BOBBY LAYNE ARRIVES IN PITTSBURGH OCTOBER 1958
Losing 45-12 to the Cleveland Browns is never acceptable for Steeler fans, so when that loss gave the team a 0-2 start to the 1958 season, coach Buddy Parker acted fast.
Bobby Layne had been drafted by the Steelers in 1948, but Layne didn’t fancy playing for a team that was the last to use the single wing formation. Because of Layne’s resistance, the Steelers dealt his rights to Chicago, where he was encouraged to sign with the Bears by their charismatic and persuasive owner, George Halas.
Layne only stayed with the Bears for a year before being traded, naturally for Halas at a profit, to the New York Bulldogs a team with a tradition in mediocrity almost as sad as the Steelers. The Bulldogs later became the New York Yankees football team and in April 1950, traded Layne to Detroit after acquiring George Ratterman – “the greatest all-around athlete in the history of Notre Dame.” Allegedly.
Later that same year, Buddy Parker was promoted to the Lions’ head coach spot and both the new head coach and player ensured the team achieved success on the field as their combined contribution to the franchise produced results.
In a bizarre episode during the welcoming meal for the 1957 Lions team, Parker resigned, citing an inability to control his players.
“When you get to a situation where you can’t handle football players, it’s time to get out – and that’s what I’m doing tonight. I’m through with football in Detroit.
It’s the worst team I’ve ever seen in training camp. I don’t mean material wise. We’ve got good boys, but there has been no life. No go. It’s been a completely dead team.”
After Parker’s resignation and with fans frantic to bring the successful coach to Pittsburgh, Art Rooney echoed the tradition now well-established in English soccer, and gave his head coach of three years, Walt Kiesling, his full support commenting, “Kiesling will remain on the job.”
When the Steelers lost their second exhibition game (against the Browns), the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Al Abram, predicted fans would have little to look forward to for the forthcoming season, observing the Steelers running attack was practically nil and the passing figures of 13 first downs and 191 yards looked far more impressive on paper than it did on the field.
Those poor preseason performances forced Art Rooney to have a change of heart regarding the confidence he held for his head coach - especially as Buddy Parker was still available to sign for the Steelers.
With the regular season approaching, Rooney made the decision to install Buddy Parker as the team’s head coach and Parker relished his new opportunity with positive talk, “I am coming to Pittsburgh with one objective, to give the Steelers a winner.
I have always said that one of the happiest seasons of my career was in 1944 when I was a Card-Pitt coach. We didn’t win a game either.” He also added a prophetic observation, “I’m anxious to get a close look at the quarterbacks.”
The 1957 September 16th edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the preseason 37-10 loss to the Chicago Bears with the words, “Parker knows the shortcomings of his new club. It’s going to be a long, hard haul but you can bet he’ll field a respectable team, if not a winner, before the season runs out.”
Parker didn’t hang around and before the season opener; he traded two future number one draft picks (1958 & 1959) plus linebacker Marv Matuszak to acquire quarterback Earl Morrall from San Francisco.
Parker was a realist and knew that for the team to post a challenge, he had to find a quarterback to lead the way. San Francisco had a desperate need for a good linebacker and with a surplus of quarterbacks, a deal was easy to make. Morrall had been the first round draft choice of the 49ers in 1956, but had found little playing time, excepting for punting, so a move to Pittsburgh was ideal for both teams.
Although Morrall made a sensational debut for the Steelers throwing three touchdown passes in a 28-7 victory over the Redskins in Forbes Field, he gave an indifferent performance for the rest of the season. Despite Morrall's indifference form, Parker guided the Steelers to a 6-6 record. This was an improvement on the previous three seasons for Pittsburgh and provided the fans with optimism for the forthcoming season. There were signs that more improvement would come if he could get those elusive pieces of the jigsaw into place.
