Football players are the best athletes in the world. If you don't agree with that statement then you don't understand the nature of power, speed, and quickness that comprise athleticism. The athlete who had the best combination of those assets was Barry Sanders. The prevailing misconception about Sanders has been writers’ willingness to supplant individual greatness with team success. This has led to poor comparisons with such players as Emmitt Smith and Terrell Davis, who played on dominant teams with all-time great blockers clearing their paths.
ESPN recently conducted a poll of 8 current and former NFL players, personnel directors, and coaches to determine the best running back ever. The huge problem with this panel was that only one person was born after 1950. Not surprisingly, Jim Brown came in first. But for all of the hype about Smith, Sanders still came in second, and his peer, Robert Smith, ranked him #1. He made the argument that had Sanders played with Emmitt Smith's line, there would've been no limit to what he could've accomplished. When Emmitt was interviewed for Sanders autobiography, he skirted this question, saying perhaps Sanders would've gotten less carries on a good team. Well, he never got as many carries as Emmitt did, and he still managed more yards on a terrible team by gaining more yards per carry.
So let me clear up any doubt as to why Sanders is the best running back of all time, an easily made case.
I. The Lions Were Awful
The 1989 Lions, had it not been for Sanders, might have been the worst team in NFL history (barring perhaps only the 2008 Lions). Twenty-four players on the 53-man roster were guys who were either undrafted or free agents. QB Bob Gagliano had never thrown an NFL TD and Rodney Peete had never taken a snap. Combine this with four starting receivers who had never caught an NFL pass, and the Silver Streak (Run and Shoot) wasn't exactly raring to go. Sanders held out until three days before the first game, did some jumping jacks, and went for eighteen yards on his first NFL carry. By the 3rd or 4th game, after Mike Ditka and Lawrence Taylor had already said Sanders was impossible to tackle, teams had stopped rushing the QB entirely. But the wide receivers, none taller than 5'11", continued to fumble every time they touched the ball while Peete and Gagliano rotated in and out of multi-interception and sub-50% completion games. Yet, the Lions managed to go 7-9, unbelievable. The Vikings, upon playing him for the first time, actually accused Sanders of spraying silicone on his uniform.
II. Scott Mitchell Made Gagliano and Peete Look Good
For some reason, the Lions were never able to develop or sign a single quarterback who could take advantage of the greatest weapon football has ever seen via the play-action pass. In 1989, Lions’ quarterbacks threw 11 touchdowns and 24 interceptions, not exactly intimidating. Rodney Peete was so inaccurate that teams hoped he threw. In fairness, the drafting of Heisman winner Andre Ware looked good on paper, but he couldn't crack third string behind Peete and Erik Kramer. Kramer quarterbacked the Lions through most of their 1991 12-4 season and played well. The Lions rewarded him by letting him sit on the bench for 2 years before going to the Bears, where he promptly became an All-Pro.
But the inconsistency of Peete and the failed Ware experiment, despite having drafted or signed good WR talent in Herman Moore, Brett Perriman, and Johnnie Morton, led to the worst free agent signing in the history of the NFL. Scott Mitchell had only started seven games as Dan Marino's backup behind a solid-gold offensive line and good offensive talent. Based on his performance in those games, the Lions ponied up big money and pinned their hopes on this 6'6" bucket of bolts. It was a decision that ruined any chance of real team success over the last five years of Barry's career. Watching Mitchell attempt play-action, throw interceptions, or get sacked, was completely brutal to watch. Ironically, the first year Mitchell came in he got hurt and was replaced by backup Dave Krieg, former Seahawks All-Pro. Krieg, while not strong-armed, was excellent at play-action and was able to hit receivers at will against 8 man fronts designed to stop Sanders. Is it any wonder they went 5-2 with Krieg at quarterback, who at one point had 10 touchdowns and no interceptions? He was promptly released after the season.
Mitchell once had a game according to then offensive coordinator Tom Moore (now considered Peyton Manning's guru), where he called 34 audibles, all of them wrong. In his last game as a Lions' starter, Mitchell threw a pick at his own 30 yard line with less than 2 minutes to go. Saved by a missed field goal, the game went into overtime. After three straight Barry runs netted 30 yards, Mitchell threw a pick-six to end the game, and his career. Five years and countless blown chances too late, Mitchell was finally benched for Charlie Batch.
