Editor’s Note: Jim Reineking is an editor for NFL.com. Here’s his take on Chris Spielman and the greatest all-time Lions players.
“Chris Spielman: A Football Life” debuts on NFL Network tonight at 8 p.m. ET.
When looking back at the history of the Detroit Lions, there are two eras in which the team experienced success. Of course, the 1950s were the franchise’s golden age, and that success will be reflected below. However, it’s also hard to fathom that the Wayne Fontes coaching regime was also a time of relative prosperity for the Lions. The Lions made the playoffs six times in the 1990s, with four of those appearances coming under Fontes’ control.
It’s safe to say the contributions of Chris Spielman on the defensive side of the ball and Barry Sanders (the topic of “A Football Life” episode that will air on Dec. 5) on the offensive side were a big part of the Lions’ playoff run. In 1991, arguably the Lions’ greatest season since their last championship in 1957, Spielman was selected to the Pro Bowl and earned first-team All-Pro honors.
Spielman — the topic of the latest installment of “A Football Life” — kicks off this list of the greatest all-time Lions players.
With a kind of action-hero look that could easily land him a role in the next “Expendables” movie, Spielman also appeared born to play football. Born in Canton, Ohio, Spielman was a Lombardi Award winner — as best college lineman — at Ohio State and quickly emerged as a defensive stalwart for the Lions. Spielman was a major contributor in the Lions’ only playoff win since 1957, a 38-6 demolition of an up-and-coming Dallas Cowboys team in the 1991 playoffs. (Photos: Spielman through the years)
9. Alex Karras
Before becoming major characters in the movie “Blazing Saddles” and the TV show “Webster,” Karras was one of the best interior defensive linemen of his era. Karras played 12 seasons with the Lions, but unfortunately just missed the team’s 1950s glory years. Drafted in 1958, Karras was a part of just one playoff team … that was 1970, with his career finale coming in a 5-0 playoff defeat against the Dallas Cowboys. (Photos: Karras through the years)
8. Dutch Clark
In an era dominated by the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers and New York Giants, Clark helped a young Lions franchise earn its first championship in 1935. The following season was the stuff of legend for Clark’s crew. As part of the Lions’ famed “Infantry Attack” backfield, Clark — along with Ace Gutowsky and Ernie Caddel — set a single-season standard for team rushing yardage (2,885) that stood for 36 years, finally falling when the Miami Dolphins rushed for 2,960 yards in their 17-0 season of 1972. Clark’s contributions earned him a spot as a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Lions enjoyed their moments of glory in the 1950s, and this list of the all-time greatest Lions is a reflection that once upon a time they were an NFL powerhouse. Christiansen is the first of four players from those 1950s Lions championship teams to make the cut here. Christiansen anchored a dominant Lions defensive backfield that also included fellow Hall of Famer Yale Lary. Christiansen was also one of the NFL’s great punt returners, and still ranks No. 4 overall in career punt return touchdowns.
6. Dick “Night Train” Lane
With devastating clothesline and head tackles that would be outlawed from the game after his playing years, Lane was a feared tackler and arguably the hardest-hitting cornerback in league history. For four of his six seasons with the Lions, Lane was a first-team All-NFL selection. (Photos: Lane through the years)
Walker isn’t just one of the great Lions of all time, he’s among the most decorated football players ever. Walker was a member of two of the Lions’ three championship squads in the 1950s. That glory came after winning the Heisman Trophy in 1948, earning All-America honors three times while at Southern Methodist and ultimately having a prestigious annual college football award named in his honor.
4. Lem Barney
The Lions had a great run on defensive backs for nearly three decades. Following Christiansen and Lary in the 1950s and then Lane in the 1960s, Barney — with help from fellow Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau — carried the torch from the late 1960s well into the 1970s. Barney became just the fifth cornerback to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Lions’ last championship triumph was a 59-14 rout of the Cleveland Browns in the 1957 NFL championship game. In that game, Schmidt led a defensive unit that held Jim Brown to just 69 yards on 20 carries. Schmidt was a part of two Lions championship teams, and is recognized as a vital contributor to the evolution of the middle linebacker position. In 2010, Schmidt landed at No. 84 in NFL Network’s countdown of the 100 greatest players in NFL history.
2. Bobby Layne
As the Lions collected championships in their 1950s glory days, the team also developed a reputation for its raucousness. Leading the charge on both fronts was Layne, who built a legend for his hard play and harder partying. Still, nobody could argue with the results. Layne helped lead the Lions to four NFL championship game appearances, winning three. However, the final title in team history left Layne bitter. Benched in favor of Tobin Rote, Layne watched his teammates execute an epic playoff comeback over the San Francisco 49ers before throttling the Browns in the 1957 championship. A year later, Layne was dealt to the Pittsburgh Steelers, after which he supposedly cursed the Lions with 50 years of futility.
Sanders isn’t just the greatest Lions player of all time, but you could make a case that he’s best running back to ever play the game.
The electrifying Sanders came 1,457 yards short of Walter Payton’s career rushing record after abruptly retiring — much like Jim Brown before him — seemingly still at the height of his powers. Sanders was such a joy to see play, that even his backward runs are fun to watch. (Photos: Sanders through the years)