MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA: The Detroit Lions Mount Rushmore

Posted Jul 4, 2014

Mount Rushmore has become the symbolic shrine where the best of the best reside and look down on all others in their respective sport.

Mount Rushmore has become the symbolic shrine where the best of the best reside and look down on all others in their respective sport.

There is room for debate on who belongs on Mount Rushmore, but it is an exclusive club, restricted to four members.

The limit is carved in granite – just like the hallowed national memorial where the 60-foot heads of Presidents Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt have been cut into the Black Hills of western South Dakota. It’s four and no more.

The four players on the Detroit Lions Mount Rushmore, as picked by Detroitlions.com, span seven decades and cross over generations as the National Football League has evolved through rules changes, playing styles and the development of athletes who continue to get bigger, stronger and faster.

Mount Rushmore’s four Lions share unquestioned greatness and impact on and off the playing field – truly the best of the best.

The Detroit Lions Mount Rushmore:

Quarterback Bobby Layne: The leader of the Lions’ championship era of the 1950s, known for his toughness and comeback drives he engineered to lead the Lions to three NFL championships.

Middle linebacker Joe Schmidt: A teammate of Layne’s on the 1953 and ’57 championship teams. As one of the pioneers in the development of the middle linebacker position, he was an inspiring defensive leader who was as adept defending the pass as he was stuffing the run. He also posted a winning record in six seasons as head coach.

Running back Barry Sanders: It is 16 years since his last game in 1998, but at public appearances he still gets chants of “Barry, Barry, Barry” like those that filled the old Pontiac Silverdome during his 10 seasons as a Lion. It can be argued that there might have been a handful of better all-round running backs, but Barry was in a class by himself as a runner.

Wide receiver Calvin Johnson: He already holds one NFL record – receiving yards gained in a season with 1,964 in 2012 – and others could be in the grasp of the dominating player former teammate Roy Williams dubbed “Megatron.” Athletic grace, power, production, class – Calvin Johnson is the total package. Present-day fans have the good fortune of seeing history made.

Selecting four players as the best ever for a Lions franchise that is going into its 81st season since relocating to Detroit from Portsmouth, Ohio, in 1934 is a daunting task. To borrow a line written by the late Detroit News sports columnist Shelby Strother in his book chronicling the 40 greatest NFL games of all time, it’s like catching soap bubbles with chopsticks.

As always, we value opinions. Feel free to agree or disagree.

Here are the highlights and accomplishments that put Bobby Layne, Joe Schmidt, Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson at the top of the Detroit Lions Mount Rushmore:

BOBBY LAYNE
Bobby Layne is shown staring out intently from the sideline in his Detroit Lions uniform, with no facemask on his helmet for protection, in a grainy photo on the cover of a 1995 special edition of Sports Illustrated.

Under the photo is the caption: “The Toughest Quarterback Ever.”

That cover photo appeared nine years after Layne died, on Dec. 1, 1986, and more than 37 years after he was traded to Pittsburgh early in the 1958 season. But the steely image of Bobby Layne and the caption that described him captured the qualities that drove him to succeed and made others follow him.

Tough. Leader. Winner.

Bobby Layne played hard, and if a fraction of the stories are true about how he lead his teammates in search of good times at night, he often lived hard, too.

Layne quarterbacked the Lions to back-to-back NFL Championships in 1952-53, and he took them to the brink of the 1957 championship before going out late in the season with a broken leg. Tobin Rote came off the bench to finish off the season and quarterback the Lions in a 59-14 victory over the Cleveland Browns in the NFL Championship game at old Briggs Stadium.

No matter who played quarterback that day, it was Layne’s team and cut in his image – as it was every minute of every game from the moment he arrived in 1950 in a trade with the New York Bulldogs.

As was common in his era, Layne was a do-everything quarterback – passer, runner and kicker – but above all, he was a leader.

“He was a hell of a competitor,” said Joe Schmidt. “He never wanted to be beat. He wanted to win with a passion. If you didn’t have the feeling you were trying to win or wanted to win, he’d get on your butt. “If he got sacked, he’d get up in somebody’s face and raise hell.

“The same in the locker room. You knew his desire. You knew how much he wanted to win.”

Layne’s proven ability to lead the Lions in the clutch led to the expression “Bobby Layne never lost a game. Time just ran out.”

That expression never rang truer than in the 1953 NFL Championship against the Browns at old Briggs Stadium. Cleveland had a 16-10 lead after a field goal when the Lions got the ball at their 20 with 4:10 left.

It was when Layne played his best, even when trailing.

A 17-yard completion to Jim Doran on first down got the Lions moving. Layne saw something in Cleveland’s defense that made Doran his favorite target in that drive.  Another pass to Doran gained 18 yards, and a dive over the middle by Layne gained 3 yards for a first down at the 33.

Layne went to Doran again on the next play – a 33-yard touchdown pass with 2:08 left. Doak Walker’s extra point gave the Lions their one-point margin of victory.

Layne had taken the game into his hands and delivered a championship – just as his teammates expected him to do.