III. But He Played on Turf
This argument, like most against Sanders, is nonsensical. 5.1 YPC (yards per carry) on grass, 4.9 YPC on turf. In 1997, playing against defensive "mastermind" Tony Dungy's Tampa D, which started 3 and possibly 4 future Hall of Famers (Sapp, Lynch, Brooks, R. Barber), Sanders ran for over 200 yards and became the only player in NFL history to have two 80-yard touchdown runs in the same game. What was even more impressive was the way in which he did it. First, he made Lynch miss him on what would've been a loss for any other player, and on the next run he broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and simply refused to be pushed out of bounds for what would've been only a 15 or 20 yard gain. Against the same guys a year earlier, he had two runs on Tampa's grass where one-on-one tacklers missed by what appeared to be about five yards on several occasions. This prompted commentator Ron Pitts to say they would've had a better chance of tackling Sanders if they just waited for him at the goal line....
IV. Uggh, That Offensive Line
When Hugh Douglas, 10-year NFL veteran and 3-time pro bowler spoke of Sanders, he said that he played with a “college” line. Compared with Emmitt’s group-perhaps the best lineman ever in Larry Allen, huge run-blocking All-Pros like Erik Williams, Nate Newton, and Mark Stepnoski, and All-Pro blocking back Darryl Johnston-these guys came up woefully short. Kevin Glover was a very good player and developed into an All-Pro center. But the man considered to be the best on that line, Lomas Brown, was a grossly undersized left tackle playing at about 280 pounds. He would often get shoved into the backfield on running plays and routinely fail to move his man from the line of scrimmage. Free agent acquisition Bill Fralic, well past his All-Pro prime, was a complete disaster and you would be hard pressed to name anyone other than Glover on the line with which Sanders used to run for 2,053 yards. Compared with the lines of Tomlinson, Davis, and Smith (where backups routinely came in and performed as well as the starter, i.e. any Bronco, Chris Warren/Sherman Williams, Michael Turner), the Lions were made good by Sanders, not vice versa. Combine this with the fact that the Lions thought slow developing draws and counters were the only running plays that exist, and they limited Sanders even further.
V. How Tony Mandarich Almost Ruined Barry's Career
For as good a trade as the Pack made in acquiring Brett Favre from Atlanta, the same geniuses thought that drafting Mandarich ahead of Sanders was a good idea. Think about the ramifications of this pick. While Smith got to play with Hall of Famer Troy Aikman and Davis got to play with HOFer John Elway, Sanders could've played most of his career with Brett Favre. There wouldn't have been any defense good enough to hide behind with those two in the same backfield, someone who could force teams to use less than an 8 or even 9 man front. That might have preempted comments from reporters like Skip Bayless, who once told Mitch Albom on ESPN, "Sure, Sanders would run for 2,500 yards and 30 TDs a year on the Cowboys, but they wouldn't win as many championships." Solid reasoning, Skip.
VI. Fumble! Oh Wait, That Never Happened
As a testament to how elusive he was, Sanders once went 842 touches in a row without fumbling. Not without losing a fumble, without fumbling. That’s over 2 1/2 years. When defenders talk about Sanders, they mention how they were more worried about getting embarrassed or forcing him towards someone else than stripping him of the ball or getting a good hit on him. When you watch an NFL game and see what kind of focus defenses have on taking the ball away and gang-tackling, this feat should stand out as one of his greatest.
VII. Goal Line
Anybody who thinks Sanders couldn't punch it in from the goal line is mistaken. There's a reason he scored 39 touchdowns (not counting the 5 he scored in the Holiday Bowl) in a single season in college, by far the highest total ever. During the Run and Shoot years, Sanders was the goal line back and scored 47 touchdowns over his first 3 seasons. In fairness, while costing him in the career TD department, this probably nudged up his career average, a little.
Again focusing on team accolades, some critics (such as Sal Paolantonio) claim Sanders didn't perform well in the playoffs. Sal even went as far as to say Sanders was overrated, not something even the most biased Cowboys fan would consider reality. In a highlight you will see until the end of time, Barry made the entire Cowboys team miss on the way to a 47-yard TD run, sealing the Lions' first playoff win since the 1950s. In the championship game against the Redskins, Barry had 6 carries for 46 yards in the first quarter before the blowout ensued, and the Lions lost 41-10. This was the most common theme of Lions' playoff games, blowouts. Against the Eagles in 95', they were losing 38-7 at halftime. Against Tampa in 97', 20-0 by early 3rd quarter. How many carries do you think a running back gets under those circumstances? Not to mention the Tampa field was mysteriously soaked despite it not having rained that entire week. In 93', his first game back from knee surgery, Sanders ran nuts over Green Bay for 169 yards. Only a complete collapse by the Lions' secondary allowed a Favre to Sterling Sharpe TD on a broken play to beat them. By playing 8 and 9 man fronts against Sanders in 94' (combined with freezing temperatures), the Packers were able to shut Barry down for -1 yd. That strategy couldn't be exploited by Dave Krieg who had done so all year due to the ridiculous cold and wind, but the Lions still had a chance to tie the game with less than 2 minutes to go. The criticism is misplaced. The argument should not be why didn’t Sanders do better in the playoffs, but how in the world would his team have been there without him.
