Legends Of The Fall: Barry Sanders

As I watched Barry Sanders A Football Life, they began the episode with Sanders reading his retirement. The closure gained from it was immense. It wasn’t as though I was still sitting here thinking he was coming back after 15 years. We’ve already witnessed his induction into the Hall of Fame, but to hear his words publicly, laid to rest those feelings and emotions that lay dormant from the years immediately following his retirement. He was simply the greatest running back ever in the Chancellor of Football’s estimation.

Sanders with defenders left in his wake.

Sanders with defenders left in his wake.

To a prior generation of NFL historians, Jim Brown was the measuring stick yet when you think about it, he wouldn’t have been as effective against modern defenses. He played at a time when the NFL didn’t play black players at linebacker or safety. Brown was bigger and more imposing than the players he faced which wouldn’t have been the case had he played decades later. Brown was 230 lbs at the time when defensive linemen were 260 lbs themselves.

Sanders’ speed and elusiveness translated to any and every era in NFL history. He also did it against better defensive athletes. He played against Lawrence Taylor, Ronnie Lott, Reggie White, Mike Singletary, Bruce Smith, Derrick Thomas, the Kevin Greene’s, Chris Doleman’s, Keith Millard’s, and Howie Long’s of the more modern game. Terrorists who could swallow offensive linemen, split the double team and had the athleticism to catch a back from behind before he could get to the corner.

With teams now putting the best athletes on the defensive side of the field, Sanders used to terrify them with his start and stop jump cuts. No offensive player over the last 30 years put more fear in coordinators or defensive players. He could make a move and leave a defender embarrassed and grasping at air. Leave them with “broken ankles” as we used to say. Simply put he’s the greatest runner the NFL has ever seen.

In 1995 Sanders conceded his role as the sole focus in the Lions offense. Not only did they become the NFL’s #1 offense they became the first team in history to have 2 receivers amass 100 receptions in the same season. Scott Mitchell (346 of 583 4,338 yds 32TDs / 12 ints) and Brett Perriman (108 rec. 1,488 yds 9TDs) should have made the Pro Bowl. Herman Moore (123 rec 1,686 yds 14TDs) did make it to Hawaii. Moore set the NFL record for receptions in a single season while these 3 put up 4 other team records. Why is this being brought up when this article is about Barry Sanders?? In this crucible of talent he still amassed 1,500 yards 11 TDs while creating this book of highlights

Most will recall that season opener against Pittsburgh when Sanders shook fellow Hall of Famer Rod Woodson right out of his ACL with two quick moves. This following vignette covers Sanders’ last five seasons in the NFL

Did The Chancellor of Football say greatest ever runner in NFL history?? First consider the average running back’s career lasts 4 years. Then take into account the greatest runners had their highest rushing totals within those 4. Sanders ran for 2,053 in year NINE. It took Jim Brown 9 years to gain 12,312 yards rushing, where it took Sanders 10 to amass 15,269. Everyone forgets the near rushing titles to go along with the 4 he won.

In his rookie year he was 11 yards short of eclipsing Christian Okoye (1,480 to 1,470), yet told Coach Fontes to let his backup get some playing time. Okoye got his rushing title yet carried the football 90 more times than Sanders! Next case in point is the slanted description of Emmitt Smith missing the first 2 games of 1993, then coming back to win the rushing title. For every Cowboy fan that touts this, they casually omit Sanders missed the last 6 games of that season with a knee injury.

At the time of Sanders retiement, he was in striking distance of Payton to begin '99.

At the time of Sanders retiement, he was in striking distance of Payton to begin ’99.

Interesting… to think that Barry entered the NFL in ’89 and Emmitt in ’90, folks forget how big a lead Sanders had at the time of his retirement. Sanders was due to break Peyton’s record late 99, it took Emmitt another 3 1/2 years to break it. Paul Tagliabue should have got involved behind the scenes and facilitated a trade to keep Sanders playing. He blew it….

Sanders would have pushed the record to 20,000 guaranteed. As we alluded to earlier, most running backs have their greatest single season rushing total in the first 4 years of their career. Barry crossed 2,000 in year nine. Even in year 10 he wasn’t slowing down.

