’t won anything yet, much less the adoration of Lions fans. Although he had led the league in passing yardage each of his first two seasons and tossed far more TD passes than any other QB during this period, Detroiters regularly booed their Pro Bowl quarterback. “The Layne critics were quick to voice their displeasure over an errant pass or Bobby’s earnestness in ‘eating the ball’ when his blockers failed him,” observed sportswriter Watson Spoelstra. “Bobby’s superb record for arching touchdown passes never got him the acclaim he deserved.”

The “people’s choice” was halfback Doak Walker, the Heisman Trophy winner who had been Layne’s best friend since they played high-school ball together in Texas. However, Walker was injured for much of the ’52 season. For Layne, there was an unforeseen benefit of his buddy’s sporadic appearances in the backfield: a growing acceptance by Detroit fans. It had always been Walker who was the focus of the offense and the public face of the team, a humble and handsome man that fans, writers, and advertisers naturally gravitated to.

Now, oddly, it was Layne’s running that won over fans. Disdaining a facemask and hip, knee, and thigh pads, he often took a pounding lugging the ball up field, but bounced up after every tackle. By the end of the 1952 season only eight other players in the league had gained more yards on the ground. “If his sinewy legs carry Detroit to the divisional playoff or, perchance, to the championship, Detroit will have to dust off a permanent place for a new favorite,” Spoelstra wrote. “Layne’s passes always were beautiful things to see; his runs have taken him places he never knew before—in the hearts of the cash customers.”

The Lions finished the season tied with the Los Angles Rams at 8-4. This set up a special playoff at Briggs Stadium on December 21, 1952. As a passer, Layne wasn’t particularly sharp, going 9-for-21 and getting picked off four times. But as a field general, he controlled the game. He methodically mixed runs and passes on a wet, gloomy afternoon while building a 24-7 lead. The Rams stormed back in the fourth quarter, but a turnover followed by a short Bob Hoernschemeyer TD run sealed the 31-21 verdict. It was the Lions’ first postseason victory since their 1935 title game win over the New York Giants.

The following Sunday, December 28, the up-and-coming Lions met the veteran Browns in Cleveland for the title. Counting their four years in the All-American Football Conference, coach Paul Brown’s squad was playing in it seventh straight championship game, and it had only lost once. Layne was conservative, throwing only nine passes all afternoon. He snuck over from the two-yard-line for the first score of the game. Then in the third quarter, Doak Walker peeled off the longest run of his pro career. Walker’s 67-yard scamper, his first touchdown of the season, made the score 14-0 and proved to be the decisive points in the Lions’ 17-7 victory.

As with so many other things in life, nothing would compare with the first time. “That game stands out above the rest,” Layne reflected in retirement. “Nothing was ever as good as that. It’s the happiest I’ve ever been in football, winning the championship.”

Layne led the Lions to a 9-3 mark in 1953, giving the defending champions a second straight divisional crown. This set up a rematch with the Browns, who appeared nearly invincible. Cleveland had finished 11-1, dropping only the meaningless finale, and led the league in most offensive and defensive categories.

The title game was played December 27, 1953 at Briggs Stadium. Cleveland was ahead, 16-10, when the Lions took over on their own 20 with a little over four minutes to play. “Jes’ block, boys,” Layne drawled in the huddle, “and ol’ Bobby will take you right to the championship.” With two minutes left, Layne found end Jim Doran running free down the right sideline and hit him in stride with a 33-yard scoring strike. Doak Walker kicked the decisive extra point to make it 17-16, and the Lions were the champions of pro football for a second straight year.

“You can’t win a championship in this league without a great quarterback,” coach Buddy Parker said afterwards. “You may win five or six games a season with an ordinary player at quarterback but as far as the title is concerned you might as well stay at home if you don’t have the real big guy at the spot. We did.”

As noted, Layne never won another postseason game. But after his heroics of 1952-53, he didn’t really need to. His legend had been cemented.