October 12, 2010

1958: Newly-Acquired Bobby Layne Leads Steelers to Win in First Game

On October 12, 1958 at Pitt Stadium, star quarterback Bobby Layne took the field with his new team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, after eight highly accomplished seasons in Detroit (he originally came into the NFL as a backup with the Bears and also spent a year with the short-lived New York Bulldogs). No one could say that the hard-driving, hard-drinking Texan threw picturesque passes, but Layne more than made up for it with his fiery leadership and ability in the clutch. Under the guidance of Head Coach Buddy Parker and with formidable offensive weapons at his disposal, he became the master of the two-minute drill and a feared deep passer. The Lions made it to three consecutive NFL Championship games from 1952-54, all against Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns, and won the first two.

After a down year in 1955 (Layne suffered a shoulder injury in the off-season), the Lions just missed winning the Western Conference in ’56 when Layne was knocked out of the decisive encounter with the Chicago Bears by a late blind-side tackle by DE Ed Meadows. A veteran quarterback, Tobin Rote, was obtained from Green Bay for 1957 to add depth at the position, and then Coach Parker abruptly quit the team during the preseason. Under Parker’s successor, George Wilson, Layne and Rote split time, and when Layne suffered a broken leg late in the season, it was Rote leading the club the rest of the way to the NFL Championship.

With a quarterback controversy brewing and friction developing with Wilson, the 31-year-old Layne was dealt to the Steelers for third-year QB Earl Morrall and two draft picks following the second week of the 1958 season. In Pittsburgh, he was reunited with Buddy Parker. He was also with a club that had not posted a winning record in the past eight years (they went 6-6 under Parker in ’57).

The Steelers had lost their first two games with Morrall at quarterback and were badly embarrassed by the Browns in their last game prior to Layne’s joining the club. It was a different situation with Layne in the lineup for Week 3 against the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Eagles, after three straight losing seasons, were in transition under a new coach, Buck Shaw, and a new veteran quarterback, Norm Van Brocklin, who had been obtained from the Rams.

Early in the first quarter, Philadelphia FB Clarence Peaks fumbled and DT Joe Lewis recovered for the Steelers. On the first play, HB Tom Tracy (a former teammate of Layne’s in Detroit) scored a touchdown with a 31-yard carry on a reverse. The Eagles responded with a 36-yard field goal by Bobby Walston that made the score 7-3.

The Steelers got another TD before the end of the period after DT Frank Varrichione recovered a fumbled punt by Eagles DB Rocky Ryan which gave them the ball on the Philadelphia 30 yard line - a penalty moved it up to the 15. Layne hit end Dick Lucas with a nine-yard pass to set up a one-yard scoring run by FB Tank Younger.

In the second quarter, Pittsburgh recovered yet another fumble in Eagles territory, again at the 30 yard line. Tracy ran in from the one after a drive that featured an 11-yard run by Layne and the Steelers took a 21-3 lead into halftime.

In the third quarter, safety Gary Glick intercepted a Van Brocklin pass and returned it 23 yards to the Philadelphia 37. Layne and the Steelers kept the ball on the ground and Tom Miner kicked a 26-yard field goal to conclude the scoring. Pittsburgh won Layne’s debut by the decisive score of 24-3.

The opportunistic Steelers defense made the most of three Eagles fumbles and the interception. The Eagles gained just 59 yards on the ground, as opposed to 214 for the Steelers. Pittsburgh led in first downs, 19 to 16.

Bobby Layne completed 10 of 20 passes for 81 yards - two long passes were narrowly missed by Pittsburgh receivers. Norm Van Brocklin, playing from behind the entire game, completed 16 of 37 passes for 148 yards.

Said Layne afterward, “I never got the seat of my pants dirty when I went back to pass and that’s just one of the reasons I know the Pittsburgh Steelers are a good team.”

The Steelers lost their next two games, but then ran off five straight wins and ended up with a 7-4-1 record to place third in the Eastern Conference. The Eagles ended up tied at the bottom with the Cardinals at 2-9-1.

Bobby Layne led the NFL in yards per attempt (8.7) and yards per completion (17.6). His 2510 passing yards and low 3.7 interception percentage both ranked second. He tossed 14 touchdown passes and had 12 throws picked off. Rookie split end Jimmy Orr especially benefited from his presence, leading the league with a gaudy 27.6 yards-per-catch on 33 receptions for 910 yards with seven touchdowns.

Layne played another four seasons with the Steelers but, while still effective, he didn’t attain the level of success that he had in Detroit. A multi-talented player earlier in his career – he had been a good running quarterback (he led NFL quarterbacks in rushing three times) and placekicker – wear and tear were beginning to erode his skills. One of the last players to not wear a facemask, he also chose to take the field with minimal padding throughout his career (no hip or thigh pads and the thinnest possible shoulder pads). He retired as the NFL’s career leader in pass completions (1814), yards (26,768), and touchdowns (196).