O'Hara: A look at some of the best tandems in Detroit Lions' history

Posted May 20, 2013

In light of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley topping NFL.com's list of best defensive tackle tandems, Mike O'Hara looks at who formed some of the best pairs, at a variety of positions, for the Lions since 1957

Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh were the objects of a hot debate last week, and it was strictly about football.
Ndamukong Suh and Nick FairleyDefensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley

It had nothing to do with who was on a best-liked or least-liked list, or any misadventures on or off the playing field.

Fairley started it by stating in an article written by Tim Twentyman that he and Suh form the NFL's best tandem of defensive tackles. It was strong stuff, given that Fairley has played only two seasons – both interrupted by injuries – and Suh has played three.

“We're going to give guys trouble, man,” Fairley said.

NFL.com muscled in on the debate and agreed with Fairley, putting Suh-Fairley at the top of its list of the five best defensive tackle tandems.

Based on Suh's production in three years and Fairley's potential and performance when healthy, I agree they're at the top of the defensive tackles. They don't rank 1-2 individually, but there isn't a better pair in the league. Suh's relentless power and Fairley's explosive quickness makes them a force in the interior of the Lions' made-over defensive line.

Debates like this one are fun because there is no losing argument. If you think Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams of Buffalo are No. 1, so be it.

But here's another question: where do Fairley and Suh rank on the all-time list of Lions' defensive tackles? Are they No. 1 ? Or even No. 2?

Some other positions are open for debate. Who formed the best pair of running backs, safeties, wide receivers, cornerbacks, linebackers and kicking specialists in franchise history?

What seems like a slam dunk at some positions – or a chip-shot field goal, since we're talking football – is a closer call than one might think.

Following is my list. It starts roughly with players who were active in 1957, when the Lions won their last championship. There is one rule: the players had to play together. For example, Barry Sanders and Billy Sims would be the No. 1 running back tandem, but they never played together. Sims' career ended in 1984. Sanders joined the Lions in 1989.

Some positions were excluded. There is no starting quarterback-backup or quarterback-receiver combo, and I excluded offensive linemen. The teamwork that's inherent in their position makes it hard to put two together.

I also left out defensive ends. The NFL didn't start counting sacks as an official stat until 1982.

That means the 67 sacks Bubba Baker was credited with from 1978-81 didn't happen. The quarterbacks he put on their backs would disagree.

As always, feel free to disagree with my picks.

We start with the position that got this debate going:

1. Defensive tackles: In only three years, Suh makes my list as one of the top two defensive tackles in Lions history, and there have been some good ones – Roger Brown and Alex Karras from the '50s and '60s, Doug English from the '70s and '80s, Luther Elliss with Henry Thomas or James Jones, and Shaun Rodgers and Dan Wilkinson.

At his best, Rodgers was as good as any defensive tackle I've seen. He just wasn't at his best often enough.

No. 1 DT tandem: Brown-Karras. At 300 pounds, Brown was the NFL's first big, quick defensive tackle when the Lions drafted him in 1960. He made five Pro Bowls as a Lion, and a sixth after being traded to the Rams in 1967. Karras is generally considered the better player, although I'm not sure that's accurate. He made four Pro Bowls – all with Brown as his teammate.

2. Wide receivers: Statistics aren't the only indicator because of how passing offenses are dominating the NFL. Terry Barr and Gail Cogdill formed a dynamic tandem as teammates from 1960-65. Cogdill made three Pro Bowls, Barr two. In 1963, Barr had 13 TD catches while Cogdill had 10.

Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson have been a good pair for three seasons, but Megatron puts up most of the numbers.

No. 1 WR tandem: Herman Moore and Brett Perriman, and I don't think it's close.

They were teammates on the Lions from 1991 – Moore's rookie year – and Moore was an elite receiver and on track for the Hall of Fame before injuring his knee in 1999. From 1994-97 he made four Pro Bowls, was first-team All-Pro three times and set the single-season record with 123 catches in 1995. It since was broken by Marvin Harrison.

Perriman never made a Pro Bowl, but he had big seasons of his own – 108 catches in 1995 and 94 in 1996.

Moore and Perriman hold the record for combined catches by teammates with 231 in 1995.

3. Running backs: I could say Barry Sanders and whoever lined up with him and not be wrong.

Going back in time, John Henry Johnson played three seasons of his Hall of Fame career with the Lions (1957-59) and was outstanding as a combination fullback/halfback when he combined with Howard Cassady. Doak Walker, a Hall of Famer and another star of the 1950s, was a great multi-threat player.

Sanders got short-term support from players such as Derrick Moore, Tommy Vardell and Cory Schlesinger, who played with Sanders his last three years.

