Football has had a fascination with the morose when it comes to handing out monikers to the game’s greatest defensive platoons.
We’ve had Steel Curtains and Doomsday and Purple People Eaters. There were the Killer Bees down in Miami.
Detroit and Los Angeles—when the NFL actually had a franchise there—shared the alliterate name Fearsome Foursome.
Pro football games are won in the trenches, they say. Rare is the championship team that doesn’t possess a solid line, both on offense and defense.
Lions fans will tell you that the team has been looking for its franchise quarterback for some fifty years or so. That’s difficult to refute, but how about a franchise defensive lineman?
The Lions haven’t had one of those around in these parts since the Carter Administration.
His name was Al “Bubba” Baker and he came from Colorado State and at his best, he appeared in the backfield frequently, as well as in quarterbacks’ nightmares.
Bubba Baker (pictured above) was, at times, simply unblockable. He played defensive end but he had the body of an NBA power forward: long and strong. Bubba would line up so far away from his tackle mate that you’d have thought the other guy had a liverwurst and garlic sandwich just before the game.
But all Bubba was doing was getting a running start.
Baker had, in 1978, 23 sacks. As a rookie. And a whole bunch of near misses.
Bubba Baker, with three straight Pro Bowl appearances (1978-80), anchored a defensive line in Detroit that was pretty damn good.
It was the early-1980s when they started to call the Lions’ front four “The Silver Rush.” Not a cataclysmic football nickname, but a nickname nonetheless.
You had Baker and William Gay on the ends, and Dave Pureifory and Doug English inside. Pureifory, from Eastern Michigan University, was so mean and nasty that his sadistic behavior in 1979’s training camp almost caused the Lions’ No. 1 draft pick, offensive tackle Keith Dorney, to quit. Dorney said so in his book.
Gay was a converted tight end who made a Pro Bowl as a D-lineman and who teamed with Baker to form two towering bookends. Pureifory was short, stubby, and ferocious—and English was just plain good, and a consummate professional.
English, a Texan, retired after the 1979 season to go into the oil business, but returned to the NFL in 1981.
The Lions traded Baker to the St. Louis Cardinals after the 1982 season, after Bubba grew tired of the Lions, and they him.
And not since have the Lions truly had a stud on the line of scrimmage, on the defensive side of the ball.
The Lions have been a bad football team for a long time with a lot of warts, but if they could ever plug someone into their defensive line who was top grade, you watch how much better their defense plays.
Sadly, the Lions haven’t even really tried to address this gaping hole, this empty chamber in their popgun.
Only twice since 1992 have the Lions selected a defensive lineman in the first round of the NFL Draft.
I’m sorry, but that’s shocking and perplexing.
Here’s a deficiency the Lions have had for decades, and it routinely gets the short shrift when it comes to the draft.
The Lions’ lack of a playmaker—a bona fide game changer—on their front four has contributed more than anything to the pathetic overall defensive play in this town.
The Lions have no true pass rusher. No run-stopping behemoth. No freak of nature with the strength of Atlas and the speed of a gazelle who can seem to be out of a play, then traverse 15-20 yards in a heartbeat and run a ball carrier down.
And they haven’t, for too long to be respectable.
I’ve said it before—if there’s a team in pro sports today who needs help at any position more than the Lions need help on their defensive line, that team is merely a figment of a vivid imagination.
Oh, how the Lions should be combing the college campuses at this very moment, seeking the biggest, baddest, fastest, meanest, quickest, strongest down lineman college football has to offer. They’re likely to qualify for, once again, a top-five pick in next year’s draft. They should absolutely use it on someone whose uniform number is in the 90s.
There’ve been some impostors passing through Detroit, who we’ve elevated beyond their actual abilities, mainly because we’ve wanted them to be successful so badly.
Shaun Rogers and Jerry Ball leap to mind.
Rogers had potential. He was a man child who could have owned Detroit, if he would have kept himself in shape and his mouth shut—both to keep from talking and eating. His moments of dominance were absolute but terribly fleeting.
Ball, from the early-1990s era, was a solid nose tackle who we thought was an elite lineman as a Lion. But he went to Oakland and from afar we could see what we could not because of the trees in Detroit: that he was good but not great.
But beyond those two players, the Lions haven’t had anyone remotely close to being dominant or a star in the league, playing defensive line, since Bubba Baker’s day.
This has got to kill the old-timers who remember when the Lions routinely fielded tenacious, impenetrable d-lines.
The Fearsome Foursome of Sam Williams, Roger Brown, Alex Karras and Darris McCord—they swallowed up ball carriers and quarterbacks and were often the only thing that could slow down the vaunted Green Bay Packers’ running game.
Hell, that was only almost 50 years ago. What’s the hurry to repeat history?