Number Crunching: #20
by Chris Brophy
Here we are at last, one fifth of the way through this process and after leaving behind the teenage numbers we enter the roaring 20's. Roaring is an apt description for our first number because our all time number 20 represents the Detroit Lions.
However, this player has already had an article in our history section devoted to him so rather than repeat what has already been said, we'll go over his best bits briefly before adding a twist to this particular number by showing how important it is to the Lions complete history. After going 0-16 last year, maybe they should consider lobbying the league to allow all their players to wear number 20!
Read on to find out who the Diner has awarded the all-time #20 to and a bit more about the other great Lions who wore this distinguished jersey:
FD's All Time #20: Barry Sanders, Running Back (Detroit Lions)
As mentioned in the introduction to this piece, our all-time number 20 has already visited this section of the Diner before so rather than go over the details again, I'll offer a reminder of what made Sanders such a dominate player before directing you to the excellent article fellow Diner scribe Sam Monson put together not so long ago.
For such a mild mannered character, Sanders actually started his career with a bit of a controversy as he (and 25 other underclassmen) challenged the traditional system for the NFL draft of only allowing seniors into the draft. Granted a special hardship clause for the 1989 draft, Sanders was able to leave school a year early and his superb numbers, dazzling running style and the Heisman Trophy tucked under his arm seen him get drafted third overall in the 1989 draft by the Detroit Lions.
He would spend his entire career with the franchise, helping them become competitive after struggling in previous seasons. By 1991 they had made the NFC Championship game but that would be as close as Sanders and his team would ever get to the ultimate success. On a personal level, he achieved all you could ever hope for as a player – multiple Pro Bowls and All-Pro nominations, a 2000 yard rushing season and after his career was all said and done, the Hall of Fame. It is widely accepted that had he carried on, he could not only have put Walter Payton's then career yardage mark firmly in his rear view mirror but he could easily have put it out of Emmitt Smith's reach and likely challenged the 20000 yard barrier.
As it was, Sanders went off quietly into the sunset, happy with what he achieved personally but likely frustrated at the lack of team success.
Sanders left behind a lasting impression on the NFL and especially Lions fans but before Sanders had ever come on the scene fans of the franchise had already bore witness to a fantastic running talent that had worn the number 20 jersey and won the Heisman Trophy playing his college ball in the state of Oklahoma.
With the overall number one pick of the 1980 draft, the Lions selected running back Billy Sims of Oklahoma. In five years with the Lions Sims made three Pro Bowls helped turn around the fortunes of a poor Lions team. He was named rookie of the year in 1980 after running for over 1300 yards and 13TD's whilst also grabbing 51 receptions and another three scores (including a career long 87 yard TD). The Lions had been the league's worst team the season before going 2-14 but with Sims in their offensive backfield they turned that around to go 9-7.
Sims was even better in his second year running the football racking up 1439 yards at a very nice average of 4.9 yards per carry. He again pushed in 13TD's on the ground whilst adding a couple more through the air, including another 80+ yard reception TD (81 yards this time). His rushing total was third best in the league. The following season saw Sims help the Lions make the post season in the expanded play-off format of the strike shortened 1982 season although they went out in the first round to the eventual champion Redskins.
The team would return to post season in 1983 behind another 1000 yard season from Sims even though he missed three games. This time they faced the San Francisco 49ers and although they again lost, it was not without a major effort from Sims who rushed for 114 yards off only 20 carries, added two rushing TD's and also added four receptions as the Lions pushed the 49ers all the way only to fall one point short losing 24-23.
Sims was the real difference maker for Detroit, able to carry the offense on his shoulders and make an average team competitive and a danger to the league's best. Sims looked set to push his own high standards in 1985 as half way through the season he had already amassed nearly 700 yards at 5.3 yards per carry but a serious knee injury ended his season and a comeback proved impossible, his career was over all too soon.
In his five seasons Sims ran for 5106 yards and 42 scores whilst also adding 186 receptions for 2072 yards and five more visits to the end zone. He is still the Lions second leading rusher behind Sanders who broke all of his marks. Sims was a more powerful type of runner than Sanders but he had his fair share of moves and like Sanders, made his team so much more of a threat than it would ever be without him. Had he not gotten injured then he would have at least made Sanders have to chase his numbers a fair bit harder but whichever #20 the Lions had in the backfield, yardage, success and entertainment was always guaranteed.
If Sanders didn't have a hard enough task following in Sims footsteps when he first started out, there was another Lions #20 who is regarded as one of the franchise's all-time great players that made pulling on the fabled #20 just that bit more daunting.
