The Greatest Detroit Lions I Knew
The lockout blues leads to this, a “Best Of” post. OK, so the title is a little misleading since I didn’t really know any of them, mostly just saw them play since the late 80s. For arguments sake, let’s call it over the last 25 years.
Selecting the “greatest Lions” seems to be on par with putting together a Nelson’s “Greatest Hits” CD or writing a medical journal about the healthiest cigarette brand, but for us astute Lions fan, we know there has been some talent sprinkled on top of the dung heap we’ve been mostly dealt over the two and a half decades. Rather than a top ten list, I’ll select the best player at each position, starting with the easiest to select, down to the hardest. I’m not talking most productive, but the best.
Note: I’m going to leave out special teams as obviously Mel Gray is the best returner and Jason Hanson the best kicker…and does anyone really care about a long snapper or punter?
Barry Sanders – Obviously not even a consideration. Any human between 30 and 50 in Metro Detroit will say the greatest running back they ever saw was Barry. The only thing Barry seemed to lack was a passion for the game.
Honorable Mention: James Stewart was a productive, blue collar banger who unfortunately had to follow Sanders, but still solidified the position for a few years.
Chris Speilman: Try to think of another consistently good Lion’s Linebacker over the past 25 years. It’s incredibly hard. Speilman, despite his OSU roots, was the perfect player for Detroit. Not the biggest, strongest or fastest player, but he went balls out all the time. The Lions desperately need another All-Pro Linebacker as the city would surely embrace one.
Honorable Mention: Mike Cofer was a stud at the beginning of the era we’re talking about. Stephen Boyd and Reggie Brown both had promising starts to their careers cut short by devastating injuries; Ernie Sims‘ career started pretty good, but he regressed and was traded. DeAndre Levy has had a good start to his career.
Robert Porcher: The last time the Lions were relevant, Porcher was their best defensive player. He has 95.5 career sacks, 3 Pro Bowls and 3 All-Pro selections. He was a tenacious pass rusher who was sorely missed as his career started to wind down.
Honorable Mention: Tracy Scroggins in the early 1990s had several decent seasons. James Hall was one of the only good Millen-Era defenders. Cliff Avril looks like a keeper.
Corey Schlesinger: Imagine if you put Chris Spielman in the backfield, that’s what Schlesinger was like. Stuck on some terrible teams, Schlesinger never got much national attention, but hardcore fans loved him.
Honorable Mention: Not much else. Tommy Vardell had only a brief stint, but he scored 7 TDs over two seasons and blocked for Barry during his 2,000 yard season.
Ndamukong Suh: As dominating a rookie season as a Lion has ever seen, Suh seems poised to be ready to take the NFL by storm with a NFL Defensive Player of Year likely in his future. Even though it’s only one season, Suh already is the best DT the Lions have seen in past 25 years.
Honorable Mention: Jerry Ball was a disruptive NT for the Lions in the 1990s. Big and nasty, he’s by far the next best DT.
Bennie Blades: The hard hitting Blades was a fan favorite. Three 100 tackle seasons, a Pro Bowl and an All-NFL selection means he’s the best at safety the Lions have to offer over the last 25 years.
Honorable Mention: William White teamed with Blades and had a solid NFL career. Louis Delmas has all the potential in the world, but he’s still early in his career.
Brandon Pettigrew: This is a player who has really surprised me. My brain nearly exploded after the Lions selected Pettigrew in the first round of the 2009 draft. Pettigrew, though, rebounded from a devastating knee injury his rookie season to break the Lions’ tight end receiving record. He’s huge and just needs to cut back on the drops. Most likely, he’ll have a few Pro Bowl visits in his careers.
Honorable Mention: David Sloan made a Pro Bowl and gave the Lions decent production in the late 1990s to early 2000s.
Calvin Johnson: An unbelievable talent. If anyone questions his ability, just watch the Lions OT win at Tampa Bay last season. I literally saw Calvin pick the team up and put them on his back. He’s the biggest and fastest guy on the field and appears to only be getting better as the talent around him has improved.
Honorable Mentions: Obviously, you could make a huge case for Herman Moore as he had a longer track record. He was the Calvin to the 1990s team. Johnny Morton, Brett Perriman, Germaine Crowell and Roy Williams all also had solid seasons for the Lions.
Lomas Brown: I never quite bought into the “Barry didn’t have an offensive line” talk. For a good part of his career he had one of the best tackles in football blocking for him in Brown. Brown was a very good player who was foolishly shipped out of town too early.
Honorable Mention: Jeff Backus has never missed a start as a Lion. He polarizes Lions fans, but he’s been a great draft pick for the Lions and the poor guy has seen no team success during his long career.
Ray Crockett: I loved Crockett, but his selection as the best Lions’ cornerback in the last 25 years shows you just how awful the position has been. Crockett has 16 interceptions over 5 seasons, was a solid cover corner and had probably the signature Lions’ TD for fans my age–his interception return for a TD in the 1992 playoff victory vs. the Cowboys.
Honorable Mention: Dre Bly deserves heavy consideration. Despite his terrible tackling skills, he was a ballhawk that made the Pro Bowl with the Lions. Bryant Westbrook should have been better and started to come on, but he couldn’t overcome injuries.
Kevin Glover: A mainstay on the 1990s Lions, Glover was loved in the locker room and the community. He was durable and versatile for the Lions and his ouster from Detroit might have been what got the Barry Sanders retirement wheels in motion.
Honorable Mention: Dominic Raiola has had a love hate relationship with Lions fans, but he’s been very durable and loyal to the team, he just has nothing to show for it.
Jeff Hartings: There’s more swings and misses with the Lions’ guard situation than there is in a Brandon Inge highlight reel. Hartings was one of the few choices. He was allowed to leave town by Matt Millen and went on to a great career with the Steelers.
Honorable Mention: Rob Sims had a good first season with the Lions. Stephen Peterman has had an up and down career with the Lions.
Matthew Stafford: Keep in mind that I’m talking about the best, not the most productive, players I’ve seen. The handful of games that Stafford played in last year solidified in my mind that he was the most talented Lions QB I’ve seen. Now he just needs to stay healthy.
Honorable Mention: Scott Mitchell had the most production, but he was on loaded offensive teams and failed to do little else but put up numbers. He folded when it mattered. Charlie Batch tried his best, but just couldn’t stay healthy. John Kitna and Shaun Hill performed admirably despite their limited talent. Joey Harrington never had a chance in Detroit, but didn’t deserve one either.
A good sign–the current Lions appear to be well represented on the list above. Maybe we’re again about to see the 9-7 seasons that Matt Millen ushered out.
I’m interested what the readers think. Please comment and let me know your thoughts on where I’m wrong and who I missed.