Publish date:

Searching for Bobby Layne

Desperate to find their next great quarterback, the Lions are taking a good, hard look at top-rated Matthew Stafford—who has an uncanny link to their last great quarterback

THE CURSE ofBobby Layne goes like this: In 1958 the Lions, coming off their third NFLchampionship in six years, lost their opening game and then tied their second13--13. (Note the bad-luck score.) The next day they traded Layne, theirswashbuckling future Hall of Fame quarterback, to the Steelers, replacing himwith the safer, clean-living Tobin Rote. On his way out of town, legend has it,a bitter Layne said, "The Lions won't win for the next 50 years." ¶Detroit went 4-7-1 that season. In the half century since, the Lions have hadonly one playoff victory. In 2008, the 50th year of the curse, they became thefirst team in NFL history to go 0--16.

Last monthMargaret Stafford of suburban Dallas read about the curse and called her son.And that's where the story of Matthew Stafford gets interesting.

STAFFORD, THEstrong-armed junior quarterback out of Georgia who just turned 21, is thetop-rated player at his position and one of the most intriguing prospects inthe 2009 draft. He could be selected anywhere in the top 20, with Kansas City(picking third), Jacksonville (eighth), San Francisco (10th) and the New YorkJets (17th) among his potential employers. But it's Detroit, drafting first anda team that hasn't had an All-Pro quarterback since Layne, that is in primeposition to take Stafford.

At the annualscouting combine in Indianapolis last week, the 6'2", 225-pound Stafforddisappointed interested teams by not throwing for scouts on Sunday with theother quarterbacks in the '09 crop, including Mark Sanchez of USC and JoshFreeman of Kansas State. Stafford ran the 40 and did the vertical jump andother drills but said he won't show his arm until Georgia's Pro Day workout onMarch 19.

Though recent topfive picks Eli Manning, Alex Smith, JaMarcus Russell and Matt Ryan didn't throwat their respective combines, NFL personnel evaluators weren't as unsure aboutthem as they are of Stafford. He was the premier high school quarterback in thenation in the fall of 2005, but why didn't he become a college superstar? Is heaccurate enough to become a franchise QB in the NFL? Has he already peaked as apasser? Would he have benefited from a fourth year in college, the way Ryandid?

There's noquestion that he'd welcome the challenge of playing for the Lions. "I'mbeing completely honest, and it has nothing to do with money—I would love to goto Detroit," Stafford said last Friday night at the Indianapolis hotelhousing the 328 players at this year's combine. "My friends say, 'C'mon,gimme a break.' But I'm a competitive guy. The Lions have passionate fans, agreat stadium, and I'd be throwing to the biggest freak [Calvin Johnson], withthe most talent, of any receiver in the NFL."

AFTER STAFFORDcommitted to Georgia, draft guru Mel Kiper said the young Texan, who as asenior threw for 4,018 yards and 38 TDs and led Highland Park High to the stateClass AAAA championship, would be the first pick in the NFL draft whenever hechose to come out. He had some terrific games with the Bulldogs: As an18-year-old freshman he beat No. 5 Auburn on the road and No. 14 Virginia Techin the Chick-fil-A Bowl; the next season he threw a 25-yard touchdown pass inovertime to beat Alabama on the road and led Georgia past Florida and thenHawaii in the Sugar Bowl. Last summer the Bulldogs were the preseason No. 1,but while Stafford's numbers—3,459 passing yards, 25 TDs, 10 interceptions—werethe best of his college career, losses to Alabama, Florida and Georgia Techdropped Georgia out of national title contention and Stafford out of thelimelight. He was overshadowed in his own conference, the SEC, by Floridaquarterback Tim Tebow.

Over threeseasons Stafford was a 57% passer in a downfield offense, good but not great.Skeptics say that while he shows a strong arm, his feet are suspect and hisdecision-making can be questionable. "I thought he'd be a big talent atGeorgia, and he played well, and he led his team well," said a scout whoseNFL club needs a QB. "But he never became the best quarterback in thecountry like I thought he would."

"People sayhe plateaued at Georgia," says Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo,"but I've seen him win at Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge. Last year at 20 heplayed wise beyond his years. He's got an NFL arm and can make any throw anyNFL quarterback can make."

Adds longtime NFLpersonnel analyst Gil Brandt, "His ball doesn't just go through the air; itwhistles."

In Indianapolis,10 teams met with Stafford. Dolphins quarterbacks coach David Lee drew a Miamipass play for Stafford, complete with terminology, erased it, then askedStafford to redraw it and explain his route progression. When Staffordfinished, Lee told him he'd nailed it. Jaguars quarterbacks coach Mike Shulaasked Stafford to draw up a play and teach it to the room of coaches andscouts. Stafford drew up his favorite—Rex Gun 562 Vacation—and drilled thecoaches on it.

The 49ersinterview, conducted by a team psychologist, struck Stafford as odd. Hisaccount: When the psychologist asked about his parents, he explained that theywere divorced when he was in high school and that he'd adjusted well; told hesounded as if he might have unfinished business concerning the divorce,Stafford said there certainly was not. "I felt like, I wonder how much I'mbeing charged per hour for this?" he says. "But I understand. They'regoing to pay a lot of money in the first round."

As for the Lions,Stafford said that at dinner last Thursday night new coach Jim Schwartz askedhim, "If this was a recruiting visit for college, what would you want toask us?" Stafford replied, "I want to see the city. I'd like to come upthere." The next day Stafford snuck up behind Detroit's buttoned-up chiefoperating officer, Tom Lewand, bear-hugged him and lifted him off the ground."Come on!" Stafford said, laughing. "Let's go! I'm ready!" Inother words, Pick me!

STAFFORD HAD justfinished his two-a-day workouts at Athletes' Performance Institute in Tempe,Ariz., the day he got the call from his mother asking, "Have you heard thisstory about Bobby Layne?" Stafford got chills as she recounted the tale.Though he knew nothing of the curse, he knew all about Layne. Before every gamefor four years at Highland Park High, Stafford had walked past a brass plaqueat the entrance to the football stadium bearing Layne's likeness andaccomplishments—and another plaque honoring Doak Walker. Teammates on two ofthose Lions title clubs, the pair had also been schoolboy legends at HighlandPark.

In 2005 Staffordled Highland Park to its first state championship in nearly 50 years. Will heget the chance to break the 50-year curse placed on the Lions by anotherHighland Park quarterback? "Crazy," Stafford said last Friday night ofthat possibility. He paused, then asked, "You think it's true? You think hereally said it?"

Layne died in1986, and one of his old Detroit teammates, All-Pro linebacker Joe Schmidt, 77,doesn't know if he said it. "Knowing Bobby, I wouldn't be surprised if hedid—but it wouldn't have been in a vindictive way," Schmidt said lastSaturday. "To this day I still don't know why they traded him. We reallymissed Bobby."

Then Schmidtasked if Stafford was going to be the Lions' pick. No decision's been made, hewas told. "Well, God bless him," Schmidt said. "The past weighspretty heavy on this team. Tell him good luck."

"People say he plateaued," says Bobo, "butI've seen him win at Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge. He PLAYED WISE beyond hisyears."



Stay on top of draft news and free-agent moves with Peter King, Don Banks, JimTrotter and the rest of the SI team.



Photograph by Todd Rosenberg

OFF AND RUNNING At Sunday's combine workout, Stafford ran a solid 4.81 in the 40 but only threw casually on the sideline.


Photograph by Todd Rosenberg

[See caption above]


Photograph by Todd Rosenberg

CHOOSING SIDES QB-needy teams have two more months to determine if Stafford (left) or Sanchez (17) has the right stuff.