The Bobby Layne curse is over — the Detroit Lions are legitimate Super Bowl contenders

2T0PBA4 Detroit Lions defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (97) celebrates his interception in the first half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in Detroit, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

In 1958, the reigning NFL champion Detroit Lions traded three-time championship-winning quarterback and future Hall of Famer Bobby Layne to the Pittsburgh Steelers in exchange for Earl Morrall and two draft picks.

Legend has it Layne declared the Lions “wouldn’t win again for 50 years” in response to the trade. And at the time of his retirement in 1963, Layne held most major career passing records, including completions, yards and touchdowns.

The Lions haven’t won a championship since. In fact, they have just one playoff win (1991, also the only time they have played in a conference championship), and they have made the playoffs just 12 times.

Fifty years after Layne allegedly made his declaration, the Lions infamously finished 0-16.

The Lions' enduring penchant for defeat cost them dearly, and some of their biggest stars came and went in unceremonious fashion. Running back Barry Sanders retired young, as did wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Longtime quarterback Matthew Stafford won a Super Bowl with the Los Angeles Rams in his first year away from Detroit.

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for Lions fans in the last half-century-plus, making the “Curse of Bobby Layne” one of the most devastating superstitions in sports.

Things looked more of the same midway through the 2022 season. The Lions got off to a 1-6 start, and head coach Dan Campbell’s job was looking to be in danger. But somewhere along the line, a switch flipped, with Detroit kicking on at a torrid pace to finish the year, winning eight of their final 10 games.

From Week 9 until the end of the regular season, the Lions offense generated a league-best 0.133 expected points added (EPA) per play on offense and ultimately found themselves in the thick of the playoff race, needing just a Rams victory over the Seahawks in order to get back to the playoffs. Unfortunately, the Rams couldn't see it through, eliminating Jared Goff and company from contention.

This late-season finish generated a wave of preseason hype, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in Detroit for a very long time. And to say that the Lions have lived up to these high expectations in 2023 is an understatement.

They boast a 5-1 record ahead of Week 7, their lone blemish being an overtime defeat against Seattle, where they never got a chance to possess the ball in the extra period.

It's just the eighth time in franchise history the Lions have started a season 5-1, but it's just the fourth time in the Super Bowl era they've won five of their opening six games.

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Arguably the biggest reason for the stellar start to their season has been quarterback Jared Goff, the guy who was thrown in for the Matthew Stafford trade so that the Lions could have a starting quarterback.

Goff has been outstanding to start the 2023 campaign. His 90.4 overall grade is the best mark in the league through six weeks of play, and his nine big-time throws are tied with Patrick Mahomes for the 10th most in the league. The Lions signal-caller has recorded just three turnover-worthy plays all year, the fewest in the league among starting quarterbacks.

Related: In his current form, Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff is an elite force

Goff has also had help. Despite fielding few big names in their receiving corps, the Lions have four different pass-catchers with receiving grades over 70.0 — Amon-Ra St. Brown (87.0), Josh Reynolds (81.3), Kalif Raymond (76.3) and rookie tight end Sam LaPorta (72.9). This is also a unit that just got 2022 first-rounder Jameson Williams back from suspension.

When the Lions' top options are fully healthy, the team also features a two-headed monster at running back with the bulldozing David Montgomery and change-of-pace rookie back Jahmyr Gibbs. Montgomery’s 22 missed tackles forced is currently tied for sixth in the league, despite the fact Montgomery has played one fewer game than most players ahead of him. And while Gibbs’ inconsistent usage and recent injury-related absences may be frustrating fantasy owners, his 3.15 yards after contact per carry ranks 16th among the 53 running backs who have carried the ball at least 25 times.

And then there is the offensive line, which has been outstanding through six games, earning a league-leading 79.7 pass-blocking grade on top of a third-best 77.0 run-blocking grade. 

Related: NFL Offensive Line Rankings Ahead of Week 7

Penei Sewell has played a significant number of snaps at both tackle spots and has allowed a grand total of three pressures — no sacks or hits, just three hurries — on 223 pass-blocking snaps. His 83.8 pass-blocking grade ranks fourth among all offensive linemen and third among tackles.

Two spots to Sewell's left, center Frank Ragnow has been a road-grader in the middle of the line, as his 80.3 run-blocking grade ranks fourth at his position.

Defensively, the Lions have gotten big years all around, particularly out of second-year edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson, who looks like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate through six games.

Hutchinson’s 36 pressures ranks second to only Maxx Crosby (38) and Micah Parsons (37). He's recorded four sacks but also an interception and a forced fumble. In fact, Hutchinson currently boasts 90.0-plus grades in the pass rush and in coverage.

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Nose tackle Alim McNeill is having a breakout season of his own, as he currently owns an 87.0 PFF grade, a top-10 mark among interior defenders. The third-year man out of North Carolina State has been especially stout against the run, with his 84.0 run-defense grade trailing only Quinnen Williams (86.6) and Dexter Lawrence (85.3).

In the secondary, rookie second-rounder Brian Branch looks like one of the steals of the draft, as he has grades of at least 79.0 in run defense, tackling and coverage.

Detroit's 42-24 win in Week 5 against the Panthers may be one of the best single-game performances by any team this season, as Goff, Reynolds, Hutchinson, McNeil and guard Graham Glasgow all recorded 90.0-plus PFF grades.

Hutchinson, in particular, was a menace, producing eight pressures while also recording two run stops and an interception that amounted to a 94.1 defensive grade.

Goff was also exceptional, completing 20-of-28 passes for 236 yards, three touchdowns and three big-time throws, good for a 92.8 passing grade. And four of Goff’s eight incompletions were the result of drops. This performance came despite the fact he was missing his star receiver, Amon-Ra St. Brown.

The Lions are off to their best start in over a decade, and with the early-season struggles of division rivals Chicago, Minnesota and Green Bay, the Lions could be in for their first division title since 1993.

The Curse of Bobby Layne has been laid to rest. The Lions are Super Bowl contenders in 2023. 


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