The Detroit Lions can rest on their laurels while the Selection Committee goes through the final stage of the voting process in Atlanta to determine the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019.
No former Lions are on this year’s final ballot, but the franchise already is well represented. There are 20 former Lions enshrined in Canton, and 15 of them are regarded by the Hall of Fame as having spent the majority of their career with the Lions.
While the Lions and their fans can look back proudly on the players who have achieved the ultimate individual honor, there are former Lions who have been overlooked from the earliest days when the franchise had its roots in Portsmouth, Ohio, through more recent days.
From “Ox” Emerson to Jim “The Hatchet” David to Herman Moore, Lomas Brown and Chris Spielman, there are former Lions whose careers warrant a closer look as possible Hall of Fame candidates on this list of the greatest Lions not in the Hall of Fame.
It’s a subjective list, and obviously open to debate.
The only exclusions are that it is not open to active players, retired players already enshrined in Canton, and retired players who have yet to reach the five-year retirement threshold to be eligible for the Hall of Fame. Among others, that eliminates Calvin Johnson, who has been retired for three seasons.
Johnson’s first year of eligibility will be for the 2021 class, along with other first-year candidates Peyton Manning and Charles Woodson.
Players are on this list regardless of position, based on how they performed in their era. It is made up of six defensive players, four on offense and one special teams star that I considered a no-brainer on any list.
Here is the list, in order of when they played for the Lions. As always, feel free to disagree.
Lions career: Four seasons in Detroit (1934-37) and three in Portsmouth (1931-33) before the franchise was relocated to Detroit. His last season was 1938 with Brooklyn.
Bio stats: It was a different era and a different game, but the statistics are staggering. In Detroit, the Lions’ rushed for more than 2,000 yards three times from 1934-37. In 1936 they set a single-season record of 2,885 rushing yards in a 12-game season. The record stood until 1972, when the Miami Dolphins rushed for 2,960 in a 14-game season.
Honors/awards: All Pro five times, and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All Decade team of the 1930s.
Passing interest: The 1936 Lions did not have offensive balance. They had 818 passing yards to go with 2,885 rushing.
Lions career: All eight seasons as a Lion, 1952-59.
Bio/stats: Drafted in the 22nd round in 1952, he didn’t enter the NFL until he was 25 because of military service. David had 36 career interceptions, was a member of the Lions’ three championship teams of the 50s, and played all 96 regular-season games.
Honors: Six Pro Bowls, all in his last six seasons.
The Hatchet: It was a nickname he deserved for being a big hitter, and he walked his talk. Once standing on the sideline, he shook his head when he saw a cornerback get beaten on an outside running play.
“Put a littler clothesline on him,” David grumbled.
And it was only a practice.
ALEX KARRAS, DEFENSIVE TACKLE
Lions career: 12 seasons in 13 years (1958-1970). Suspended by the NFL in 1963 season for gambling.
Bio/stats: First-round pick in 1958. Lightning quick at 248 pounds, he had 16 career fumble recoveries. Missed only one game in his career.
Honors/awards: All Pro three times, four Pro Bowls and on the Pro Football Hall of Fame 1960s All Decade team. Sentiment for him to make the Hall of Fame has never been backed up by voting.
One liners: One of many attributed to Karras came after his return from the suspension. When the referee asked him to call the coin toss, Karras supposedly replied: “I’m sorry sir … I’m not allowed to gamble.”
ROGER BROWN, DEFENSIVE TACKLE
Lions career: 1960-66. Fourth-round draft pick out of what is now known as Maryland Eastern Shore. His last three seasons were with the Rams after a trade.
Bio/stats: At 6-5 and 300 pounds, Brown was built and performed like big, quick defensive tackles of the current era. His skills were on display in the Lions’ win over the Packers on Thanksgiving Day in 1962. Brown was credited with having a hand in seven of the 11 sacks of Packers QB Bart Starr.
Honors/awards: Five of his six Pro Bowls were with the Lions, and All Pro twice.
Legendary lines: With the Lions and Rams he played on two defensive lines known as the Fearsome Foursome. Brown has insisted that the Lions had the name first.
