Detroit Lion' Secondary; We Miss You Lem Barney

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Detroit Lion' Secondary; We Miss You Lem Barney
A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images

That picture says a lot, even at his age, I'd probably have the same welcome if Lem Barney wanted to come back and play today.

But it hasn't always been this bad.

Believe it or not there was a time when the Lions had an all-time secondary anchored by the original No. 20 and hall of famer, Lem Barney.

Actually, between Barney, Dick LeBeau and Dick "Night Train" Lane the Lions had at least one and usually two future Hall of Fame defensive backs starting at corner from 1960 to 1977.

Okay, you caught me.

Just because the writers are idiots and haven't put Dick LeBeau in "their" hall of fame yet, doesn't mean I have to leave him out of mine. If you're a Lion fan and old enough to have seen him play, I'm sure he is in your hall of fame too.

Unfortunately, 1977 was a very long time ago and while there has been some decent defensive backs like James Harris and Ray Crockett over the years only two Lion defensive backs have made the Pro Bowl since then.

That's right, 32 seasons and the only Pro Bowlers were Bennie Blades in 1991 and Dre' Bly twice in 2003 and 2004. 

Over that same stretch of time the Lions had six different Defensive Linemen combine to make the Pro Bowl 17 times, and four different Linebackers made the Pro Bowl eight times.

While there were very few Pro Bowlers over that time the Lions did have some pretty good secondaries at times, and from 1976 to 2000 they used five first round picks and five second round picks on defensive backs.

That may not seem like a lot but than that is about 20 percent of their high picks which is probably about right. We can deal with the picks after 2000 as the term drafted by Millen has a totally different meaning.

The first post Hall of Fame secondary was basically built by drafting James Hunter (first round in '76), Walt Williams (second round '77) and Luther Bradley (first round '78). Add in the free agent safety from Pittsburgh, Will Allen, and we had the starting secondary for the late '70's.

Of course, maybe the best draft pick was Dwight Hicks from Michigan in the sixth round of 1978. He never played for the Lions but went on to make four Pro Bowls and earn two Super Bowl rings with the 49ers.

Still, this secondary played well as they ranked sixth in 1978, second in '79 and ninth in '80 for fewest passing yards allowed.

Unfortunately, it didn't last long as Bradley never really panned out while Hunter had injury problems and by 1982 they were ranked 18th in yards given up.

They had a great draft in 1982 for defensive backs when they took Bobby Watkins in the second round, Bruce McNorten in the fourth round, and William Graham in the fifth round. They were the core of the secondary from 1983 through 1985.

They even righted the ship a little when the 1985 secondary ranked fifth, then fourth in 1986.

However, the Lions secondary fell back into the bottom third of the rankings for the rest of the 1980s and well into the 1990s, despite adding Bennie Blades in '88 and Ray Crockett in '89. 

Crockett left after the 1993 season to pick up a couple of Super Bowl rings with the Broncos while the Lions burned high draft picks on Ryan McNiel, Bryant Westbrook and Terry Fair.

The Lions had a spurt of decency in 1997 and 1998 (13th and eighth respectively), but it didn't last long and by the time the "Dark Ages" started in 2001 the secondary was in the bottom third again.

What we didn't know at the time was that those were the good years.

So what did Millen do?

Well he obviously saw the secondary as a problem area and he gave it his full attention.

I agree. I had the same thought. Uh oh.

Within two years Millen had totally remade the secondary and considering what he started with, there was nothing wrong with the intention. It was his execution we have problems with.

One draft philosophy Millen apparently had was don't waste high draft picks on the secondary.

Now, before you say something like "you have to save those picks for wide receivers" or "DBs just weren't sexy enough," it should be pointed out that it was a popular theory for a while. When teams like New England and Indy follow a theory it's not a bad idea to listen to it.

It wasn't the theory that failed, it was the players Millen drafted.

Besides, I think his motive was the more bad DBs in the league the better his WRs look. Problem was the WRs only got to face those bad DBs in practice.

Millen's plan was to use third round picks or lower and add a free agent or two along the way. That's the kind of plan that gets you starters like Chris Cash and Stanley Wilson.

Nice plan Matt.

He did stumble into a little luck when he signed Dre Bly who made those two Pro Bowls I mentioned previously. Bly even dragged the pass defense all the way up to 13th in 2005.

Of course, that was the last year for Andre Goodman. After four years of in and out of the starting lineup, he bolted for the Dolphins and between Miami and Denver, has started 50 games over the last four years. 

By the end of the 2006 season, Millen decided that Dre Bly was a cancer on the team and he traded him for future luggage handler Tatum Bell and a couple dozen false starts courtesy of George Foster.

Through the entire Millen era that 12th ranking was by far the best season as they Lions secondary never ranked higher then 20th and was usually in the bottom five.

So where are we now? Good question.

Mayhew and Schwartz have scrapped what Millen left them with and we barely recognize the names they brought in. I set out to answer some of those questions but I got a little off track.

I'll get back to with some answers on another article later but in the meantime I hope you guys (and Gals) enjoyed the good memories and survived the bad memories as much as I did.

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