“I don’t think anybody at that time had the same feeling that was transferred from him to other players,” Schmidt said. “If we’d do what he was telling us to do, he was going to win.

BARRY SANDERS
Barry Sanders began his career with the Lions as a sideline spectator. On opening day in 1989, he spent the first two quarters and a good portion of the third watching and waiting to get sent into the game as the Cardinals built a 6-3 lead at the Pontiac Silverdome.

That role changed – and for good – when Sanders was sent into the game to lend a spark to the struggling offense.

Sanders first carry came on the ninth snap of the Lions’ first possession of the second half. Sanders took quarterback Bob Gagliano’s handoff, darted through a hole up the middle and cut left for a gain of 18 yards and a first down at the Cardinals’ 11-yard line.

He would gain 15,251 more yards on 3,061 more carries in his 10 seasons as a Lion, but that first carry sent an electric charge through the fans as a signal that the spectator would be the star of the show.

Sanders finished off the possession with three straight carries – a three-yard gain off right guard, five more inside right tackle, then three more through left end for his first pro touchdown and a 10-6 Lions lead.

The Lions eventually lost, 16-13, on a last-minute field goal, but the outcome was a meaningless footnote for what the game represented in the history of the Lions and pro football.

Sanders put fans, teammates and opponents in awe with a running style that fit the dictionary definition of unique -- “unlike anything or anyone else.”

He ran through tackles and around tacklers. It was a common tactic for him to come to a dead stop on the field, then change direction and hit full speed again in one stride to leave frustrated would-be defenders grabbing futilely trying to stop him.

Asked once what gave him the ability to see holes and change direction, Sanders repeated what a former coach told him: “Run with your eyes.”

He saw every crack and crevice. Every time he touched the ball he added another clip to his personal highlight reel.

Some of the memorable moments that are too many to count: twice twisting Patriots defensive back Harlon Barnett around like a corkscrew on a TD run; TD jaunts of 80 and 82 yards in the same game against Tampa Bay; a stop-start 47-yard TD run that finished off a 38-6 Lions’ victory over the Cowboys in the NFC Divisional playoff after the 1991 season.

Sanders won four rushing titles and easily could have had a fifth in his rookie season. He had 1,470 yards late in the final game at Atlanta, leaving him 10 behind the Chiefs’ Christian Okoye, whose final game had ended.

When told about the chance to win the rushing title, Sanders chose not to go back into the game, telling the coaches that Tony Paige, his good friend and teammate, deserved to get playing time. It was a typically selfless gesture by Sanders, who never complained or bragged, and never spiked the ball after scoring a touchdown.

If Sanders didn’t want to toot his own horn, his offensive linemen were willing to do it for him.

“As offensive linemen, we felt that every year we had the best running back,” said center Kevin Glover, a Lion from 1985-97 and Sanders’ teammate for nine seasons. “He was second to none.”

The offensive line’s mission in 1997 was for Sanders to rush for 2,000 yards. They went into the final game against the Jets needing to win the game to make the playoffs, and with Sanders 131 yards short of 2,000.

The Jets had Sanders in check going into the final play of the third quarter, holding him to 23 yards on 12 carries and with a 10-6 lead.

In a flash, everything changed. Sanders rocketed through right guard on a draw play for 47 yards. Four plays later, he ran 15 yards around left end for a touchdown and a 13-10 lead that held up as the final score.

There was more to come. He added 114 yards on 10 carries in the fourth quarter, giving him 184 for the game and 2,053 for the season – the fourth highest total in NFL history. Perhaps more amazing, Sanders gained 161 of his yards in the last 15 minutes, 20 seconds.

“That was one of the games, being in the huddle with him, seeing the intense look on his face,” Glover said. “It was truly a priceless experience that I’ll never be a part of again in my life.

“He always amazed us.”

Fullback Cory Schlesinger, who blocked for Sanders for four years, noted how Sanders’ put on a show for opponents.

“He was probably the most exciting player to watch on the football field,” said Schlesinger. “Every player who played with him or against him would say the same thing.

“He was probably the only player who had players on the opposite sideline standing up to watch him play.”

JOE SCHMIDT
Joe Schmidt’s ascent to a place among the greatest middle linebackers in NFL history started with an emotional low point after being passed over in the draft by his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers.

When he got to his first pro training camp in 1953 with the defending NFL champion Lions as a seventh-round draft pick out of Pittsburgh, he figured he would soon be back home in Pittsburgh – perhaps with a chance to be picked up off the waiver scrap heap by the Steelers.

“I figured, ‘I don’t have any chance to make that team,’” Schmidt said the other day. “Everybody told me I was too small, too slow – all that stuff.

“I’d be home in Pittsburgh. It wouldn’t take very long.”

His lack of optimism wasn’t because he lacked ability or confidence. He heard through the grapevine that he wasn’t considered a top prospect.

“I came up here with the idea I was going to prove them wrong, whoever ‘they’ were, and make the team and be a pretty good football player,” Schmidt said. “Down deep in my heart, I felt I could play. Whether I got the opportunity to prove that was another thing.”

