Detroit Lions: Top 26 Lions of All-Time

Dean Holden@@Dean_HoldenAnalyst IJune 20, 2011

Detroit Lions: Top 26 Lions of All-Time

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    he Detroit Lions have lacked their fair share of success over the years, especially for a team that has been around for more than 75 of them.

    Still, running contrary to that history of failure is the number of highly-respected icons the team has seen over time.

    The Lions don't lead the league in Hall-of-Famers, Pro Bowl appearances, or any other metric by which you would measure the best individual performers in history.

    But the guys that the Lions do have as team icons are beloved as much or more as any player on any team in any sport.

    In fact, I have so much respect for them, I couldn't even contain this list to 25.

26. Kevin Glover

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    If the Detroit Lions had Kevin Glover today, there would be a lot less people complaining about the offensive line.

    Strangely enough, Kevin Glover, widely considered one of the best centers in Lions history, wasn't much bigger than the Lions' current O-line scapegoat, Dominic Raiola. But he used his 6' 2", 282-pound frame to its fullest, and earned three trips to the Pro Bowl as a result.

    It also helps that the big uglies back then weren't quite as big and ugly as they are today.

    Glover's name will, of course, always be associated with being the leader of the O-line unit that helped Barry Sanders reach 2,000 yards in 1997.

    But Glover should also be recognized for his longevity and durability. Aside from a single eight-game stint on the injured list one season, Glover started every game from 1988 to 1997, leaving him sixth on the Lions' all-time list for games played.

25. Cory Schlesigner

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    This is what it was all about for Cory Schlesinger.

    Guts. Glory. Toughness. And the guy behind him getting the spotlight.

    Schlesinger only played lead blocker for Barry Sanders in the latter half of Sanders' career, but he is remembered as one of the best. Especially since one of their seasons together was Sanders' 2000-yard season.

    And it should say something very special about the man that he rushed for only about 500 yards in his career, but we still remember his name.

    For a man who never got the spotlight, and who now teaches high school in Allen Park, that's special indeed.

24. Johnnie Morton

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    A beneficiary of Barry Sanders taking all the focus of opposing defenses? Very possibly.

    Inflated stats because of the Run 'n Gun offense? Most likely.

    Caught lots of passes because Herman Moore was consistently in double coverage? You bet.

    Still one of the most consistent, underrated playmakers in Lions history during their most proficient offensive years, who would have been a Lion for life if not for Matt Millen's tenure?


    Explain away Johnnie Morton's contributions to the most successful Lions teams since the 1950s if you want, but the fact is he went out and performed, week in and week out, and when Morton was good, the Lions were good.

    More importantly than any of that, Morton actually bought in to the Lions. His feud with Jay Leno and unwavering optimism during a very difficult 2001 season merely showed his commitment to the team. He bled Honolulu Blue with the rest of us, and that makes him worthy of this spot.

23. Jim David

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    There are a bunch of reasons to like Jim David. But on the day he was to be drafted out of Colorado A&M, 21 rounds went by before anyone decided to bite on one of them.

    Most likely, not even head coach Buddy Parker himself knew he was drafting one of the greatest players in Lions history when he took the 5' 11", 175-pound David with the 261st overall pick. He was just throwing a pick at the wall and seeing if he could get it to stick.

    What David ended up sticking to was the team's three championships in the 1950s, along with anybody carrying the ball.

    David, despite his stature, became known as "The Hatchet" after knocking out future Hall-of-Famers Y.A. Tittle and Tom Fears in consecutive games.

    After David's playing career, he landed in Detroit again as a coach when former teammate Joe Schmidt offered him a job as defensive back coach.

    Not long after, he found his star pupil: Hall-of-Famer Lem Barney.

22. Greg Landry

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    Though we often talk about Landry for his single 1971 Pro Bowl appearance (mostly because no Lions quarterback has made the event since), it's easy to forget that Landry was a fixture in Detroit for a decade, and sits in the top three in just about every career passing category.

    Landry never set the world on fire, but he was a steady presence at quarterback on a team that has gone for most of its existance without one.

    He was also proficient at using his legs, and was a great scrambling quarterback for most of his career.

