The Best And The Worst Detroit Lions’ Running Backs

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Adam Ostermeier Breaksdown The Best And Worst Of The Detroit Lions’ Running Backs.


Welcome to the latest installment of the Detroit Lions Best and Worst All Time series. If you’re interested in following along from the beginning click here to go back to the introduction. If you see something you agree or disagree with or even if you just want to share your feelings on a particular player or moment share your thoughts in the Detroit Lions’ subreddit.

The Best: Barry Sanders

The most obvious award of this list, Barry Sanders was an all time talent. Easily the most recognizable player of Lions history, Sanders simply made the impossible a reality. When you’re an all-pro all ten seasons he played, six times on the first team, two time offensive player of the year, and member of the 1990’s all decade team, your resume sort of speaks for itself although watching the magic happen is a different experience all together.

Barry literally managed to do what people thought was impossible before. His runs were like poetry, sometimes going in every direction other then the other team’s end zone and yet in some magical way thats where he ended up. Arguably the most elusive athlete of all time he hurt more people without touching them then anyone without a weapon. Sanders would make one juke and the opposing defenders lower body would just collapse. It’s something that football fans really haven’t seen since and very well may never see again at the same level. To sum it up, Barry was a gift and Detroit is lucky to be able to call him their own.

Sanders is third all time in rushing yards, ninth in touchdowns, seventh in yards per attempt, and second only to Jim Brown in yards per game. While those numbers are amazing in and of themselves, it’s further stunning that he did that in only ten seasons. It’s near undisputed by experts that if he continued through his prime and played another 3-4 seasons that he was at least capable of, he would have been the clear all time NFL rushing leader and top five all time in rushing touchdowns. Outside of the big numbers though the most amazing thing about Barry was his consistency. He never rushed for less then 1,100 yards in a season, never averaged less then 4.3 yards per carry on a season, and went almost two seasons without committing a fumble.

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Honourable Mentions

  • When looking back at the history of the Lions there is actually a rich tradition of elite running back play making it difficult to truly nail down a second best after such an easy first decision. The best bet however at the end of the day is probably Billy Sims. The predecessor to Sanders, Sims was a high stepping monster out on the field that almost singlehandedly helped turn around the Lions in the early 1980’s. Unfortunately he always seemed to catch the injury bug and eventually a major knee injury shot him down in his prime in 1984. His career was cut way too short, leaving many fans wondering what could have been. That being said he’s still second on the Lions all time rushing list despite only playing in 60 games.
  • Going back to the champion teams of old, Doak Walker is one of the Lions greatest talents. The five time first team all pro and hall of famer was the image the stereotypical all American was built on. A running back by trade, he was elite at every aspect of the game from rushing and receiving to throwing more then the occasional pass, kicking extra points, and returning the occasional kick. With his best friend Bobby Layne, Walker created a dynamic duo that formed the foundation of the Lions championship winning offenses.
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The Worst: Tatum Bell

Because there were so many great running backs in Lions history it really stands out when bad ones show up in the records. Tatum Bell tops the list of the worst. After one thousand yard season in Denver, the first and largest sin of Tatum Bell was committed. Denver managed to trade him, George Foster (a tackle that was released after two seasons), and a fifth round pick for Lions all pro corner Dre Bly. Bly went on to have two more good seasons in Denver while the Lions got essentially nothing in return. Tatum Bell was a disaster for a Lions team desperate for a spark at the position. After one good game in the first week of the 2007 season, Bell rapidly fell off a cliff, losing his job in just five weeks to Kevin Smith who the Lions chose to play hobbled instead of putting Bell back on the field. Bell was re signed by the Lions the following offseason only to be released in favour of the washed up Rudi Johnson. Bell worked at a T-mobile after his release and was brought in late in 2009 as a desperation injury replacement for the Broncos. His NFL career ended there unceremoniously and after some time in the UFL he packed in football all together.

The biggest problem that Bell brought to the Lions however (outside of making the roster significantly less talented) wasn’t even his poor play on the field, it was his drama. Bell acted like he was the second coming when he came to Detroit and quickly underperformed. His response to his struggles on the field? Demand a trade and blame those around him for his problems. The best example of this though was what happened at the end of his career in Detroit. After getting released for Rudi Johnson Bell decided that the best idea would be to steal the luggage of the guy who took his spot. Bell had one small moment and he paid for trying to rest on his laurels. Unfortunately the Lions had to pay for that as well.

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Dishonourable Mentions

  • Aveion Cason was the awful itch the Lions could never seem to get rid of. He never really made a major impact positively or negatively, but the fact that he just kept coming back hurt that much more for fans. In a similar way to Andre Fluellen but much much worse, Cason was the guy the lions kept signing on if they needed a running back to role out after several others got injured. He’ll always be known as having started his career with a bad lions team and he ended his career with a worse lions team.
  • If there’s a truly depressing running back of the recent Lions era, it’s Jhavid Best. The former first round pick who Martin Meyhew boldly traded back into the first for, was a phenomenal talent and showed it early in his Detroit career. He was an absolutely electric player and the closest thing to Barry Sanders fans had seen. The comparisons were objectively fair, as he helped carry the Lions to their first playoff appearance in over a decade. Unfortunately though the play on the field was never the issue, it was his long history of concussions that eventually ended his career. Not only did it keep Best off the field though it kept the Lions organization in limbo for years over the position group, wondering whether or not he would or could come back. He might very well be the biggest Lions what if story of all time.

If you would like to see more in this series follow the link below:

Introduction Click here

 Quarterbacks Click here
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About the Author

Adam Ostermeier
Adam Ostermeier is a staff writer for detroitlionspodcast.com. From Toronto, Ontario, Canada, he has been a fan of the Lions for close to a decade and has a wide range of knowledge and experience with numerous sports. Watch for him on the reddit or send him a tweet, he will answer any of your questions and try not to be smug to the best of his ability.