When Schmidt returned to Pittsburgh after his rookie season, it was in royal fashion as a key linebacker on the NFL Champion Lions. Schmidt used part of the $8,300 he made in bonus and salary combined to buy a new car for the drive home.

He felt like a conquering hero when he pulled up in front of his old home in his shiny new wheels.

“I felt like Columbus landing,” Schmidt said, his wry humor intact at age 82. “Everybody came out to see the new car. I told everybody, ‘Don’t touch that car!”

Schmidt was a special rookie on a team that was loaded with talent. In the championship game against the Cleveland Browns, Schmidt broke through the line early in the game to force a fumble by Browns quarterback Otto Graham.

The Lions recovered and drove to their first touchdown in a 17-16 victory that made them back-to-back champions.

Coming to Detroit proved to be a blessing for Schmidt and the Lions. In his first two years, the Lions designated their linebackers as left and right, playing behind a five-man line.

Schmidt moved to middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense in 1955. He is recognized as a pioneer at one of the glamor positions of the NFL. It has been manned by such legendary players as Schmidt, Bill George, Sam Huff and Dick Butkus in the early days and Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher of more recent vintage.

Schmidt made 10 Pro Bowls and was named first-team All-Pro eight times. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Schmidt was suited to being the man in the middle. It called for a blend of athleticism, instinct, intelligence and leadership. He had all of those qualities. They would serve him well after his 13-year playing career. He spent one season as an assistant coach and six as a successful head coach of the Lions with an overall record of 43-35 with seven ties.

Throughout his career Schmidt played with Hall of Fame teammates on both sides of the ball – among them Doak Walker, Bobby Layne, John Henry Johnson and Lou Creekmur on offense, Yale Lary, Jack Christiansen, Night Train Lane and Dick LeBeau on defense.

The 1950s and part of the ‘60s was a golden era for Lions football, and Schmidt was one of the town’s heroes.

“It was a great time,” Schmidt said. “I was lucky to play with some of the greatest players and play in some great games.”

He was one of the greats.


CALVIN JOHNSON
Charlie Sanders puts Calvin Johnson in elite company in his ranking of players he has seen in the 47 seasons he has spent with the Lions.

Where does Megatron rank?

“Second – to Barry Sanders,” Charlie Sanders says.

Second among Lions players?

“No. All players. I think he’s better than Jerry Rice. I said that last year – that at this point in his career, he’s better than Jerry Rice.”

That’s high praise from a man who has seen a lot of football. Charlie Sanders has observed the game from just about every vantage point possible – Hall of Fame tight end, assistant coach, broadcast analyst and his current front-office position of pro personnel assistant.

Ranking Johnson No. 2 on his all-time list leaves room for argument – especially among those who insist that Jerry Rice is not only the best receiver of all time but the best player at any position. And a case for best receiver could be made for recent Hall of Fame inductees Cris Carter and Marvin Harrison, and others such as Randy Moss and Terrell Owens who are in line for an invite to Canton.

However, it is hard to argue against the claim that Johnson is the dominant offensive player of the decade.

He lives up to the nickname “Megatron” that former Lions teammate Roy Williams bestowed on him as a rookie in 2007 because of Johnson’s size, big hands and freakish athletic ability.

At 6-5 and 239 pounds as a rookie, the speed to run 40 yards in 4.35 seconds and a vertical jump of 42.5 inches, Johnson overpowers defenders no matter how defenses are stacked to stop him. Quarterback Matthew Stafford has said often that what the Lions see defenses do on film against other teams has no semblance to how they attempt to defend Johnson.

Sometimes, the Lions have a simple play to use against any coverage: throw it high and let Johnson jump to beat single, double or even triple coverage.

It’s doubtful if any receiver will match Rice’s career totals of 1,549 receptions for 22,895 yards and 197 touchdowns compiled over 21 seasons, but Johnson has made his own mark since coming to the Lions as the second player drafted overall in 2007 out of Georgia Tech.

Johnson already has taken down one record formerly held by Rice. Johnson set the one-season record for receiving yards with 1,964 in 2012. Rice held the previous mark with 1,848 in 1995.

Johnson set the single-game record for receiving yards in regulation time with 329 in a victory over the Cowboys last year. Flipper Anderson had 336 yards in a 1989 game for the Rams, but 40 of his yards came in overtime.

In an era when wide receivers are known as much for flamboyant behavior as performance, Johnson is what former teammate Nate Burleson called “the anti-diva.” Johnson’s one act of showmanship is to dunk the ball over the crossbar after scoring a touchdown. Since the end of last season, the NFL has put in a rule banning the dunk.

Despite letting his actions on the field do the talking for him, Johnson is popular with fans. In 2012, he was voted to be on the cover of the video game “Madden 13.”

Johnson’s production has come against defenses that Charlie Sanders says are more diversified than more basic man-to-man and zone schemes that Rice and other receivers of his era faced.

“Jerry Rice never had to see so many different defenses, or brackets,” Sanders said. “Did you ever see two guys bracket Jerry? Calvin can do everything. He’s a freak.”