The 10 Greatest Detroit Lions of the last 60 years

The last time the Detroit Lions won an NFL title the championship game was an afterthought. It pitted Detroit against the Cleveland Browns, but the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

Head coach George Wilson was so confident that he took it easy on his team in the six days leading up to the title game. He allowed his players to spend two full days with their families on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Four days later, on December 29th, the Lions pounced on the Browns 17-0 and rolled to a 59-14 rout. It was Detroit’s third title in six seasons.

They’ve been waiting to return to a title game ever since. In the 60 years since thumping the Browns to win the NFL title, the Lions have lost 12 of 13 playoff games.

Given the six decades of championship drought, you’d think it might be difficult to construct a list of “great” Lions. But not so. The Lions have fielded several talented players since Dwight Eisenhower left the White House. But a lot has happened since then, like color television, a man landing on the moon, disco music. You get the idea.

I’ll make a prediction that I know will come true: this list will be controversial. It will cause bickering and arguing and fist fights. It’ll be greeted with delight by a few and derision by most. Why? Because it’s damn hard to reduce 60 years down to ten players. Even for the Same Old Lions.

10. Lomas Brown

The greatest run-blocking lineman the Lions have ever had. He blocked for Barry Sanders for seven seasons and #20 ran behind him countless times. Brown made six Pro Bowls as a Lion and one with the Cardinals. In his final season in the league, when the big fella was 39 years old, he won a Super Bowl ring with the Buccaneers.

Brown was Detroit’s first round pick in the 1985 NFL Draft, the sixth pick overall. For a man pushing 300 pounds most of his career, Brown was remarkably durable: he missed only 10 games in 11 years for Detroit and eventually started more than 250 games in the NFL. He ranks as one of the better left tackles to ever play the game.

Team record during his Detroit years:
79-96-1

Playoff record:
1-4

Pro Bowls:
Six

9. Dick LeBeau

In the early 1960s the Lions had one of football’s best defenses. From 1960 to 1964, they ranked no lower than fourth in the NFL in fewest points allowed. LeBeau was a stellar corner who was usually matched up against the most physical receiver on the other side. he had remarkable instincts for the football, but for some reason opposing quarterbacks continued to throw the ball in his direction. His 62 interceptions still rank in the top ten all-time, and first for the Lions.

Despite facing off against the biggest receivers on the opposite side of the ball, LeBeau was durable. His 171 consecutive starts are a record for cornerbacks in league history.

Team record during his Detroit years:
94-84-14

Playoff record:
0-1

Pro Bowls:
Three

8. Wayne Walker

With LeBeau taking care of the corner, Walker was in the middle of the field for the Lions D in the 1960s, earning three Pro Bowl selections. The former Idaho star usually played outside linebacker and was versatile enough to cover tight ends and receivers or attack the running game. Accurate records were not kept in that era of tackles, but Walker must have ranked first or second on the team almost every season he played, which was 14 years and exactly 200 games for the Lions.

Oh yeah, and Walker also served as the Lions primary placekicker for about six seasons, making more than 50 field goals. He scored two return touchdowns too. He was one of the last multi-position players for the franchise.

Team record during his Detroit years:
98-91-15

Playoff record:
0-1

Pro Bowls:
Three

7. Matthew Stafford

The strong-armed Stafford is the best quarterback the team has had since Bobby Layne, who took his last snap for the Lions in 1957. If you don’t believe that, then who do you think has been better? Stafford stands head and shoulders above any QB the team has had the last 50+ years.

Stafford already owns every franchise record: yards, completions, TD passes, QB rating. Of course he plays in a pass-first era, but even so, he’s one of the more efficient passers in the game, and he enters the 2017 season still only 29 years of age. Assuming Detroit antes up and pays him, Stafford will lead the Lions to a playoff victory eventually, he’s just too good not to.

His interception rate has continued to go down the last 3-4 years, which removes the only argument his critics had as he matured on the job. He’s led the Lions to the playoffs three times in the last six seasons, and twice he practically carried mediocre teams into the postseason, guiding Detroit to several come-from-behind wins.

Will the Lions finally get to the Super Bowl with Stafford at the helm? No one can be sure, but one thing is pretty clear: they have a much better chance with him over center.

Team record during his Detroit years:
51-58

Playoff record:
0-3

Pro Bowls:
One

6. Herman Moore

For about seven years in the 1990s, Moore was right behind Jerry Rice and Cris Carter as the third-best receiver in football. Given the fact that those two players rate as the greatest and one of the greatest of all-time, that’s not too shabby.

Moore set the NFL record in 1995 when he grabbed 123 catches. That year he accumulated 1,686 yards in Detroit’s exciting offense that featured Barry Sanders and standout receivers Brett Perriman and Johnnie Morton. He played in seven playoff games for the Lions.

#84 was known for his big hands and iron grip — rarely did he let a football get out of his grasp if it hit his hands.