1958 - THE STEELERS GET THEIR MAN
Parker's intention of adding to the win column for the 1958 season floundered on realism when they made a 0-2 start. The coach always had a preference for proven ability over the potential of any player who need time to learn their trade. As a consequence, he had no hesitation in taking advantage of the situation with his previous team, where the exceptionally talented quarterback Bobby Layne found himself in limbo because of an injury he suffered at the end of the previous season.
That injury gave Tobin Rote the opportunity to guide the Lions to another championship. Rote proved his value by completing 12 of 19 passes for 280 yards and 4 touchdowns and contributing another touchdown on the ground to win the championship game.
At the beginning of the 1958 season, Layne discovered he was expendable. Having experienced success with Parker that brought three championships to Detroit, under new head coach George Wilson, Bobby learnt he was no longer the main man.
October 7th, Pittsburgh woke up to the surprise news they had a new quarterback and one who knew how to win at that – Bobby Layne.
Once again, Parker had been swift to act to avoid the ship sinking. After another bad start to a season, including that humiliation by the Browns in the Steelers new home of Pitt Stadium, the coach had been on the phone to negotiate a fix. Championship winning Bobby Layne was coming to Pittsburgh with Morrall and a couple of future number one draft choices taking the trip in the opposite direction west to Detroit.
Ever the realist, Parker said of the quarterback he was trading away, “I don’t think Morrall is a top flight quarterback. He may be in the future. But he isn’t right now. Layne will help us immensely.
We’ve got our running game going and we’ve got good receivers. With the addition of Layne we might get back in the race.”
LAYNE FLIES INTO THE ‘BURGH
Layne flew into Pittsburgh the morning of October 8th. Dan Rooney picked him up from the airport and in his book, “My 75 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL,” describes the journey to the Steelers practice ground.
“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 command.”
Layne expressed enthusiasm for playing for his former coach while he shrugged off concerns about the injury (a dislocated and fractured right ankle) he received at the end of the previous season.
“I just hope I can do as well for Buddy as I did in Detroit. My ankle hasn’t been bothering me any. I’ll be ready for Sunday,” Layne told the waiting reporters, who were hanging on his every word.
Layne impressed in his first training session with his new teammates. Any post-injury concerns about his throwing ability were quickly cast aside.
His passes from 10 to 50 yards were invariably on the money and he threw far more times than he would have in a game with no negative affects, so the expectations for the Steelers next game against the Eagles, were developing quite nicely.
After the debacle against the Browns the previous Sunday, the Steeler players held a no holds barred meeting to discuss the defeat. After Layne arrived, one of the players commented, “We can forget that meeting now. We got our man. One Bobby Layne is worth ten meeting.”
Despite the enthusiasm in Pittsburgh for their team and their new quarterback, Philadelphia were made favourites by 1.5 points, which meant the Steelers were the underdogs for the third game running.
The Eagles’ running game was abysmal with just 130 rushing yards gained in their first two regular season games. Philadelphia’s main threat came from veteran quarterback Norm Van Brocklin who had thrown 59 times with 28 completions for 354 yards and two touchdowns.
The script had been written. A 31 years old quarterback in his first season in Philadelphia after shining with the Los Angeles Rams, facing a 31 years old quarterback, playing his first game for Pittsburgh after a successful career with the Detroit Lions. Both quarterbacks had played in championship games for their respective former teams and fans eagerly anticipated the match up.
For the Steelers, the secret to providing their fans with a victory would be a fumble free game combined with the leadership of Bobby Layne.
“Bobby will be ready to start against the Eagles,“ Parker declared. “He knows my plays and only needs to get acquainted with the personnel. He looked very good in practice. I think we are ready to start winning now.”
THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS (0-2) vs THE PHILADEPHIA EAGLES (1-1)
Pitt Stadium 13.30 Sunday October 12th
With their new quarterback Bobby Layne showing the way, the Steelers dominated from the opening kickoff. The Eagles initially managed to hold the Steelers back, including a missed 42-yard field goal attempt, but eventually Pittsburgh’s defense created the first scoring opportunity.
