Matthew Stafford has proven he can make big plays, but he had a penchant for turnovers down the stretch. (Detroit News)
The truth is all there, way back in the early pages of the history book.
“Jest give me time, boys, and I’ll get you downfield and back to that championship,” urged the quarterback in his Texas drawl.
The clock read 4:10 when Bobby Layne broke the huddle at the 20-yard line — 80 yards to the NFL championship.
“I can beat my man,” end Jim Doran told Layne in the huddle some two minutes later. “I can beat him on an up.”
“Nine up ... and block,” Layne ordered.
Doran lined up wide at the right end and Layne took the snap. Bobby dropped back and Doran streaked straight ahead toward the end zone. Layne’s pass hit Doran as he beat his man, Warren Lahr. It was a touchdown and the Lions had tied the Browns at 16-16.
Doak Walker kicked the extra point.
And for the second season in succession, the Lions were NFL champions, with a 17-16 victory over the Browns in Cleveland Stadium.
It was Dec. 27, 1953, and Detroit’s pro football fans were giddy.
Flash forward, from this episode out of The Detroit News’ archives, along an historic link between Buddy Parker, who won two championships coaching the Lions in the 1950s, and now.
“Jest” 60 years later, to the week, the Lions had the ball at their 25 with 23 seconds left in a tied ballgame against the Giants at Ford Field. They had two time outs to stop the clock.
It was the perfect situation for a Bobby Layne.
But in this case the Lions let the clock expire. They surrendered the time, the timeouts, the opportunity to work downfield toward a field goal and a victory.
But they gave up this golden opportunity. They would take their chances in overtime.
And as the precious seconds and the two timeouts turned into waste, Detroit’s pro football followers booed and booed.
Jim Schwartz, the coach, turned and yelled at the crowd.
And on TV sets, you could see, Matthew Stafford, another Texas quarterback, grimace in disgust. Just for a moment. But the disgust was obvious.
Within two weeks, Schwartz would become another Lions coaching victim. Fired — quite likely with this opportunity-wasting incident as the crushing evidence.
The guillotine plunged down on Schwartz with two years left on his contract. Millions of dollars — like those 23 seconds — wasted.
One irony is that when Jim Schwartz was hired to coach the Lions he harked back to their history — mentioning Bobby Layne. He spoke of restoring the glory of the Lions’ distance past.
Another irony is that Stafford, at times, has played with the same swagger and command as Layne. Without the nocturnal engagements.
Layne’s Sunday afternoon forte was the long march downfield for the victory.
Stafford already had proven that he could handle that vital skill that should be inherent in all pro quarterbacks — but isn’t.
There was a memorable 28-27 victory against the Oakland Raiders that Stafford won with that skill. A 98-yard drive to win with 39 seconds left in the playoff season of 2011.
But most memorable — and most indicative of that precious skill — was the victory in the middle of the 2013 season over the Cowboys. Stafford vs. the more-publicized Tony Romo. A march downfield and then at the 1 with all of Ford Field — including the combatants in the game and on the sideline — anticipating a spike by Stafford to stop the clock. Stafford swiping his arm down in the spike signal.
And then Stafford grabbing the snap and diving — looking like a porpoise in the air — over the top for the winning touchdown.
William Clay Ford, years and years ago, had openly yearned for such a play.
“I want Roman candles shooting over the sidelines,” Ford said, a statement that has stuck with me for nearly 50 years.
This was a Roman-candle play.
Light a candle
The next irony is that the 31-30 victory over the Cowboys made the Lions 5-3 for the 2013 season. They would go to 6-3, in command of their NFC North Division — and in position to have been playing in this weekend’s Super Bowl playoffs.
The Lions had the edge — and frittered it away. Losses in six of the last seven, a squandered lead in each of those losses; the mysterious decline in the performances by Stafford; a pratfall that could never be explained.
Then the wasting away of the golden opportunity against the Giants; Schwartz’s obvious (to me) loss of faith in Stafford; the defensive lapses; the nagging injuries to the incomparable Calvin Johnson.
This coming week — next Friday — marks the 50th anniversary of Bill Ford’s official 100-percent purchase of the Lions franchise. In that time, Ford has employed 16 head coaches from George Wilson — who won the last Lions championship in 1957 — to Schwartz.
No. 17 is enduring the interview process.
The best of the candidates — my distant opinion — is Jim Caldwell, who has a Super Bowl appearance on his resume, the Colts’ loss to the Saints. But what he also has on his resume is the tutorship and fine-tuning of Sir Peyton Manning, reigning king of the NFL quarterbacks. Plus the grooming of Joe Flacco to elitist stature with the Ravens, winners of 2013’s Super Bowl.
Roman candles? Such strange things do happen in the curious realm of pro football!
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive column on Sundays at detroitnews.com.