Green: QB controversy a Lions tradition

Jerry Green
The Detroit News

One day an innocent sports journalist cub pulled in from New York with fancy credentials and calmly dropped the hot words to the head coach of the Detroit Lions.

“Quarterback controversy?” the reporter started.

And the two words triggered a tizzy fit by the coach. He screeched and hollered and the reporter retreated.

“We don’t have a quarterback controversy,” fumed the coach.

This was not a question asked of Jim Caldwell about Matthew Stafford in the wake of last Bloody Sunday.

It was nearly a half-century ago. The angered coach was Harry Gilmer. And the reporter was a new guy from the popular, polished, slick know-everything magazine Sports Illustrated. Name long forgotten; never seen again.

The quarterbacks in question are remembered by us octogenarians: Milt Plum and Karl Sweetan.

And Gilmer had a dilemma. Which quarterback would he start in the next Sunday’s game at Tiger Stadium? Which quarterback had the better attributes in the category by which Harry used to judge his quarterbacks: “Mental discipline?”

This was in 1966, early in the season. Harry was a beleaguered coach, trying to survive, to save his job. His efforts were in vain. And he would be gone at the end of the season, attacked by a barrage of snowballs by the Lions always faithful fans.

Caldwell need not concern himself about a snowball attack from the grandsons of those stalwart, expressive fans of yesteryear.

It never snows inside Ford Field.

But . . . to deny that the Lions are currently enmeshed in a quarterback controversy is absolute wishful thinking.

Since the summer of 1957 — before their last championship — the Lions have had serial quarterback controversies.

It is attached to the franchise like sweaty shoulder pads.

Sharing QB duties

Tobin Rote came that summer. He arrived in a trade with the Packers. The trade was arranged while Lisle Blackbourn, Green Bay’s coaching predecessor to Vince Lombardi, was in Ann Arbor signing Ron Kramer.

That season, Layne and Rote shared the starting quarterback job for the Lions.

Layne had won two NFL championships for the Lions in 1952 and 1953.

Bobby remains an NFL legend. But a newcomer in 1956 was astonished that the Detroit fans loved to devour their own quarterback.

It seemed to happen every home game Sunday that ’56 season: The fans at Briggs Stadium would chant “Goodbye Bobby, Goodbye Bobby — We hate to see you go!” with venomous ecstasy. This was the ritual as Layne misfired and the offense reeled.

Then in the fourth quarter, Layne, his mind cleared, led the comeback in the style he invented. The Lions would rally. And the fans, fickle forever, cheered and hollered. They loved Bobby.

Then Rote — who had beaten the Lions and Layne for Green Bay on Thanksgiving 1956 — was dealt to Detroit.

It was the beginning of the Lions’ everlasting quarterback controversy.

But that one season of 1957, the two-quarterback system was magic. It was the season Buddy Parker walked out as coach at a Lions’ preseason fans banquet with the declaration that he couldn’t handle this team any more.

Parker was miffed that some his players had been celebrating at a pre-banquet party tossed by some of the clubowners.

Two of the partygoers Parker couldn’t handle happened to be Layne and Rote.

George Wilson became head coach just before the season started.

Whether it was Layne or Rote at quarterback, Wilson’s two-quarterback system worked. The Lions won enough to tie for the division title with the 49ers.

They would win in December without Layne. His leg was broken in a start against the enemy Browns.

Rote played the remaining games. He led the magnificent comeback at San Francisco in a tiebreaker for the division title. Then Tobin threw four touchdown passes in the championship victory over the Browns at Briggs Stadium. The 59-14 score remains a tribute to the dynasty Lions 58 years later. The Lions’ last championship.

The next season, Layne was traded out of town — bitter — to the Steelers, coached by Buddy Parker. Bobby’s job had been taken by Tobin Rote.

Layne left Detroit after two games of the 1958 season.

The quarterback controversy has remained — all these barren seasons ever since. The truth is there was no curse of Bobby Layne. It just seemed like he had placed his curse on the Lions on his way out of town.

And quickly it was Rote or Earl Morrall, who had joined the Lions in the Layne trade.

A familiar theme

The controversy was handed from coach to coach. From Wilson to Gilmer to Joe Schmidt. Plum or Sweetan? On to coaches Rick Forzano, Tommy Hudspeth, Darryl Rogers, Monte Clark. Linked to the coaching job.

One day when Schmidt was head coach I boldly asked him about which quarterback might be starting the next Sunday. Plum or Sweetan?

Joe looked at me and in his low, conspiratorial voice said:

“They’re driving me crazy.”

Once on a Lions’ charter flight, returning home from another defeat, the late, angry Alex Karras roasted his own quarterback:

“Milk drinkers, all of them. They should give them a cape, like bullfighters.”

And through the years, that has been the pattern:

Greg Landry or Bill Munson?

Joe Reed and Jeff Komlo!

Gary Danielson or Eric Hipple?

Chuck Long or Rusty Hilger?

Rodney Peete or Erik Kramer? With Andre Ware in waiting!

Scott Mitchell or Dave Krieg?

Charlie Batch or Ty Detmer?

Joey Harrington or Jeff Garcia?

Dan Orlovsky or Daunte Culpepper or Jon Kitna?

Matthew Stafford or Culpepper or Shaun Hill or Drew Stanton?

In all these 58 years, since they were champions, the Lions have managed one postseason victory. It belonged to Erik Kramer. He beat the Cowboys, 38-6, and a young quarterback, Troy Aikman, in 1991. Aikman would go on to become a three-time Super Bowl winner. And Pro Football Hall of Famer.

And the Lions would go on with their quarterback controversy. Coached by Wayne Fontes, Bobby Ross, Gary Moeller, Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci, Dick Jauron, Rod Marinelli, Jim Schwartz — and now Caldwell.

The Lions could never shake it, the quarterback controversies.

It is there again.

Stafford was drafted tops off the board in 2009 —out of Bobby Layne’s old high school, Highland Park in Dallas.

It seemed that the Lions had picked a ruby after the 0-16 season.

But now, again, the ancient malady has returned. It has run through three generations of Lions fans — grandpa, son and grandson — devouring their quarterback with the same lusty venomous ecstasy.

Another barren season. Another quarterback controversy? Another bullfighter in need of a scarlet cape!

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter.