This is the latest post in Kurt’s continuing series to identify the NFL’s Ultimate Franchise Player of All-Time. For an explanation of his methodology for choosing each franchise’s ultimate franchise player, and then how you and he will choose the NFL’s Ultimate Franchise Player from that list, click here.
To see all the category page for this series, of which there will be one for every franchise, click here.
The next two episodes of MSF’s exclusive Ultimate Franchise Player turns its attention to the NFC North. Being a lifelong Packers fan and seeing the Packers play the Lions twice per year, I would have thought that it would have been a bit easier to rip off names of Detroit players as candidates.
But then again, the Lions have not had a great last 50 years or so. In fact, look for a lot of the names on this list to come way back from the team’s history, most notably the 1950s and early 1960s, when the franchise had by far it’s greatest success.
As part of the team’s 75th anniversary a few years back, the late Tom Kowalski put together a fantastic list of his top 75, which I will use as a crutch here. Feel free to look at that and some of the names I will end up omitting here. My personal list will also include a few players from the current crop, which hopefully will end up being remembered as among the franchise’s best a decade from now.
And a bit of trivia, whenever you hear reference to Packers v. Lions being “the longest continuous rivalry” in the NFL, that’s because both scheduled Packers/Bears games fell victim to the 1982 players strike, obviously a technicality.
So who is the All-Time Lion King? There’s one obvious name from recent times, but also a couple others from the Lions earlier days.
Dutch Clark (QB 1931-32, 1934-38)
Clark actually goes back to the franchise’s original roots as the Portsmouth Spartans. Dutch also served as the team’s kicker and punter, and eventually became a player-coach. Clark was a six-time All-Pro and led the lions to the 1935 NFL Championship.
Jason Hanson (K 1992-present)
The Packers have Aaron Rodgers/Brett Favre, but longevity wise they have nothing over Hanson and predecessor Eddie Murray – they have basically been the only two kickers the Lions have known since 1981! For his career, Hanson is 50-90 (55.6%) from 50+ yards, one of the best legs ever.
Wayne Walker (OLB 1958-72)
The longest-tenured non-kicker in team history, Walker appeared in 200 regular season games over his career and also served as a placekicker early in his career. After football, Walker enjoyed a long second career in broadcasting, serving as a commentator not only for football, but also MLB baseball.
Dick LeBeau (DB 1959-72)
One of the most legendary figures in NFL history, LeBeau has now served 53 years and counting as first a player and then as one of the most respected coaches in the game. Most know LeBeau from his current tenure as a Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coach, but his playing resume was just as stellar, intercepting 62 passes in his career. The pro football Veteran’s Committee finally gave LeBeau his due with induction in the 2010 class of the Hall of Fame.
Greg Landry/Gary Danielson/Eric Hipple/Scott Mitchell
I thought it would be fitting just to mention them all in one swoop. From 1957 until recently the Lions have never had elite quarterbacks, but very serviceable signal-callers.
Landry played from 1971-81 and was also the best running QB of the era not named Bobby Douglass, rushing for over 500 yards twice. Long before becoming a commentator/SEC apologist, Danielson played 13 years in the NFL, 1976-84 in Detroit, and threw five TD against the Minnesota Vikings in a 1978 game.
Eric Hipple had one of the most spectacular debuts ever in a 1981 Monday night game v. the Bears, throwing four TD and running for two more in a 48-17 rout. Hipple would go on to be the team’s QB for the majority of the 1980s. In the aftermath of his 15-year-old son tragically taking his own life in 2000, Hipple has become a spokesman speaking to groups about the dangers of depression and mental illness.
Finally, Scott Mitchell’s leadership was maligned in many circles during his tenure in the mid-1990s, but he led the team to two playoff appearances and threw for 4,300+ yards/32 TD in 1997.
Mike Utley (OG 1989-91) COURAGE SELECTION
Mike Utley will forever be remembered for flashing a thumbs-up signal to teammates and fans while being taken off the field during a 1991 game after suffering a spinal cord injury that would render him a paraplegic. Utley’s gesture became a rallying point for the franchise for the rest of that season, which culminated with reaching the NFC Championship game, the team’s best season since 1957.