One of the greatest battles in NFL history in terms of effort, you need to check out the birth of the Baltimore Ravens as an elite defense in the final week of 98. Barry was trying to extend his streak of 1,500 yard seasons when late in the 4th quarter he had 1,495 yards. The next 6 or 7 carries the Ravens were determined to stop him and they fought tooth and nail. Barry didn’t make it to 1,500 but he made folks miss like no one’s business. Man I wore that tape out watching that.

We didn’t know what was happening at the time with Walter Payton’s health but the 1999 season we expected to see Sanders vault to the #1 all time rushing spot… instead we got this:

Thank goodness for the emergence of Marshall Faulk and Edgerrin James because the beginning of the season didn’t feel right as Sanders’ abrupt retirement cast a pall over the start of ’99. It took years for the disappointment to go away and it was reawakened at the time Smith passed Payton.

One aspect of not gaining closure on Sanders is the abandonment of the house he provided those thrills in.

One aspect of not gaining closure on Sanders is the abandonment of the house he provided thrills in.

What was missing as a football fan and historian, I never had closure to his career. I can remember this Pro Football Almanac I purchased in the summer of 1990 and they foretold a fictitious story of Sanders crossing 15,000 yards in a decade. The Lions were supposed to be winning the Super Bowl over in Tokyo to conclude his tenth season also.

It was a very interesting take with half of it coming true. With all due respect to William Sanders, his son Barry was the greatest running back in NFL history.

Thanks for reading and please share the article.

Advertisements

Edgerrin James Belongs In The Hall of Fame – From The [[_]]

The 49-45 upset of UCLA put [[_]] and Edgerrin James on the map. Miami return to prominence happend that day.

The 49-45 upset of UCLA put [[_]] and Edgerrin James on the map. Miami return to prominence happend that day.

When you stop and think of professional athletes, so few live up to their potential. In the case of Edgerrin James, no other NFL player had to live up to more coming out of college and he had a hurricane to thank. Although he played for the Miami Hurricanes (The [[_]]), it was Hurricane George that postponed a Miami v UCLA game that was supposed to be played in September of 1998 to December 5th. For many, the college football season was over and the nation watched Heisman hopeful Cade McNown and the 10-0 Bruins who were 1 win away from playing for the national championship. In a wild 49-45 upset, James burst onto the national scene with a 39 carry 299 yard 3 touchdown performance that returned the [[_]] to national prominence and made himself a top NFL prospect.

Since Miami had been down for years following NCAA sanctions, this was the first national glimpse of this immense talent. What followed in the April draft 4 months later added more pressure. Everyone forgets the Indianapolis Colts had drafted Marshall Faulk to resurrect the franchise in 1994 and had just drafted Peyton Manning in the previous year. Having traded Faulk away, it was a forgone conclusion they needed a running back in the #4 spot and Heisman winner Ricky Williams from Texas was there for the taking. General Manager Bill Polian opted to take Edgerrin James instead and it was this move that solidified the franchise. Some experts doubted James calling him a one game wonder.

Going into the 1999 NFL season Edgerrin had a lot to live up to. Could he consistently show the power and speed he displayed to a nation when he dismantled UCLA in that landmark game?? How in the world did he get selected ahead of a Heisman winner who just rushed for 2,124 yards and 28 TDs and was considered a can’t miss NFL superstar by pundits and coaches?? If that weren’t enough, Faulk had been a 1,000 yard rusher 4 times in 5 years including 1,319 yards rushing and 908 yards receiving in 1998. Marshall caught 86 passes and had scored 10 touchdowns in a Pro Bowl season and a rookie that wasn’t Ricky Williams was supposed to top that?? The Colts had been 3-13 in 1998 and now Edgerrin is going to be paired with a second year QB that threw 28 interceptions as a rookie?? No way….