Peaks fumbled and Lewis recovered on the Eagles’ 31. Tom Tracy then comfortably circled left end and the Steelers were 7-0 up with just 5:53 of the game gone.
Gary Glick’s short kickoff gave the ball to the Eagles on their 35 and a couple of penalties later, Bobby Walston was able to kick a 36-yard field goal to make the score 7-3.
Although the Eagles had closed the gap, they continued to make mistakes. A punt by Jimmy Orr hit Rocky Ryan, and while rolling loose, Frank Varrichione recovered. The Eagles’ Thomas Louderback crashed into Tracy from behind and the penalty moved the ball to Philadelphia’s 15. Four plays later, Paul Younger rushing from the one, increased the Steelers’ lead to 14-3 with his touchdown run and Tom Miner converting the point after.
As the Steelers continued to dominate, Miner missed field goal attempts from the 50 and the 46, the latter proving fortuitous for the Steelers with the Lions recovering the loose ball and then fumbling for John Nisby to recover and put the Steelers in great field position on their opponents 30. Layne supported his offense with runs of 11 and 5 yards to drive his team to the Eagles’ one where he used Tracy left side to complete the scoring drive carrying one of the Lions on his back.
Miner missed a field goal from the 32 with the last kick of the half, but the fans would have forgiven another error with the Steelers leading 21-3.
The Steelers’ kicker redeemed himself in the third quarter after Glick intercepted another pass setting up Miner’s successful 26 yard field goal that finished the scoring, giving the Steelers a 24-3 win.
Although the Eagles led with passing yardage, the Steelers’ superiority on the ground was huge with 215 yards to 59 yards.
THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS 24 THE PHILADELPHIA EAGLES 3
Paul Younger gaining yards in the first quarter against the Eagles
Al Abrams, sports editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote enthusiastically of the Layne led victory:
Just as Dr. Raymond K Parker prescribed, the only tonic the ailing Pittsburgh Steelers needed was a top-notch quarterback to steer them.
Blond Bobby Layne, a 31-year old grizzled veteran of the pro wars, supplied that tonic at the stadium yesterday afternoon. The transformation of the Steelers from a sick team into a powerful, fast moving, hard hitting aggregation was positively amazing.
With Layne at the controls, Rooney U stomped the slightly favoured Philadelphia Eagles 24-3 to rack up their first win after two losses.
The pity of it is, only 23,153 “show me” customers turned out of a beautiful, crisp autumn afternoon to watch the action in the sun-dappled stadium, home of the Pitt Panthers.
The majority of these freight payers were ready to give up on the Steelers too, until the swash buckling Layne swung into action. The former Detroit Lion star, picked up only last week by Pittsburgh, more than justified the faith his old boss Parker had in him by completely dominating the game from start to finish.
Layne not only passed, but ran the Steelers to a triumph over the Eagles. For a reputed “Old Folks,” Bobby carried the ball five times for 35 yards with speed which belied his 11 years as a pro campaigner.
The statistics will show Layne’s rival Norm Van Brocklin, another retread quarterback, out-statisticed him in the passing department but don’t let these figures fool you. The husky Texan’s heaves did more damage as they helped set up the three Steeler TDs and field goal.
Layne’s handling of the quarterback chores after only a few days practice with his new teammates was surprisingly well nigh perfect. His execution of plays based on his ball-handling wizardry kept the hefty Eagles defense off balance most of the afternoon.
Besides Layne’s passing, the Steelers generated a running attack that was almost breath taking. Tom Tracy was sprung loose by Layne for two touchdowns, the first on a 31-yard romp around left end which left his Philly pursuers gasping for breath.
Players on the two teams belted each other hard as is usually the custom when they meet. This factor, plus a set of zealous officials, saw 19 penalties called for a total of 193 yards, almost equally divided for both sides.
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