21. Alex Wojciechowicz

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    Alex Wojciechowicz is best known for the five-feet-wide stance he took when centering the ball.

    What is less known about the Hall of Famer is that he was a career two-way player who excelled in pass coverage.

    Wojciechowicz intercepted seven passes in a single season as an outside linebacker, more than any defensive player up to that point, defensive backs included. And he still had the range and power to stop the run, and the motor to turn right back around and snap the ball out of his Ambassador Bridge stance.

    They just don't make them like that anymore.

20. Dutch Clark

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    Dutch Clark was a passer in a runner's game. Luckily, he was also a runner in a runner's game. But at a time when referees were being reminded every game that the forward pass was, in fact, legal, Clark made a living off of it.

    Of course, Clark was a rushing quarterback, as they all were at the time. It might even be more accurate to call him a pass-throwing running back. The forward pass was such an unpolished idea at the time that nearly all quarterbacks had to have the ability to make plays with their legs. In some places, Clark is still listed as a RB.

    Clark, a Hall of Famer, was the first quarterback in Lions (that is to say, Portsmouth Spartans) history, and he led the Lions to their first-ever NFL Championship in 1935.

    And a side note, as the NFL lockout continues to rage on over how to split $9 billion in revenues? Clark did it for $144 a game.

19. Chris Spielman

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    Chris Spielman was not only one of the all-time leading tacklers in Lions history, but very possibly near the top of the list of “Former Ohio State Buckeyes Most Beloved in Michigan.”

    Maybe that's not a real list. But maybe it should be.

    Anyway, Spielman was a mean, rangy middle linebacker who anchored the Lions' defense throughout most of the 1990s. He led the Lions in tackles nearly every year, and was one of the most reliable defensive playmakers on a Lions team not known for defense.

18. Al "Bubba" Baker

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    Throughout history, the Detroit Lions have taken select moments in time to not completely botch up the draft.

    Bubba Baker represents one of those times. Baker was a sack machine before sacks were an official stat, so it's hard telling exactly how effective he was just by his stat line. But there is little doubt he was dominant. The unofficial count was that he had 23 sacks in his rookie year.

    Almost makes Ndamukong Suh look pedestrian, doesn't it?

    Sadly, Baker spent only the first leg of his career with the Lions. Had he been a lifer, he would easily be top 10 material.

17. Charlie Sanders

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    Charlie Sanders is the only tight end on this list, but still one of the most deserving. Of course, Sanders is likely to appreciate his Hall of Fame credentials more than my inclusion of him on a “Top 25” list, but still.

    Sanders was one of the great receiving tight ends in Lions history, and he has the stats to show it. But he was also a truly complete tight end. He not only caught everything thrown his way, but he was also a nasty, tenacious blocker.

    Today, he can be seen every Sunday during the Lions' pre-game show, during which we will soon likely begin hearing comparisons between him and young tight end Brandon Pettigrew.


16. Roger Brown

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    Roger Brown was a great player in his own right, but he is best remembered as part of a unit.

    Namely, Brown was part of the Lions' "Fearsome Foursome" defensive line along with Alex Karras, Sam Williams and Darris McCord.

    It was that group that was responsible for the "Thanksgiving Day Massacre" against the Green Bay Packers, in which he got after Bart Starr for five sacks, including one for a safety.

    In addition to a long and productive Lions career, Brown is also known as the first NFL lineman to have a playing weight over 300 pounds.

15. Lou Creekmur

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    In front of every great skill position player, there's a big guy pushing people around.

    For Bobby Layne and Doak Walker, that guy was Lou Creekmur.

    The recently-departed Creekmur was a star offensive lineman who went to eight Pro Bowls in his 10 years with the Lions. As a testament to his versatility, he went to two of those Pro Bowls as a guard and six as a tackle.

    He also filled in as a defensive tackle in short-yardage situations, and even spent an entire season playing two ways to fill in for an injured teammate.

14. Mel Gray

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    That Mel Gray was an eight-time All-Pro despite never being anything more than a return specialist should go to show just how dominant he was at the position.

    Though he played for several teams in his career (including some USFL squads later on), he is best known as the Lions' return ace in the early 1990s.

