Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
The folks at Pro Football Talk have undertaken a project to create a Mt. Rushmore for each and every NFL team. Today (June 7th) is the day for the Lions.
Their ballot includes the following candidates:
Dick “Night Train” Lane
Over an unhealthy breakfast this morning–it’s also National Donut Day and I honored that as well–I pondered my vote. Two of the choices were no-brainers, but the other two were not so easy.
Barry Sanders is one of the obvious ones. I would be shocked if Barry isn’t on every ballot. Aside from being far and away the best Lions player that anyone under age 50 has ever seen play, his running style and the excitement it brought make him a lock. If Mt. Rushmore had a featured star, Barry Sanders would be that guy for Detroit.
Lem Barney was the other instantaneous decision. I’m a little young to remember him on the field, but Barney was a special talent on a lot of middling Lions teams in the 1970s. I do remember his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992 and the gushing respect and praise heaped upon him by great players that competed against him and came after him. He was the first Lion to make #20 the revered number for the franchise. He’s been retired for 35 years but remains relevant with the Lions and the city of Detroit today, and that counts for something in the balloting as well.
The other two votes were tougher. I wanted very much to go with Night Train Lane, but the best years of his career were with other teams. He retired a few years before I was born too, which makes putting his Detroit performance into context quite tough. Bobby Layne’s Detroit career ended when my father was a kid, which makes the Blond Bomber an even more difficult case to contextualize and advocate. I know of his accomplishments only “on paper”. He does get bonus points for sharing a name with my son Layne, but that’s more coincidental.
One of my other votes wound up being Chris Spielman. I know that in terms of on-field greatness he probably doesn’t qualify. But Chris Spielman is my all-time football hero. He’s a big part of the reason why this Cleveland native and Buckeyes fan became and remains a Lions die-hard. Spielman embodied everything I learned and loved about football as a child: toughness, relentlessness, intensity, character, pride, technical proficiency. Other players were more talented and had a bigger impact on better teams. I don’t care. Chris Spielman makes the cut.
That leaves one spot left. Calvin Johnson is coming off the greatest season ever by a wide receiver and is the biggest reason why there is hope in the Motor City for the upcoming seasons. Megatron has been far and away the face of the franchise since Barry Sanders retired, a bright light in a very dark time. Herman Moore put up some amazing numbers on the wildly entertaining, relatively successful teams of the Wayne Fontes era. Three 1st team All Pro honors in an era with Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Cris Carter, Andre Reed, and others is quite an accomplishment.
As with Night Train and Layne, it is difficult for me to contextualize the other old-timers. I know Joe Schmidt was an amazing talent, making eight first-team All Pro honors in the era of Bednarik, Nitschke, and Huff. Folks of that generation bring up Schmidt as one of the greatest ever. I know Lary and Walker are in the Hall of Fame. But I have never even seen grainy tape of any of them in action.
There were a couple of omissions from the ballot that I noticed as well. The most recent Lions player to get inducted into the Hall of Fame, Charlie Sanders, didn’t make the finalist list. Even though his on-field prowess wasn’t dynamic, Sanders remains an integral part of the Lions family to this day. I expected Bubba Baker to make the list as well even though he only spent the first few years of his career in Detroit. He was one of the best pass rushers of his era, but his Detroit career largely came before sacks were an official stat. And what about Jason Hanson? The recently retired kicker has scored more points than all but two players in NFL history and made more field goals from beyond 50 yards than anyone else by a wide margin.
I narrowed my choice to Layne and Schmidt, the two most accomplished and widely respected players of the bygone era when the Lions were perennial contenders. Schmidt ranks much higher in terms of on-field honors, but Bobby Layne was the starting quarterback for the back-to-back NFL Champion Detroit Lions. That wins my final vote.