PHOTOS - Eye on the Opponent: Detroit Lions
Each man, in his own way, showed them what it was going to take to win.
Buddy Parker and Bobby Layne came to them one year apart in the late 1950s, and it didn’t take long before the duo had established themselves as the most successful coach-quarterback combination in the history of Art Rooney Sr.’s franchise. They rode into town from the Detroit Lions, where the two men had been the most important influences on a team good enough to win back-to-back NFL Championships in 1952-53 and play for a third in a row in 1954.
Today, the Pittsburgh Steelers have won more Super Bowls than any other team in the NFL, and in a way they owe a debt of gratitude to the Detroit Lions.
It was 1934 when the Detroit franchise was added to make the NFL an 11-team league, but since it still was an era when teams were grouped strictly by geography, the Lions were assigned to what then was called the Western Division. That meant the teams met irregularly, but even at that, the Lions were dominant. By the time Parker had coached the Lions to those two championships, then worn out his welcome there, then finagled a five-year contract from Art Rooney Sr. on Aug. 27, 1957, the all-time series stood at 13-5 in favor of Detroit.
Parker was 0-2-1 vs. his old team as the coach of the Steelers, but after his tenure is when Pittsburgh began to dominate the series. Since Buddy Parker resigned in 1964, the Steelers are 11-2 vs. the Lions with the only losses coming in a pair of Thanksgiving Day games – 45-3 in 1983 and 19-16 in overtime in 1988.
Sunday’s game at Heinz Field between the Detroit Lions and the Pittsburgh Steelers will be just the 35th over the course of the 80 seasons these franchises have been in the NFL together.
Parker knew a roster capable of competing for a championship when he had one, and he didn’t need long after arriving in Pittsburgh to figure out he didn’t have one here. The Steelers had three quarterbacks on their roster in 1957: 23-year-old Earl Morrall, and a pair of 22-year-olds named Jack Kemp and Len Dawson. Based on how their careers would end, the Steelers had a wealth of young talent at the game’s most critical position, but their age was a problem for their new head coach.
Buddy Parker didn’t trust young players, because he believed that mistakes most often separated the winners from the losers, and veterans were less likely to make mistakes. On Oct. 6, 1958 – two games into that NFL season – Parker traded Morrall and two first-round draft picks to the Lions to bring Layne to the Steelers.
“The day he first arrived in Pittsburgh, I picked him up at the airport,” wrote Dan Rooney in his book, ‘My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL.’ “He questioned me the whole way, wanting to know everything about the players, the coaches, and the city. From the time his foot hit the ground on the field at South Park, Bobby Layne was in charge. He was that kind of guy, always in control.
“He was the most competitive player I ever knew.”
The Steelers were 0-2 when Layne arrived in 1958, but with him at quarterback the Steelers put up a 7-2-1 record to finish the season 7-4-1, their best since 1947.
Current Team President Art Rooney II’s first real memories of the Steelers being the family business came during the Parker-Layne era, and even as a boy it didn’t take him long to recognize that his grandfather’s team had itself a big-time quarterback.
“I don’t even know if the word superstar was around in those days, but Layne was the first guy we had who was a nationally recognized player,” said Rooney II. “Now, we had Ernie Stautner, who was a great player, but he was a defensive lineman and people didn’t know him that much. Layne had won championships and was a great player and everyone knew who he was. It was the first time we had a team that was to be reckoned with week in and week out. As people say even now, whenever you have a franchise quarterback you have a chance to win, and that’s what it was like with Layne. There were a lot of games where you didn’t feel you were out of it because he was there.”
With Layne at quarterback, the Steelers were a much more colorful bunch, for sure, but the team also was winning as consistently as in any previous era in franchise history. The Steelers were 6-5-1 in 1959; 5-6-1 in 1960; 6-8 in 1961; and peaked to 9-5 in 1962, which turned out to be Layne’s final NFL season.
In a final bit of karma, by virtue of finishing second to the New York Giants in the Eastern Conference that season the Steelers qualified for a de facto exhibition game in Miami called the Playoff Bowl against the second-place team from the Western Conference. In the 1962 Playoff Bowl, the Steelers lost to the Detroit Lions, 17-10.
During his time in Pittsburgh, the Steelers were 27-22-2 with Layne completing 49.2 percent of his passes for 66 touchdowns and 81 interceptions. He had given the town its first taste of a swashbuckling quarterback.
“It is fair to say that the Buddy Parker days are when I started to become more aware of what was going on and was able to be around more,” said Rooney II. “I got to go to training camp when Buddy Parker was the coach and Bobby Layne was the quarterback, and obviously those were interesting times.
“I wouldn’t go into the details, but I do remember one time that Mickey Mantle came up to visit Bobby Layne. They were friends. I don’t really remember why Mantle had some free time – maybe it was the All-Star break. I certainly remember Mickey Mantle being in camp, and even I can’t tell you some of the stories I heard about his visit.”
The legacy of Parker’s tenure would become his maddening penchant for trading future draft picks for veterans on the downsides of their careers, and he also had a tendency to cut players irrationally following losses. During the six drafts from 1958-63, Parker traded 25 of the Steelers’ top 30 picks, and players were known to hide in the airplane bathroom after losses on the road to avoid Parker’s wrath.
Things came to a head in 1964 when Parker planned to trade rookie Ben McGee, who would go on to become a two-time Pro Bowl defensive end. When Dan Rooney, who had been put in charge by his father of the day-to-day operations of the team, wouldn’t give in to Parker, the coach threatened to resign. Parker’s resignation was accepted, and even though it wouldn’t be until 1969 that the Steelers would get the coaching thing right by hiring Chuck Noll, the organization had made the decision to utilize the draft as the primary method of roster-building.
Buddy Parker taught the Steelers the folly of trading away your future, and Bobby Layne illustrated how critical it was to have a dynamic quarterback.
But there would be one more link between the Steelers and the Lions, and while this one didn’t teach the Steelers how to win, it certainly helped them to win again.
The Chuck Noll era began in 1969, and his first team would finish 1-13, with its only victory coming in the opener against the Detroit Lions at Pitt Stadium. A 6-yard run by Warren Bankston provided the margin in the Steelers’ 16-13 win, and in the Lions secondary that day was an 11-year veteran cornerback named Dick LeBeau.
Twenty-three seasons later, Bill Cowher was hired by Dan Rooney to follow Noll as the Steelers coach, and Cowher hired LeBeau to be the secondary coach on his initial staff of assistants. In 1995 Cowher promoted LeBeau to defensive coordinator, and in 2004 – after LeBeau had been away from the team for seven seasons – Cowher re-hired him for the same job. Mike Tomlin, hired to replace Cowher in 2007, retained LeBeau as part of his initial staff.
In 11 seasons with the Steelers over two tenures, the defenses LeBeau coordinated have finished with these NFL rankings: third, second, first, fourth, ninth, first, first, fifth, second, first, first. He has been the defensive coordinator in each of the four Steelers’ Super Bowl appearances that came after the Chuck Noll era ended.
THROWBACKS ARE BACK
Sunday’s 1 p.m. game against the Detroit Lions also will mark the one occasion this season where the Steelers will wear their throwback jerseys, which will be the 1934 model they debuted in 2012. In 1934 when the Steelers were wearing the horizontal-striped jerseys, the Lions won the inaugural matchup in this series, 40-7.
“All of the throwbacks are meant to reflect and remember that there was that era,” said Art Rooney II. “Even though the early days weren’t historic from the standpoint of that much success, it’s nice for fans to be reminded there was an era like that back at the beginnings of the franchise. Even though there are mixed opinions about it, a lot of the fans really like the jerseys.”