I’m convinced that the noxious odor that rises annually from the home field of our formerly beloved Detroit Lions and wafts over and across the wide expanse of our otherwise football-happy land has left an odd variety of victims and wreckage in its wake. (And please, don’t humiliate yourself by joining in the apparent euphoria unleashed by the below-.500 Lions late-season signs of life; have more pride than that.)
The continuing disaster that is the Ford administration has twisted and contorted the image of pro football in our city — where the game has been played since 1934 — and left ashes and confusion in its wide and destructive wake. How else to explain the absence of the most productive and successful Lions player of all-time off the recently announced — and arguably alleged — list of the Top 100 NFL Players of All Time by the NFL Network?
If you have any sense of the history of the game and its passage from niche sport into the greatest public show in the land, you have to be intrigued by the network’s selection lineup, a countdown of the so-called “Top 100” as “determined by a blue-ribbon panel” (the NFL’s words, of course). I’d like to see a list of those be-ribboned selectors; they must bear some resemblance to the Hockey News panel that listed the 50 Greatest Hockey Players of all-time about 15 years ago and absurdly deposited Gordie Howe at Number Three.
The Top 10 of the Top 100 are alleged to be, in order, Jerry Rice, Jimmy Brown, Lawrence Taylor, Joe Montana, Walter Payton, Johnny Unitas, Reggie White, Peyton Manning, Don Hutson, and Dick Butkus. I’m not here to argue the selection of any of those guys, or their relative positioning. My complaint is with the absence of the greatest Detroit Lion of all-time, and arguably the greatest NFL player of the 1950s, quarterback Bobby Layne. Old #22, who ought to have been in the running for that Top 10 list, was somehow left off the list entirely … he’s nowhere among the league’s Top 100. And I find that astonishing.
Besides the fact that Layne was a pioneer in the breakout era of our new national game — you will find those who believe the NFL might not have made it here in Detroit were it not for the performance and presence of Layne in the early 1950s — his stats and accomplishments are right up there with the greatest NFLers of all-time. Johnny Unitas won two NFL crowns in his time, and I believe Peyton Manning has managed one. Bobby Layne led the Lions to three. Layne pushed the Lions to four World’s Championship games (the name of the title contest before the Super Bowl) and placed the Honolulu Blue and Silver in second place twice in his eight years as the Lions starting quarterback. That kind of record — six terrific seasons out of eight, three world titles — has to put him among the greatest NFL quarterbacks, and the greatest NFL players, of all-time.
And it wasn’t just the numbers Layne left behind, it was how he compiled them. It is doubtful that any NFL player ever personified one franchise as much as Layne did the Lions, and it seems unlikely that anyone has ever played with the passion and color and drama that Layne injected in the game. The Lions were the gashouse gang of the seminal 1950s in the NFL, specializing in late-game comebacks and off-the-field hijinks that helped sell the game here in the Motor City and around the country. His name was magic in those days, to many his was the face of the burgeoning NFL. His silver-helmeted face was on the cover of Time Magazine in 1954 for cripe’s sakes … that’s how much he meant to the league and the game.
It was telling that the Lions plunged out of title contention as soon as Layne was traded from the team, following their victory in the 1957 championship game. He was traded to the consistently awful Pittsburgh Steelers, and his presence on their team — reunited with his Lions head coach, Buddy Parker — brought the Steelers to almost immediate respectability, sparking them to a third-place finish at 7-4-1 and the first winning season in Pittsburgh in seven years. Though short on talent, Layne kept the Steeler team in contention — or at least a constant and colorful winning threat — throughout his final five NFL seasons.
Let me just add that there was talk in Detroit in 1951 that the Lions might not survive as a profitable and viable entity unless something dramatic were to happen on the playing field, and soon. That ‘something dramatic’ was Layne, and a team that couldn’t sell out any of its home contests, playing to crowds of around 15,000, had topped 40,000 in season’s ticket sales by the time of Layne’s final season here. The Lions went from a hapless franchise to the hottest ticket in town from 1950 to 1957.
Yet #22 doesn’t even make it ANYWHERE in the Top 100? To that lovely “blue-ribbon panel’s” credit, they did find room for Lions Barry Sanders (#17), Night Train Lane (30), and Joe Schmidt (84) — who should have been placed dramatically higher — on their flawed list. But it is an outrage that no room was found for Bobby Layne, who should have been awarded high consideration.
I can’t explain the slight, except to figure that the ongoing pathos and futility that has kept the Lions a laughingstock in the modern league has smeared just about everyone historically linked with the franchise. Other Hall of Fame players like Jack Christiansen and Yale Lary should have made the Top 100, to name but two who also have been slighted by their Lions affiliation.
You may recall a scene from the movie Patton, where the general — for a time in early 1944 blocked from participation in World War II — laments “The whole world at war and ME not in it?” It’s not much of a stretch to imagine Bobby Layne, pondering this stupid list while mixing a scotch and milk from on high — I imagine they allow scotch and milk in heaven, if it’s really heaven — and muttering “A list of the top 100 players in the history of pro football and ME not on it?”
Did I mention the terms “astonishing” and “absurd”? Let’s toss “ridiculous” in for good measure….