But none of the players mentioned is part of my all-time running back tandem.

No. 1 RB tandem: Billy Sims and Dexter Bussey. They were teammates from 1980, when Sims came to the Lions as the No. 1 pick in the draft, through 1984. Sims' career ended with an injury, and Bussey retired after the season, his 11th as a Lion.

At retirement they ranked 1-2 on the Lions' all-time rushing list and are still 2-3 behind Sanders, 29 years after playing their final games.

Bussey played halfback until Sims arrived and moved to fullback to block for him – at 195 pounds.

4. Tight ends: If Charlie Sanders played in this era, he'd have the receiving totals of whatever the leaders of the position are getting – 80, 90, 100 a season. He was that good, and he was a punishing blocker.

Asking a modern-era tight end to block usually means he's too slow to be a major receiving threat.

The Lions have had two Pro Bowl tight ends since Sanders retired after the 1977 season – David Hill, in 1978-79, and David Sloan, in 1999.

No. 1 tight end tandem: Sanders and Hill. Hill had 51 catches as Sanders' sidekick in 1976-77 and made the Pro Bowl the next two years. Like Sanders, Hill was an outstanding blocker. He learned well from Charlie Sanders.

5. Cornerbacks: So many good choices. Night Train Lane and Dick LeBeau were teammates from 1960-65, and both are in the Hall of Fame. Jim "The Hatchet" David and Bob Smith were a dynamic pair in the 1950s, and David teamed with Terry Barr, who entered the NFL as a defensive back and was moved to receiver.

No. 1 cornerback tandem: No disrespect to Night Train Lane, who remains a legendary figure, but LeBeau and Lem Barney win this one. They're bookend Hall of Famers.

Barney came to the Lions as a second-round draft pick in 1967. His first game was against the mighty Green Bay Packers. He intercepted Bart Starr's first pass thrown in his direction and ran it in for a touchdown.

LeBeau and Barney had longevity. The played six seasons together (1967-72) and combined for 68 interceptions – 38 by Barney and 30 by LeBeau.

6. Linebackers: I'm going back in time on this one.

Chris Spielman and Dennis Gibson had a six-year run together from 1988-93 at inside linebacker in the Lions' 3-4 defense. Gibson was smart and steady. Spielman was more of a playmaker and made four Pro Bowls and first-team All-Pro once.

Stephen Boyd and Reggie Brown would have been a great pair. Both came to the Lions as rookies in 1996. Brown's career ended with a neck injury in 1997. Boyd was named to three Pro Bowls but had to retire because of a back injury sustained in 2001.

No. 1 linebacker tandem: This qualifies as a Barry Sanders-type vote: Joe Schmidt and anyone who played with him from 1953-65. Schmidt was one of the all-time great middle linebackers – first-team All-Pro eight times and a Hall of Famer. He was the hub of a trio that included Carl Brettschneider and Wayne Walker.

Schmidt and Walker get the No. 1 spot. Walker made three Pro Bowls with Schmidt and was first-team All-Pro in 1965, Schmidt's last season.

7. Safeties: The game was so different in the 1950s that it's hard to compare eras, but this position doesn't warrant a lot of discussion.

Jack Christiansen and Yale Lary are No. 1.

Christiansen intercepted 46 passes in his eight-year career (1951-58). He also scored four TDs on punt returns as a rookie.

Lary was a Lion from 1952-64, and missed two seasons (1954-55) because of military service. He had 50 career interceptions. Lary was also led the NFL in punting three times.

Christiansen and Lary are both in the Hall of Fame.

Jason HansonK Jason Hanson

8. Kicking specialists: For the short term, the best punter-kicker combination for the Lions last year was Jason Hanson and ... Jason Hanson. Hanson had to punt three times against Tennessee after Ben Graham went out with a leg injury.

Hanson punted in college at Washington St., but did it only in emergencies in 21 seasons as a Lion. Before the Tennessee game, he hadn't punted since 2003, but he looked like an NFL punter against the Titans. He was quick, smooth and averaged 39.3 yards on three punts. He also made all four field-goal attempts.

Hanson had two long-term punting partners – John Jett and Nick Harris. However, neither made a Pro Bowl as a Lion.

Eddie Murray kicked with two Pro Bowl punters, Tom Skladany and Jim Arnold, in his 12 seasons as Lion before Hanson replaced him in 1992. Hanson wins out head-to-head over Murray, but Hanson never played with a Pro Bowl punter.

No. 1 specialist tandem: I'll stick with Hanson-Hanson, based on one game last season. There was no reason he should have expected to be ready to punt, but he was, and he delivered.

No surprise.

Hanson retired last month, but if the Lions get in a pinch, I'm sure he'll be ready – to punt or kick.