IX. The Purpose of Running the Ball is to Gain Yards
Critics of Sanders (like reporters Michael Wilbon, who didn't vote for Sanders for the Heisman because he played against inferior Big 8 competition such as #2 Oklahoma and #1 run defense Texas A&M), have long argued that Sanders had too many negative carries. They favored players like Smith who barreled through gaping holes for 4 yards a pop. Last time I checked, as Robert Downey Jr. so eloquently pointed out in Back to School, football is a violent ground acquisition game and the purpose is to gain as many yards as possible.
There’s a play early in his career against the Colts where Sanders got the ball at the 20 yard line. While he was busy making two guys miss in the backfield, Rodney Peete raised his arms into TD position even before Barry got back to the line of scrimmage. He scored. By his own admission, Sanders looked to score or make the most of every run, eschewing zero and 1 yard line plunges for homeruns or losses. Well, take runs of any distance over 10 yards and Sanders has the most runs at that distance ever. In one year alone he had 50 runs of 10 yards or more and 10 runs of 50 yards or more. In 94’, Sanders had 6 runs over 60 yards, the rest of the NFL 3. He is one of only two players ever (the only one in the modern era, sorry Jim Brown) to average 5 YPC for his career. In 1997, his 9th year in the league at a time when most running backs are washed up, Sanders ran for over 2,000 yards and averaged 6.1 YPC. This came after Bobby Ross managed to give him a collective 25 carries in the first two games after admittedly being frustrated by the running game. In the remaining 14 games, Sanders ran for almost 6.5 YPC and 14 straight 100-yard games, something never accomplished over two seasons, let alone one. You can’t run for 200 yards in a half by plodding along for 3 yards a carry (yes, Sanders is the only player to ever do this also).
Chris Spielman, former All-Pro Lions' linebacker, once said, "yeah, sometimes you wish Barry would just hit it up in there for a couple of yards, but telling Barry Sanders how to run would be like me calling the Vatican and telling the Pope how to pray." NFL HOFer Frank Gifford, who did the Monday Night Football games for most of Sanders' career, routinely said he was the best running back he'd ever seen. "I used to do that, I wasn't even close to that." Jimmy Johnson coached Smith at Dallas, but he said, “I’ve been fortunate to be around some good backs over the years, but Barry is truly special. He is the player who truly keeps you on the edge of your seat. If I was voting – and this is no offense to Jim Brown – I would vote Barry Sanders the best running back of all time.” Barry Switzer (another former coach of Smith’s), according to Sanders' autobiography, once instructed his Oklahoma Sooners team not to injure future HOFer Thurman Thomas when they both played at Oklahoma State for fear Sanders would get in the game. Dan Dierdorf, HOF tackle and Monday Night partner of Gifford’s, said Sanders “is just different than other people, he can do things that they just can’t do.”
Watch any game Sanders ever played in and you'll see at least a few things that no other human being could've done. You've seen the highlight many times of Sanders spinning away from three Bears and running 45 yards for a touchdown. That's Mike Singletary he's discarding. Reggie White said that Sanders was the only football player that he ever physically feared because he could beat you on any play. Rod Woodson, HOF cornerback/safety and world class hurdler, literally blew out his knee trying to tackle Sanders in the open field. Gayle Sayers said, “Many times when you see him, he's making moves behind the line of scrimmage, trying to get away. A lot of times Emmitt isn't touched until he's five yards past the line. When Barry's five yards into the secondary, he's gone. People talk about whether Barry can gain 2,000 yards in a season. Well, if he had Dallas' line, we'd be asking how many years he'd be gaining 2,000 yards.” Walter Payton said, “He's better than I ever was." Those guys were pretty good; guys considered the best to ever play their positions. And they thought Sanders was the best. I’ll take their word over Skip and Sal’s anyday.