Team record during his Detroit years:
84-92

Playoff record:
1-6

Pro Bowls:
Four

5. Billy Sims

No other Lion in the last 60 years — not even Barry Sanders — made as big a splash when he came into the league as did Billy. In his first game with Detroit in 1980, Sims ran all over the Rams defense for three touchdowns, including one that showed off the blazing speed that belied his thick, muscular body. In the new Sims era, the Lions started 4-0 and began having some swagger for the first time in years.

Sims averaged 100 yards per game in his second season and helped the team to their first playoff berth in more than a decade. He was off to another great season in ’84 when he suffered a severe knee injury that ended his career. He had been a Pro Bowler in each of his three full seasons, but at the age of 29, after playing just 60 games, his exciting career was cut short.

For those who didn’t get a chance to see Sims, and maybe only saw Sanders in the backfield for Detroit, they were much different runners. Sims didn’t shy away from contact, he seemed to crave it. He was more physical, more brutal, and more aggressive in taking on defenders. Barry was more elusive and a bit faster, but not by much. Sims could run well, amazingly well for a man his size. Sims was one of the strongest players in the league. His career was brief, but it was incredible to witness.

Team record during his Detroit years:
34-38

Playoff record:
0-2

Pro Bowls:
Three

4. Calvin Johnson

Like Barry Sanders, Johnson ended his career on his own terms, retiring suddenly at the age of 30 after playing 135 games in nine seasons with Detroit. He had earned six Pro Bowl appearances and set several NFL records.

Johnson was a physical freak: 6’5 and 240 pounds with long muscular legs and a tremendous physique. His arms were incredibly strong and even though he was frequently double-teamed, Johnson was able to muscle his way to at least 80 catches four times and seven 1,000-yard seasons.

His masterpiece was the 2012 season when he caught a league-high 122 passes for 1,964 yards, an average of 12 per game. That year only found the end zone five times because many teams put two defensive backs and a linebacker on Megatron when the team was inside the red zone.

Like Sanders when he left the Lions, Johnson has been criticized by some Lions fans. But given the increasing information about head injuries in the NFL, it’s hard to blame him for walking away from the game while he could still walk. He ranks among the most gifted receivers to ever play the game, and based on his peak seasons, he’s one of the greatest.

Team record during his Detroit years:
54-90

Playoff record:
0-2

Pro Bowls:
Six

3. Alex Karras

Karras missed only one game due to injury in his 12 NFL seasons and his 161 games played are the 15th most in Lions history. He made the Pro Bowl four times, and the Hall of Fame named him a member of the 1960s All-Decade team.

When the Lions allowed only 12.6 points per game in 1962, Karras was one of the rugged defenders on the line who helped form the best defense in team history. The Lions of the early 1960s were probably one of the three best teams in football each year, but unfortunately they had the Packers in front of them.

As much as Detroit fans are outraged about Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, and Lou Whitaker not being in the Hall of Fame (and they should be), the fact that Karras isn’t in the Football Hall of Fame is much more puzzling and unjust. He was one of the best defensive linemen to ever play the game, and only a few were close to his level of play in the 1960s. None were more durable, or entertaining. Hey Canton, let Mongo in!

Team record during his Detroit years:
78-72-12

Playoff record:
0-1

Pro Bowls:
Four

2. Lem Barney

When Barney arrived in the NFL as a rookie in 1967, the league wasn’t ready for him. There had never been a cornerback that played quite like #20. Barney was athletic enough to play very tight on receivers, and strong enough to bring them down. He was excellent at jumping routes, and in his first game he showed that skill off by snatching the first pass Bart Starr tossed in his direction and returning it for a touchdown. It was the first of seven INT returns for Barney.

Barney made the incredible seem routine. In the final game of his rookie season, he intercepted three passes in the span of ten minutes and returned one for a TD. There was no learning curve for Barney, he entered the league as the best corner in football.

Lem also returned kicks for the Lions for several years, returning four punts and one kickoff for scores. He was elected to the Hall of Fame as soon as he was eligible.

Team record during his Detroit years:
75-73-8

Playoff record:
0-1

Pro Bowls:
Seven

1. Barry Sanders

The last Detroit legend to wear #20, Barry is the best of them all. He was a Pro Bowler in each of his ten seasons and won four rushing titles, including his year in 1997 when he topped the 2,000-yard mark.

No one has ever run the football like Barry. He juked left, he deked right, he dipped and danced, and stopped on a dime, then he ran off as defenders fell around him. Once he got in the open he was rarely run down and he hardly ever took a big hit because his instincts for self-preservation were supreme.

Sanders scored 99 touchdowns and averaged 99.8 yards per game in a decade in the backfield. His retirement stunned the league and his teammates, and had he not walked away from the game at 30, he would have easily broke the all-time rushing record. The only question would have been if he could have reached 20,000 yards. As it is, he still ranks third all-time behind only Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton.

Team record during his Detroit years:
78-88

Playoff record:
1-5

Pro Bowls:
Ten

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Did I miss anyone? Let me know in the comments section.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to ‘Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.