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THE CURSE of Bobby Layne goes like this: In 1958 the Lions, coming off their third NFL championship in six years, lost their opening game and then tied their second 13--13. (Note the bad-luck score.) The next day they traded Layne, their swashbuckling future Hall of Fame quarterback, to the Steelers, replacing him with 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 had only one playoff victory. In 2008, the 50th year of the curse, they became the first team in NFL history to go 0--16.
Last month Margaret Stafford of suburban Dallas read about the curse and called her son. And that's where the story of Matthew Stafford gets interesting.
STAFFORD, THE strong-armed junior quarterback out of Georgia who just turned 21, is the top-rated player at his position and one of the most intriguing prospects in the 2009 draft. He could be selected anywhere in the top 20, with Kansas City (picking third), Jacksonville (eighth), San Francisco (10th) and the New York Jets (17th) among his potential employers. But it's Detroit, drafting first and a team that hasn't had an All-Pro quarterback since Layne, that is in prime position to take Stafford.
At the annual scouting combine in Indianapolis last week, the 6'2", 225-pound Stafford disappointed interested teams by not throwing for scouts on Sunday with the other quarterbacks in the '09 crop, including Mark Sanchez of USC and Josh Freeman of Kansas State. Stafford ran the 40 and did the vertical jump and other drills but said he won't show his arm until Georgia's Pro Day workout on March 19.
Though recent top five picks Eli Manning, Alex Smith, JaMarcus Russell and Matt Ryan didn't throw at their respective combines, NFL personnel evaluators weren't as unsure about them as they are of Stafford. He was the premier high school quarterback in the nation in the fall of 2005, but why didn't he become a college superstar? Is he accurate enough to become a franchise QB in the NFL? Has he already peaked as a passer? Would he have benefited from a fourth year in college, the way Ryan did?
There's no question that he'd welcome the challenge of playing for the Lions. "I'm being completely honest, and it has nothing to do with money—I would love to go to Detroit," Stafford said last Friday night at the Indianapolis hotel housing 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, a great stadium, and I'd be throwing to the biggest freak [Calvin Johnson], with the most talent, of any receiver in the NFL."
AFTER STAFFORD committed to Georgia, draft guru Mel Kiper said the young Texan, who as a senior threw for 4,018 yards and 38 TDs and led Highland Park High to the state Class AAAA championship, would be the first pick in the NFL draft whenever he chose to come out. He had some terrific games with the Bulldogs: As an 18-year-old freshman he beat No. 5 Auburn on the road and No. 14 Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl; the next season he threw a 25-yard touchdown pass in overtime to beat Alabama on the road and led Georgia past Florida and then Hawaii 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—were the best of his college career, losses to Alabama, Florida and Georgia Tech dropped Georgia out of national title contention and Stafford out of the limelight. He was overshadowed in his own conference, the SEC, by Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.
Over three seasons 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 his decision-making can be questionable. "I thought he'd be a big talent at Georgia, and he played well, and he led his team well," said a scout whose NFL club needs a QB. "But he never became the best quarterback in the country like I thought he would."
"People say he plateaued at Georgia," says Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, "but I've seen him win at Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge. Last year at 20 he played wise beyond his years. He's got an NFL arm and can make any throw any NFL quarterback can make."
Adds longtime NFL personnel analyst Gil Brandt, "His ball doesn't just go through the air; it whistles."