In the long and storied history of the Detroit Lion franchise, quality at the receiver positions has rarely been a question mark. Since the NFL passing game began to truly take flight in the 1940's, the Lions have been blessed time-and-again with excellent pass-catchers at a variety of positions. Below is the second installment in a six-part series paying tribute to the players who've established that legacy.
Part Two: Championships, Depth, and Dominance
Throughout the Lions' 1950's championship era, the Detroit lineup was filled with quality throughout their receiving ranks with players like Cloyce Box, Leon Hart, Jim Doran, Dorne Dibble, Dave Middleton and the ultra-versatile Hall-of-Famer Doak Walker.
Box, who played for the Lions for five seasons (1949-50, '52-54) still holds the single-season Lion record for touchdown receptions (15), as well as the team's career yardage-per-reception average with 20.7 yards-per-catch (minimum 100 receptions).
Cloyce's greatest day came against the Baltimore Colts on December 3, 1950, when he caught 12 passes, for 302 yards and 4 touchdowns. The yardage and touchdown marks remain Lion records, and the 12-catch total stood until Herman Moore surpassed him with 14 grabs against the Chicago Bears on December 4, 1995. Box's abbreviated five-year career only allowed him to catch 129 passes; however 32 of those went for scores. Those numbers equate to Cloyce ending up in the end zone roughly every three times he caught the ball, which is extraordinary production no matter what era you're talking about.
Box earned all-pro and Pro Bowl honors after the 1950 season, and was selected to another Pro Bowl after the ‘52 campaign when he finished second in the league scoring race with 90 points.
Leon Hart was one of the greatest, most decorated, and highly coveted college football players in history, winning the 1949 Heisman Trophy as a member of Frank Leahy's two-time National Championship squad. Leon was an ahead of his time athletic marvel on the gridiron. At 6-foot-5, 257 pounds he was bigger than most interior lineman of his day. However, Leon possessed tremendous speed, agility, and hands for a big man. He would become one of the most versatile and important players in coach Buddy Parker's Lion arsenal.
In 1951, with Cloyce Box absent due to his callback to the Marines to serve in the Korean War, Leon would catch 35 passes, for 544 yards and 12 touchdowns. Hart would earn a trip to the Pro Bowl with his performance. Leon would retire from football after the Detroit's last title in 1957. His 32 career touchdowns tie him with teammate Cloyce Box for ninth place on the Lions' all-time list, and his 12 touchdown season of 1952 ties him with Barry Sanders for ninth in that single-season category as well.
The defining moment of Jim Doran's NFL career came in the 1953 NFL Championship Game, when he beat Cleveland Brown defensive back Warren Lahr for the winning touchdown on a 33-yard pass from Bobby Layne. The TD gave the Lions a 17-16 come-from-behind victory over Paul Brown's squad, and secured Detroit's second-straight NFL title. Doran's performance that day, four receptions for 95-yards and the touchdown, is all the more striking when you consider that three of those receptions came on the game-winning drive. In addition, he wasn't even supposed to play offense that day as he came in to relieve the injured Leon Hart early in the first-quarter. It was just another day at the office for one of the most underrated and multipurpose players of that Lion championship era.
In 1952, Jim would be named the winner of the Lions' inaugural Most Valuable Player Award as a defensive end. The versatile Doran would alternate between offense and defense throughout most his Lion career. In the Lions' championship season of 1957, he would lead the team in receptions with 33, good for 624 yards and 5 touchdowns. Doran would finish his Lion career in 1959 with 168 catches, for 2,960 yards, and 19 touchdowns.
Dorne Dibble was a steady, but often overlooked, cog in the Leos' championship machine. The 1951 third-round draft choice out of Adrian, Michigan, by-way-of Michigan State, spent most of his Lion career as a starter at offensive end after starting in the defensive backfield as a rookie. Dorne's best season came in 1954, when he led the Lions in receptions with 46, for 768 yards and 6 touchdowns. He would finish his Lion career in 1957 with 146 catches, for 2,552 yards and 19 TD's.
Dave Middleton, who was the Lions number-one draft choice out of Auburn in 1955, led the Leos in catches three times (1955, '56 and 58) during his six-year Lion career. He would finish his Detroit career in 1960 with 153 catches, for 2,522 yards and 15 scoring grabs.
Doak Walker, one of six-future Hall-of-Famers that formed the core of the Lions 1950's dynasty, was a triple-threat All-Pro out of his hybrid halfback-flanker position. The "Doaker" was one of those rare athletes who would always be at his best when the stakes were highest. In the 1953 NFL Championship versus the Cleveland Browns, Doak scored eleven of Detroit's seventeen points (1 TD, 1 FG, 2 PAT's) as the Leos came from behind in the final minutes to defeat Cleveland 17-16.
In the prime of his career, Walker would hang up his cleats in 1955 at the age of 28 with 152 catches, for 2,539 yards and 21 touchdowns. Doak is still fifth on the Lions' all-time scoring list with 534 points (34 TD's, 49 FG's, 183 PAT's), behind only Jason Hanson, Eddie Murray, Barry Sanders and Errol Mann. He also shares the Lion single-game scoring mark of 24 points with his teammate Cloyce Box, as well as fellow Canton enshrinees Earl "Dutch" Clark and Barry Sanders.