Hall of Fame Cornerback Lem Barney is the first outstanding #20 in Lions history. After the Lions drafted him in the 1967 draft (2nd round) from Jackson State he too notched up rookie of the year honours as he was named the best first year defensive player. That season had seen him pick off 10 passes and also make the Pro Bowl which he would go on to be selected for a further six times.
Barney was not just a danger to intercept passes but once he had the ball in his hands he was a danger to turn a big play into an even bigger one with his ball skills. A part time return man, Barney knew how to make potential tacklers miss and he would find pay dirt eleven times in his eleven professional seasons. If he wasn't intercepting passes he was recovering fumbles (eleven of those) or acting as emergency punter (he took the role in the late 60's for a period).
Like Sims and Sanders, Barney played on many an average team. Only once did he ever see post season action and that was in 1970 when the Lions earned a wild card in the NFC and faced the Dallas Cowboys but lost by the rather unusual score of 5-0!
So as you can see, the #20 is a jersey that could have been retired three times over but given its history, the Lions ought to consider asking more people to wear it. Whoever takes on that challenge needs to perform at the absolute highest level to even be considered in the same breath as three of the greatest players in Lions – and NFL – history.
Cliff Battles, Running Back (Boston/Washington Redskins)
Rocky Bleier, Running Back (Pittsburgh Steelers)
Joe Morris, Running Back (New York Giants, Cleveland Browns)
Garrison Hearst, Running Back (Arizona Cardinals, Cincinnati Bengals, San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos)
Gino Cappelletti, Wide Receiver/Kicker (Boston/New England Patriots)
Mel Renfro, Defensive Back (Dallas Cowboys)
Louis Wright, Cornerback (Denver Broncos)
Deron Cherry, Safety (Kansas City Chiefs)
Brian Dawkins, Safety (Philadelphia Eagles, Denver Broncos)
Ronde Barber, Cornerback (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Ed Reed, Safety (Baltimore Ravens)
As much as number 20 is a great number in Lions history it's not exactly lacking around the rest of the league. Running backs and defensive backs will now come to prominence over the next 30 or so numbers and the first number in the list is no exception.
The first man to ever rush for 200 yards in a game is Hall of Famer Cliff Battles (right) of the Boston/Washington Braves/Redskins. He is also recognised as the first ever NFL all-time leading rusher. When you think of the Steelers team of the 1970's which won four Super Bowls Rocky Bleier is not the first name to spring to mind but no one is better thought of by fans and fellow professionals than the former Vietnam war hero. After being injured on active duty, Bleier was told he would never play again but he did and having had to fight just to get on the roster he would end up being a significant part of the Steelers four world championships. Another runner helping his team to a championship was Joe Morris. Only 5'7”, Morris overcame his lack of height to be a major part of the Giants first ever Super Bowl win. In his two Pro Bowl years of 1985 and 86, he enjoyed double digit seasons and scored 36TD's. Our last runner didn't win a world championship but like Bleier, he had to overcome a lot of hurdles just to play football. Garrison Hearst is a two time winner of the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year award who enjoyed four 1000 yard seasons. His best years came as a San Francisco 49er where he set records for yards rushing in a season and yards rushing in a game (both have since been broken).
We have a slight exception to our running back and defensive back rule in Gino Cappellette who starred with the Boston Patriots of the AFL as a wide receiver and placekicker. A five time AFL All-Star, he is the Patriots all-time leading scorer and led the AFL in scoring five times. Amongst those prolific seasons are two of the five highest scoring seasons in NFL history, 155 points in '64 and 147 in '61.
Moving on to the defensive backs now and our first guy is an all-time Cowboys great who was as good at safety as he was at cornerback. Mel Renfro spent his entire 14 year career as a Cowboy, playing in three Super Bowls and picking off 52 passes. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1996. Former Denver Broncos cornerback Louis Wright is often brought up in Canton snubs articles and his 12 year, 5 times Pro Bowl, 26 interception career represents that point well.
Lem Barney punted in emergencies but Deron Cherry was originally a punter before making it with the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent as a safety. We've talked about Cherry before at the Diner but there is no harm reminding you that he was a 6 times Pro Bowler who was named to the 1980's NFL team of the decade.
We also have to consider three currently active players. Ed Reed is as sure fire a Hall of Famer as there is on the defensive side of the ball in the NFL at present. Like Barney, he is a threat to score any time he gets his hands on the ball. Brian Dawkins can present a pretty good case for Canton too with his 7 times Pro Bowl career and membership of the 20/20 club. Speaking of that exclusive club, the only cornerback who is a member is the Buccaneers Ronde Barber who has a tough time claiming to be the best player in the family, never mind in any other company. He does have 5 Pro Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl ring to back up his claims though.
Learn More about past NFL greats in our History Archive