The Detroit Lions have not won an NFL championship since 1957. Not so coincidentally, the Lions have not had a franchise quarterback since 1957.
Bobby Layne is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his heroics in Detroit, where he led the Lions to three NFL titles in the 1950s. He steered them to that final championship and went to the last of his three Pro Bowls in 1957.
But Detroit traded Layne to Pittsburgh the following season, and the Lions have not sniffed a championship since. Call it the curse of Bobby Layne — not only on the franchise, but on the position. Detroit has had only one quarterback go to the Pro Bowl in the 51 seasons since then: Greg Landry in 1972.
Matthew Stafford knows all about Bobby Layne. How could he not? There’s a plaque of Layne at the entrance of Highlander Stadium at Highland Park High School in Dallas, where Stafford played.
Not only did Stafford attend the same high school as Layne, he played the same position. Stafford directed the Scots to a state championship as a senior, then took Georgia to three consecutive bowl games, winning them all.
How fitting is it that Stafford has applied for early admission to the 2009 NFL Draft — and the quarterback-starved Lions had the first overall pick? Even the hapless Lions couldn’t screw this one up.
Winning in the NFL starts at quarterback. The Lions should know that more than any other franchise.
The St. Louis Rams were the worst team in the NFL in the 1990s. But the Rams stumbled across Kurt Warner in 1999 and went to two Super Bowls in the next three seasons. The Arizona Cardinals were the worst team in the NFL since the AFL-NFL merger in 1967. Then the Cardinals stumbled across Warner in 2005 and in four seasons also found themselves playing in a Super Bowl.
You can get to a Super Bowl without a great quarterback, as the Baltimore Ravens and Tampa Bay Buccaneers proved this decade. But everything else needs to be perfect. You must play great defense and have a ball-control rushing attack that takes the heat off your quarterback to make plays.
But if you have a franchise quarterback, he can camouflage the flaws of your team. You can win with less. Detroit already has the “less” part mastered. What they need now is a quarterback. What they need is Stafford.
You can understand if the Lions seem a bit leery of spending another premium draft choice on a quarterback. They have used high picks over the years on Chuck Long, Andre Ware and Joey Harrington, and none panned out.
But if you don’t have a quarterback, you don’t have a chance. If you don’t have a quarterback, the No. 1 off-season priority of your team is finding one.
When Peyton Manning showed up, the Colts became contenders. When Tom Brady showed up, the Patriots became contenders. Now that Matt Ryan is on hand, it looks as if the Atlanta Falcons also will become perennial contenders.
If you don’t have a quarterback, you can never stop looking. Stafford started 32 games at Georgia and won 25 of them. He threw 987 career passes for 7,731 yards and 51 touchdowns. He has an Elway-like arm with a Marino-like release.