In today’s edition of 100 Days, 100 Detroit Lions, we pay tribute to the last Lions’ quarterback to lead the franchise to an NFL championship.
54. Tobin Rote
Quarterback. 1957-59 Detroit; 1950-56 Green Bay Packers; 1963-64 San Diego Chargers; 1966 Denver Broncos
Early in the Lions’ 1956 regular-season finale, Bobby Layne suffered a season-ending concussion at the hands of Chicago Bear defensive end Ed Meadows. The Lions were left to play the rest of the game without a quality signal-caller, and lost to the Bears 38-21. The defeat gave the Bears the Western Conference title, and denied the Lions their fourth trip to the NFL Championship Game in five seasons. So before the 1957 season was to begin, coach Buddy Parker knew that he needed to find a suitable backup QB for the Lions, just in case another injury would befall the fearless Layne.
Parker’s answer to his dilemma would be the veteran Tobin Rote. Tobin had spent his first seven NFL seasons cast-away in the northern woods of Green Bay, which during the pre-Lombardi days of the 1950’s was the NFL’s version of purgatory on earth. Parker would obtain Rote in an off-season trade with the Packers. Ironically, Parker would quit the Lions during his legendary 1957 pre-season public tirade at the team’s “Meet the Lions” banquet. That would leave new Lion boss George Wilson, a long-time Parker assistant, to deal with what would become by season’s end, a quarterback controversy for the ages.
Wilson decided to rotate Layne and Rote at the starting position, deciding who to play and when to play them, on terms that only George fully understood. Luckily for Wilson and the Lions it would work . . . for one year at least. Layne and Rote would both perform well throughout the season, with both QB’s having their own moments of regular-season glory. Then as fate would have it, Layne’s ankle would break in a Week 11 game versus, of all teams, the Cleveland Browns. Bobby’s injury now gave Rote full-control of a veteran team eager to return to the NFL’s summit.
Tobin Rote would respond by leading the Lions to consecutive come-from-behind victories over the Chicago Bears, in the regular-season finale, and the San Francisco 49ers, in the Western Division playoff. The 49er playoff saw the Leos rally to overcome a 27-7 third-quarter deficit to pull out the victory, 31-27. The game remains one of the most legendary comebacks in NFL history. Rote would top that barn-burner the following week by turning in the greatest single-game performance of his 13-year career. On December 27, 1957 in Briggs Stadium against the Cleveland Browns, Rote would complete 12-of-19 passes, for 280 yards and 4 touchdowns, with a one-yard touchdown run of his own thrown in for good measure. His performance would propel the Lions to a 59-14 trouncing of their old title-game nemesis.
The 1958 season would see a re-emergence of the Layne / Rote quarterback controversy, and Coach Wilson would soon be forced to find a way to end what had now become a problem. After a 13-13 stalemate with Rote’s old Packer squad in Week 2, Wilson traded Bobby Layne to Pittsburgh, re-uniting the old-pro with his former boss Buddy Parker. Tobin, in complete command once again, would try to rally the team behind him. However, Wilson’s decision to move Layne would place a pall over the entire franchise. As a result, Detroit would only manage a combined 7-15-2 record from 1958-59.
Rote’s Detroit honeymoon would end quickly, as his play dropped off and his teammates lost confidence in him. Tobin would play out his option after the ‘59 season and move on to play three-seasons in the Canadian Football League. He would return to the United States in 1963 to quarterback Sid Gillman’s San Diego Chargers of the rival American Football League. Rote would throw for 2,510 yards and 20 touchdowns during the regular season. He capped his United States comeback by leading the Chargers to the 1963 AFL title, with a 51-10 victory over the Boston Patriots in the championship game.