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Barry Sanders Has Saved NFL Season


It was one of those preseason ideas that seemed so sexy, and so very right on, at the time. The Sporting News was producing a television special on the NFL and we had to identify some grabbers--ideas that would reach out and catch viewers and tantalize them enough so they would have absolutely no reason to channel surf to another station.

We already were doing a profile on Barry Sanders, so why not tease everyone with this prediction: He would make a run at gaining 2,000 yards this season.

It made perfect sense. Sanders obviously already was a great running back at the peak of his magnificent career.

And for the first time since joining the Lions, he had a coach, Bobby Ross, who believed in actually running first and passing second. He would supply Sanders with a fullback to serve as a lead blocker and he wouldn't abandon the rush if it floundered in the early minutes. Under Wayne Fontes and the gawd-awful run-and-shoot, Sanders had managed 1,883 yards one season, so why not believe he could make the not-so-improbable leap to 2,000?

Then he gained just a small chunk of yards the first two weeks of the season, in part because Ross ran from the run faster than even Fontes ever did. I could only hope everyone who saw the show quickly forget everything they were told.

But not anymore. People, please remember: You heard it from TSN first about this season and Barry Sanders.

With 1,869 yards rushing now, he certainly can smash the 2,000-yard mark in the final game of the season today against the Jets. I'd run him 40 times if I were Ross, just to make sure he doesn't come up short. Sanders deserves as much, considering what he has meant to the Lions not only this season, but for his entire career.

Only two players--O.J. Simpson and Eric Dickerson--can claim a 2,000-yard plus season, so this is a special achievement and would turn this into a season to remember.

Something has to, because otherwise this has been mainly a year to forget in the NFL. Unless you enjoy general mediocrity and average teams contending for playoff berths and quarterbacks who weren't even somebody in college trying to be stars in the pros.

The Buccaneers have been impressive, for sure, and the Chiefs didn't fold when they could have, and Mike Ditka has been as entertaining as I could have possibly hoped, but those nuggets aren't enough to offset the scars inflicted by free agency movement.

Players are richer, but we are poorer due to the case of the blahs produced by parity.

But, with apologies to Davis, Sanders has saved the season. Just watch a highlight tape of his best runs and I dare you to view it without shaking your head in amazement at what transpires before you. He's become our football joy stick.

We love to see runners barrel over tacklers, which is what makes Jim Brown so special from the past and Jerome Bettis so impressive in the present.

But we react differently to someone like Sanders, who has never met a tackler he wouldn't love to twist into a human pretzel with his assortment of fakes and flinches.

We hoot and holler and draw attention to ourselves with all the noise generated from exclaiming over one of Sanders' masterpieces. And that is just on one of his two-yard gains. The longer stuff is really emotionally draining.

See enough of those and they leave you mentally in a pretzel.

How can anyone stop, start, turn, move, reverse, hop, sprint, slow and spurt so effortlessly and naturally in the tiniest of spaces, in the quickest of moments, without a hint of hesitation--and do it again and again and again?

A tackler's nightmare has to be coming face to face with him in an open hole. He won't run over you; he will do a 180-degree spin that will embarrass you instead in full public view.

This embarrassment factor is big. Most defensive players don't care who they have to tackle; it is just part of their job.

But that changes with Sanders. He can leave them humiliated and shamed and they know it.

Panthers' linebacker Lamar Lathon talks of the first time he encountered Sanders in a game. He was faked out so badly that he, in turn, faked a hamstring pull so he could use it as an excuse for missing the tackle. And leaving the game.

No wonder. "Like grasping for soap," Reggie White says about trying to tackle Sanders. Imagine trying to grab a slimy bar for three hours, in front of thousands in a stadium and a few million more on television.

Denver's Terrell Davis, who has rushed for 1,750 yards, but was hurt last Monday night against San Francsico, knows the company he is keeping.

"I'm nowhere close to being Barry Sanders," he says. "I compare myself with my peers, people like Curtis (Martin) or Napoleon (Kaufman). But not someone like Barry. He is on a level somewhere way up there. I've got such a long way to go to get anywhere near him it's ridiculous."

Barry Sanders is the NFL's happy face. See him work and you smile. But I see him work and I see a prediction. Thanks, Barry for making my year. In more ways than one.

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