    To this day, Gray holds the franchise record for career kickoff returns, return yards, and touchdowns, kick returns for touchdowns in a single season, kickoff return average in a season, and career punt return yards.

    Mel Gray may have only done one thing well in his career, but when it's done that well, you can't ask for more.

13. Billy Sims

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    Billy Sims was Barry before Barry. A gifted athlete and Heisman Trophy winner, Sims holds pretty much every rushing accolade not held by Barry Sanders, including the ninth-best rushing season in Lions history (the rest of the top 10 is owned by Sanders).

    There is no doubt that Sims had Hall of Fame-caliber talent, and for about four-and-a-half years, he showed it. Unfortunately, a career-ending knee injury killed any aspirations Sims may have had of being an all-time NFL great.

    Still, it's impossible not to consider him a Detroit Lions great.

12. Dick LeBeau

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    In his coaching career, Dick Lebeau has developed a reputation as a hard-nosed, no-nonsense defensive coordinator, in charge of one of the most consistently feared defenses in football.

    In his playing days, LeBeau was a smooth operator on the field, capable of jumping a route and intercepting the ball when the quarterback didn't even know he was there.

    And off the field? He was a pretty boy who brought his acoustic guitar with him to training camp.

    Proof positive that you can't always judge a book by its stat line or Hall of Fame bust.

11. Yale Lary

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    Chances are, if a guy was a starter for the Lions throughout the 1950s, he was pretty special and .

    And Yale Lary was a starter for the Lions throughout the 1950s. But not just any starter. Lary was a standout at three positions.

    He was a dangerous fixture at safety for the entirety of his 11-year career, but he also made a living as a punter and punt returner.

    How was he in those roles? He returned three punts for touchdowns, and ended his career with a 44.3-yard punting average. Indeed, Lary could fill three roster spots on the team, and fill them proficiently.

    That's why he went to nine Pro Bowls despite taking a two-year leave from the NFL to do a tour of Army service.

10. Jason Hanson

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    There's not much left for me to say about Jason Hanson.

    He has all-time records for field goals from 50+ yards.

    He's seventh on the NFL's all-time scoring list, and will probably move up to third if he plays a couple more years.

    He's far and away the leading scorer for the Lions.

    He's been with his team longer than any current player in all major North American sports.

    He'll be the last No. 4 you'll ever see in Honolulu blue, and he should be a Hall of Famer.

    What more do you want from him?

9. Dick "Night Train" Lane

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    Night Train Lane spent only a small portion of his career with the Detroit Lions, but he is still one of the greatest players the team has ever seen. For starters, he's a Hall of Famer.

    But perhaps more notable was his potrayal in George Plimpton's Paper Lion.

    Occassionally brilliant, occasionally unintelligible, Night Train was an obvious leader in the Lions defense, to the point where he even tried to acclimate the amateur Plimpton (“Jawge,” in Night Train's particular dialect) to the cornerback position.

    Granted, the result was Plimpton getting torched for a touchdown by Terry Barr, but that's not the point.

    Night Train was feared around the league as not only a top cover corner, but also as a vicious hitter. Night Train was such a dangerous player, many of the hits he was notorious for have since been outlawed by the league.

    A lot more of them were outlawed was he played, too.

8. Herman Moore

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    Lions fans often talk themselves into circles about what Barry Sanders could have done behind a decent offensive line.

    But nobody ever stops to think about what Herman Moore could have accomplished with a consistently competent quarterback behind a decent offensive line.

    As interesting a question as that is, a better one is perhaps what more he could have done anyway? Even though he didn't have All-Pro quarterbacks throwing to him, Moore still ranked among the league's best in ever receiving category.

    Considering that the “league's best” in the '90s included Jerry Rice in his prime, that's more than a little bit impressive.

7. Alex Karras

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    Which of Alex Karras' many faces shall we discuss? The smack-talking lineman with a reputation for dirty play? The gambler who was suspended by the NFL for a season? The locker-room oddball who told stories about his “past lives?”

    Or, barring that, perhaps Mongo of Blazing Saddles or Mr. Papadopoulis of "Webster?"

