He’d field the punt, no matter what—even if a swarm of would-be tacklers were surrounding him. The fair catch wasn’t an option. Often, the opponents would have prayed for his hand to go up, as a matter of fact.

Then a jitterbug move here and there, a sidestep, and then he’d emerge from the scrum, bursting into daylight.

The late sports writer Joe Falls had it right about Lemuel Barney.

“Lem Barney was like the National Anthem,” Falls once wrote. “He made people stand up.”

Barney was the greatest punt returner I’ve ever seen, mainly because he was fearless.

Never was that more evident than during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Tiger Stadium, in 1970.

The punt actually had rolled to nearly a stop on the grass, with several Bengals players surrounding it, waiting for it to stop completely. But then Barney snatched the ball from the ground, and darted past the stunned Bengals. For a touchdown, some 60 yards or so.

The Lions also had a kickoff return man around the same time named Tommy Watkins, and he was no picnic, either. In 1965, Watkins averaged 34.4 yards per kickoff return.

I remember little Eddie Payton, Walter’s younger brother, taking a kickoff and a punt to the house in a game against the Vikings in the Silverdome during a Saturday night edition of “Monday Night Football”, in 1977.

In the 1990s, Lions fans were thrilled by Mel Gray, who was as dangerous on kick returns as anyone in the league for a period of about five years.

The Lions had Glyn Milburn after Gray, and he was exciting at times.

Eddie Drummond was electric, when the rest of the team’s batteries were dead.

The lineage of return men in Detroit has often been a bright spot amidst a lot of darkness.

Not lately, though.

You can’t pin the blame for an 0-16 season on just one thing, of course, but you can say that the Lions’ return game and kick coverage didn’t help. At all.

It would be one thing if the Lions had one or the other working at an above average clip. But when you combine not being able to bring a kickoff past the 25-yard line along with constantly surrendering field position because of the inability to cover…

Not a good situation.

The Lions’ special teams coach is Stan Kwan. Still. And, for all the warm and fuzzies people feel about Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew, the fact that Kwan remains in charge of ST is enough to be deflating.

For now.

When Gray was doing his thing, the Lions’ ST coach was the late Frank Gansz, who brought a drill sergeant-like approach to his coaching. Gansz’s platoons covered kicks like Kamikazes, and his blocking schemes opened gaping holes for Gray.

Whatever progress the Lions are to make from 0-16 will be stunted if they don’t get their special teams acts together.

I’m not talking about the leg men; kicker Jason Hanson and punter Nick Harris are just fine.

But the cover squad didn’t do anything to help out the worst defense in the NFL, by constantly handing opponents a short field. And the Lions’ own return game was sick. Just as Barney was the best I’d ever seen—at least in Detroit—Brandon Middleton ’08 might have been the worst return man I’ve ever seen, in the entire history of the NFL.

Middleton was awful—a meek, mild-mannered returner of kickoffs who had no burst, no guts.

Aveion Cason was the other main kickoff returner in 2008, and though he wasn’t much better, numbers-wise, at least he possessed some gumption.

The Lions drafted WR Derrick Williams from Penn State last April, largely to wow them with his kick returning ability, which he flashed often in college. Veteran receiver Dennis Northcutt, recently signed, has had some success returning punts.

Gray, Milburn, and Drummond at least gave you a reason to watch the Lions, when you didn’t care all that much to see their teammates.

But even that kick return mojo has been removed from the menu in recent years.

I’m not expecting the next Lem Barney. But some field position off kickoffs and punt returns that traverse more than five yards would be nice.

It’d be a start, anyway.

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