Al ‘Bubba’ Baker (DE 1978-82)
Sacks were not kept officially during his time with the Lions, but Al was a menace during his relatively brief time, recording 23 sacks as a rookie in 1978 (including five in one game) and racking up 15+ sacks in two other seasons. Baker played in the league 13 years in all, but his play fell off after leaving Detroit.
Steve Owens (RB 1970-75)
The main drag in Miami, Oklahoma is named after him, where he was a high school standout before embarking on a legendary career with the OU Sooners that saw him win the 1969 Heisman Trophy in the same backfield as option QB Jack Mildren. Owens became the Lions first 1,000 yard rusher in 1971, but injuries cut short his career and was forced to retire after six seasons.
Billy Sims (RB 1980-84)
Like Steve Owens, Sims also won the Heisman running out of the the University of Oklahoma. Sims’ career was off to a spectacular start in the early 1980s before his career ended abruptly due to a catastrophic knee injury. Post-football, Sims has rebounded from some personal difficulties and got a little excited when fellow Sooner Sam Bradford was announced as the “19” — I meant 2008 Heisman Trophy winner .
Roger Brown (DT 1960-66)
His signature game was the Thanksgiving Day massacre in 1962 in which he sacked Bart Starr six times. Earned Pro Bowl recognition in five of his six seasons with the Lions.
Alex Karras (DT 1958-62, 1964-1971)
A member of the NFL’s All-1960s teams, the flamboyant Karras was one of the leaders of the defense during his era. He was suspended for the 1963 season along with Green Bay’s Paul Hornung for their involvement in organized gambling. Karras moonlighted in the professional wrestling world during his football days and later moved on to movies and television.
Chris Spielman (ILB 1988-95)
One of the most intense players in recent football history after an infamously sliding all the way down to the end of the second round of the 1988 NFL Draft despite a stellar career at Ohio State. A perennial leader in tackles, Spielman earned All-Pro recognition in 1991, 1992, and 1994.
Doak Walker (RB 1950-55)
Yet another Heisman Trophy winning running back, Walker won the award in 1948 while playing for SMU, and today the best running back in college football is given the Doak Walker award. As a professional, Doak earned five Pro Bowl selections and was part of two NFL Championships.
Brett Perriman (WR 1991-96)
The team’s No. 2 receiver in the explosive 1990s offense, Perriman caught 108 passes for nearly 1,500 yards in 1995. As Perriman’s time in Detroit wound down, Johnnie Morton emerged as a solid receiver during the late 1990s.
Lomas Brown (OT 1985-95)
He was one of the premiere offensive lineman in the game and was a Pro Bowl selection his final six years in Detroit. Brown helped opened holes for Barry Sanders but was even better in pass protection.
Herman Moore (WR 1991-2001)
You remember if you had him in fantasy football in 1995, catching 123 passes and 14 touchdowns. That would be the first of three consecutive seasons in which Moore had more than 100 catches.
Jack Christianson (DB 1951-58)
If you don’t know much about the Lions 1950s era, then you don’t know Jack. During that time Christianson twice recorded 10+ interceptions in a season and also was one of the most dangerous return men of his time, averaging 21.5 yards a return in 1952.
Yale Lary (DB 1952-53, 1956-1964)
Another member of one of the best secondaries ever, Lary intercepted 50 passes in his career and also put up amazing numbers as a punter, averaging 48 yards per boot in two years late in his career. His punts were also very rarely returned. In all was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection.
Calvin Johnson (WR 2007-present)
Working with a healthy quarterback for the first time in 2011, Johnson earned Pro Bowl honors for a second time while accounting for 1,681 yards receiving, a team record. At 6’5,” 235 lbs, Calvin will be unstoppable for several more years to come.
Matthew Stafford (QB 2009-present)
After a couple of injury-plagued seasons, the verdict finally came during the 2011 season — the first overall pick of the 2009 draft is the real deal. Stafford eclipsed the 5,000-yard mark after throwing for 520 yards in the 2011 regular season finale.
Ndamukong Suh (DT 2010-present)
The talent is definitely there, and became the first Detroit rookie since Barry Sanders to earn a Pro Bowl selection after 10 sacks in the 2010 season. Obviously a figure of controversy during the ’11 campaign, keeping things channeled in the right direction will be key – if he does he will eventually become an all-time great.
Up next are my selections for “The Final Five” and the athlete that will be named the Lions Ultimate Franchise Player.