DOUG ENGLISH, DEFENSIVE TACKLE
Lions’ career: All 10 seasons in Detroit, from 1975-85. He missed 1980 for personal business.
Bio/stats: Drafted in the second round in 1974 out of Texas, English was the anchor of the defensive interior throughout his career. The NFL did not make sacks an official stat until 1982. English’s official career high was 13 in 1983, and he had 59 – including unofficial stats – for his career. English and Bubba Baker led the Silver Rush front four that was one of the NFL’s best units from 1978-82.
Honors/awards: Four Pro Bowls, All Pro first time in 1982, and second team twice.
Safety first: With four career safeties, English is tied with Ted Hendricks and Jared Allen for the most in NFL history.
Lions career: 1980-84. His spectacular career was ended by a knee injury in Game 8 of 1984. Sims played only 60 games. He missed five others with injuries and a players’ strike wiped out seven games in 1982.
Bio/stats: Drafted first overall in 1980, he was a powerful, explosive runner who could create his own holes if necessary – or simply leap over defenders. He rushed for 5,106 yards and 42 TDs, and was a big-play receiving threat with 186 career catches and an average of 11.1 yards per catch. Sims scored 31 TDs in his first two seasons – 26 rushing, five receiving.
Honors/awards: Three Pro Bowls in his first three seasons, and the 1978 Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma.
Star debut: Sims broke in with a splash in 1980 – 153 yards rushing and three TDs, and 64 yards on two receptions in his first game.
LOMAS BROWN, OFFENSIVE TACKLE
Lions career: 1985-95. 11 seasons in Detroit, then played for the Cardinals, Browns, Giants and Bucs.
Bio/stats: Drafted sixth overall in 1985, Lomas was a natural pass blocker and an opening-day starter at left tackle as a rookie. Brown started 251 career games, tying him for ninth on the all-time list with Mike Kenn, Charles Woodson and Tom Brady. The only offensive lineman with more career starts is Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, with 293.
Honors: Seven Pro Bowls, including six straight in his last six seasons as a Lion, and All Pro in 1995.
Ringing out career: Brown won a Super Bowl ring in his last season with the Bucs in 2002. He was signed out of retirement early in the season to add depth and toughness to the offensive line.
CHRIS SPIELMAN, LINEBACKER
Lions career: 1988-95. His last two seasons were with Buffalo. He retired in training camp with Cleveland in 1999 because of a neck injury. Drafted in the second round in 1988.
Bio/stats: A relentless, productive defender in the 3-4 defense. He led the Lions in tackles all eight seasons, including 1990 when he missed four games with an injury. They were the only games he missed as a Lion.
Honors/awards: Four Pro Bowls, first-team All-Pro once and second team twice.
Opening statement: “Let’s go,” is how he opened his conference-call interview on draft day. And he got gong – full speed.
MEL GRAY, RETURN SPECIALIST
Lions career: 1989-94. Signed as a Plan B free agent from New Orleans.
Bio/stats: A game-breaker as a Lion for six of his 12 pro seasons. As a Lion he led the NFL in punt returns once, kickoff returns twice and had seven TD returns – five kickoffs, two punts.
Honors/awards: All Pro three times, four Pro Bowls, second team on the Pro Football Hall of Fame All 1990s team.
Clincher: Gray’s 78-yard punt return in Game 15 of the 1991 season clinched a road win over the Packers and a playoff berth for the Lions.
HERMAN MOORE, WIDE RECEIVER
Lions career: 1991-2001. Played briefly for the Giants in 2002. Drafted 10th overall in 1991.
Bio/stats: Moore played sparingly as a rookie with one start and 11 catches in the regular season. He began to take off in 1992 to start of one of the best careers of any receiver in franchise history. Moore had 670 career catches for 9,174 yards and 62 TDs. He ranks second on the Lions’ all-time list for receivers, behind Calvin Johnson in both categories.
Honors/awards: All Pro three times, four Pro Bowls and two receiving titles (1995, ’97).
Record book: Moore was the first NFL receiver to have three straight seasons (1995-97) with at least 100 catches. He set a single-season record – since broken – with 123 catches in 1995.