    Acting career aside, Karras was one of the most feared linemen in NFL history, and for that, he certainly deserves a spot on this list.

    He likely deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame as well, but the general belief is that he has been “Pete Rose'd” off the list by some enemies he made as a result of his mid-career gambling suspension.

6. Jack Christiansen

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    According to his Hall of Fame page, the standard rule for any offense gameplanning for Jack Christiansen was “Don't pass in his area, don't punt to him.”

    If that's not enough to cement his place in Lions lore, how about winning three NFL Championships with the Lions, with the secondary named after him?

    As the central member of “Chris's Crew,” Christiansen was named to six consecutive All-Pro teams, intercepted 46 career passes, and returned eight punts for touchdowns on 85 career punt returns.

    All this, in a Hall of Fame career that spanned nine years.

5. Doak Walker

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    Doak Walker is much better known for his college career than his professional career, mostly because he was the first junior to win the Heisman Trophy and the college game was much more popular at the time.

    Still, there wasn't much Walker didn't do as a Detroit Lion. He won division titles, won championships, went to Pro Bowls, made All-Pro teams, was Rookie of the Year, and generally wreaked havoc on opposing defenses for his entire seven-year career.

    Walker doesn't come close to touching any modern-day rushing records, nor any all-time records. But that's more an issue of the era he played in, as well as his decision to retire early. Make no mistake, in his time, Walker was unstoppable.

4. Lem Barney

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    Lem Barney was the first of the greats to wear No. 20 for the Detroit Lions, and in some circles, he's still considered the best.

    Barney was a shutdown corner who led the NFL in interceptions his rookie year, but was also highly proficient as a kick returner. He is among the Lions' all-time leaders in both areas. Between his kick returns and defensive scores, Barney scored 11 touchdowns in his 11-year career.

    He was also Defensive Rookie of the year in 1967, made seven Pro Bowls, four All-Pro squads, and in 1992, he became the fifth cornerback to be inducted to the Hall of Fame.

3. Bobby Layne

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    Despite what recent articles of mine (which may or may not have given too much creedence to pure statistics) may have said, Bobby Layne is the greatest quarterback in Lions history.

    Layne was tough in the kind of way that no quarterbacks are anymore. In fact, he was tougher as a quarterback than most players today in any position.

    We're talking about a guy who opted not to wear a facemask, in an era where everybody was starting to wear facemasks.

    But nevermind toughness, we're also talking about a guy who delivered championships to the Detroit Lions. If that alone doesn't make him one of the greats, what does?

    Perhaps being enshrined in the Hall of Fame helps, too?

2. Joe Schmidt

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    File Joe Schmidt under the “Lifetime Lion” category.

    By the time he retired as a player, Joe Schmidt was basically running the Lions' defense. So it came as relatively little surprise that Schmidt ended up tapped for the Lions' head coaching job not even two years after his retirement from playing.

    Schmidt was a Hall-of-Fame linebacker as a player, and (by Lions standards) great as a coach. Schmidt is still the most recent coach to finish his tenure with a winning record overall after at least a full season.

    That's both impressive and sad when you consider it's been almost 40 years since then.

1. Barry Sanders

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    Easy. Obvious. I don't even take any pride in claiming this. All the drama was over at the last slide, because you knew when you opened this article that Barry Sanders was going to be at the end of it.

    The man is respected, not just by Lions fans, but by football fans as a whole, as one of the greatest to play the game.

    Just listen to a room full of Jets and Giants fans cheer for him at Radio City Music Hall as he announced the Lions' second-round pick in the 2011 draft.

    The man has been retired for over a decade now, and he still gets an outpouring of love in what should be a hostile environment as though he were still one of the NFL's most popular players. Maybe he is.

    But that's the kind of guy Sanders is and has always been. It was hard not to respect his skills, harder not to be in awe of them, and impossible to dislike him personally. Even the Lions' most bitter rival fans from his playing days, deep down, enjoyed watching Sanders redefine what the human body was capable of.

    The sad thing is, we'll never see anything like it again, and the fact that he's so one-of-a-kind is how you know he's an all-time great.

    After all, in over a decade since his retirement, have you ever heard anyone compare a player favorably to Sanders?