I was in front of my television set November 20 last when Jay Cutler came out late in a game against the San Diego Chargers clutching an obviously injured throwing hand after trying manfully to tackle a defender who’d just intercepted one of his passes.
My first thought was a four-letter word starting with “s” and ending with the certainty that the Bears’ hopes for playoff contention were finished even though they’d leave the field that night with a 7-3 record. My next thought—following swiftly—had to do with Bobby Layne.
For the historically challenged, Layne spent one year as a rookie backup quarterback with the Bears way back in 1948. His trade at the end of that season—to the quickly defunct New York Bulldogs for a draft choice and $50,000—turned out to be the worst in Bears’ history. That’s because Layne’s next stop, in 1950, was with the Detroit Lions, and he made that team the National Football League’s best during that decade.
Worse yet, Layne turned out to be a notable curser, not in the sense of using everyday epithets but in the way that a person with extraordinary powers can cause the wrath of God to fall on those who have earned his or her dislike. When the Lions dealt Layne to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1958, he cursed them roundly, saying he hoped they wouldn’t win for the next 50 years. He was better than his word, and the Lions’ 1957 NFL championship—with Layne at the helm most of the way—has been their last.
Layne wasn’t heard to curse the Bears when he left them, but he was just 22 years old at the time and no one paid much attention to his mutterings. Nonetheless, since his forced departure bad luck similar to that which befell the Lions has befallen the Bears in the quarterback department. It’s hard to believe but the team’s last great QB was Sid Luckman, a Layne contemporary who retired in 1950.
Saint Sid played so long ago that he’s a legend, like Jim Thorpe and King Arthur, but he still holds the Bear records for most career passing yards (14,686) and touchdowns (137). Several eras of offensive evolution have passed in the 62 years since he stepped aside, but they’ve missed the team entirely. The Bears haven’t sustained a first-class passing game in all that time.
Sure, the team has had a few okay QBs since ’50. Johnny Lujack, Ed Brown, Rudy Bukich and Erik Kramer all enjoyed a decent year or two. Billy Wade handed off ably for a 1963 championship team that won with defense, and Jim McMahon did all right in 1985, when another defensive powerhouse won Chicago’s only Super Bowl.
Mostly, though, we’ve had to put up with the likes of:
Kyle Orton, and
I could go on, but you get the point.
It looked like the drought had ended in 2009 when the Bears acquired Cutler from the Denver Broncos for Orton and draft choices, including two No. 1s. Big, strong-armed, cocky and deceptively mobile, Cutler fills Central Casting’s requirements for an NFL quarterback, and while his throwing form is less than Greek he usually manages to put the ball where he wants it to go. Given a modicum of blocking support, it looked as though his addition would spell lift-off for the Bears’ long-dormant air attack.
Alas, however, after a surviving an inconsistent first season in Chicago, Cutler hasn’t finished another one intact. In 2010 he went down at the least opportune time, with a knee injury in the third quarter of a winnable NFC championship game against the Green Bay Packers, and last season he bowed out after game 10 with the above-mentioned hand injury. If he isn’t cursed, surely something similar is involved.
Layne is my prime suspect. He originally was a Bear, a first-round draftee out of the U. of Texas in 1948, where he joined Lujack in backing up Luckman. Sid was in his athletic dotage at the time, but team owner George Halas, a noted nickel nurser, saw no reason to pay two top prospects to replace him, so after that season he chose the handsome ex-Notre Damer and cut Layne loose.
Luckman quit after 1950, as expected, but after 1951 Lujack unexpectedly left, too, soon to join his father-in-law in a Chevy dealership in Davenport, Iowa. While Lujack was hawking cars, Layne was guiding the Lions to titles in 1952, ’53 and ’57, no doubt laughing all the way. He’d go on to play 15 pro seasons and win election to the game’s Hall of Fame.
Layne never was one to mince words. In both Detroit and Pittsburgh he demanded and got the right to call his own plays, an unusual move even back then. He set his own training (or, non-training) rules and was a night-life lion in the towns where he played, allegedly also enjoying an occasional pre-game or half-time pop (“You could get drunk just smelling his breath,” said Art Donovan, a DL who faced him across scrimmage many times).
Layne’s creed, which others since have claimed, was that he hoped “to run out of air and cash at the same time.” “If I knew I’d live this long I’d have taken better care of myself,” he quipped in his 50s. He never made it to 60, dying of cancer on December 1, 1986, 18 days short of the six-decade mark.
Ol’ Bobby is buried in the city cemetery in Lubbock, Texas. Like Cutler, his stock-in-trade was competitiveness, not form, so he’d probably like the Bears’ QB. If Jay is in the neighborhood sometime he might consider visiting Layne’s grave and placating his spirit with flowers and a shot or two of Jack.
It couldn’t hurt.
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FRED KLEIN is the former national sports columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He blogs at fredkleinonsports.blogspot.com.