In leading the NFL in rushing with 1,553 yards and scoring 17 TDs he laid to rest the competition with Ricky Williams who gained 884 and only 2 touchdowns in an injury plagued year. In the video you just heard that he had a rookie year better than 5 of the 6 who had been rookie rushing champions. First include Hall of Fame member Earl Campbell who gained 1,450 yards in his initial campaign. He also outrushed Hall of Fame member Jim Brown in his. Now someone will scoff Brown played in a shorter season and he did, but his 942 yards in 12 games comes out to 78.5 per game. Far fewer than the 97 yards per game James accumulated while helping the Colts go 13-3 and win their first AFC East division championship since 1987.

James in contemplation before the 2005 AFC Divisional Playoff against Pittsburgh.

James in contemplation before the 2005 AFC Divisional Playoff against Pittsburgh.

For an encore he became the first back since Eric Dickerson to start his career with back to back rushing titles in 2000. In his greatest season he ran for 1,709 yards with 13 TDs while catching 63 passes for 594 yards and another 5 scores. If you’re keeping score at home that is 4,444 yards from scrimmage and 35 touchdowns in just 2 years. The only back that could compete with that was Marshall Faulk who had gone on to power The Greatest Show on Turf Rams.

In 2001 James suffered a devastating knee injury and missed 10 games which sank the Super Bowl aspirations of the Colts. In the following season he only rushed for 989 yards and 2 touchdowns. His average had dropped from 4.4 in the previous 3 years to 3.6 and the whispers around the league were he’d never be the same. Not only did he bounce back, over the next 5 seasons he topped 1,000 yards rushing including 2 with over 1,500 yards in 2004 & 2005. Five seasons with over 1,000 yards rushing after reconstructive knee surgery…what was there left to accomplish??

Unfortunately the Colts regular season successes didn’t equal playoff success. The ’99 season ended when Indianapolis was upset 19-13  by the eventual AFC Champion Tennessee Titans. Post season losses to the Jets, Patriots, and finally the Steelers in 2005 kept James from winning it all with Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison. The three had been the face of the team for 7 years together and his contract was up. The salary they would have to bring him back as a free agent would have crippled the franchise. Yet Colts owner Jim Irsay thought so much of James and his contribution to the organization that when the Colts did win it all in 2006, he presented him with a Colts Super Bowl ring even though he now played for the Arizona Cardinals. A classy move.

A triumphant James walks off the field after winning the NFC Championship.

A triumphant James walks off the field after winning the NFC Championship.

What looked like the swan song for James turned out to be false, he had one more surprise for critics that claimed he had lost a step. In 2007 he teamed with Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald on an improbable run to Super Bowl XLIII the very next year. Most of the publicity went to Warner since he was a reclamation project that arose like Lazarus, yet they don’t make it without James’ 1,222 yards rushing and 7 touchdowns.The combination of James on the ground, Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald downfield proved too much as the 9-7 Cardinals soared through the playoffs. They beat Atlanta, Carolina, and finally the Philadelphia Eagles 32-25 in the NFC Championship. Only to lose the Super Bowl on a last second touchdown to the Steelers 27-23 in one of the best games ever.

However every good thing must come to an end and James had led an incredible football life. Think about his accomplishments and what can be attributed to him. How many recruits chose to go to Miami after watching his exploits against UCLA that day when all other teams were not playing?? Miami had received the Death Penalty and had been down for four years after dominating college football for a decade. His performance announced the return of Hurricane football. In the next three years after his 1999 graduation, Miami won the Sugar Bowl and played in two straight national championships winning one in 2001. How many running backs went to The [[_]] because of his influence?? Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee, and Frank Gore came right after him. It was alleged he even donated $250,000 to the school at one time.

How about his low-key personality and league wide respect he garnered while he played with the Colts?? He was one of the first superstars that wore dreadlocks and coming from Miami he broke many stigmas that are unfairly attached to Hurricanes from a nation wide perspective. He was never in trouble away from the field and was thought of so highly he was given a Super Bowl ring by the team he no longer played for. Think about that for a second. All of this in the era of the “ME” athlete. When was the last time you heard of such things in the era of free agency?? Did the San Francisco 49ers give Joe Montana a Super Bowl ring when they won in 1994 after Joe left in 1993?? Give that some thought…

James and Colts Owner Jim Irsay at the Ring of Honor Ceremony.

James and Colts Owner Jim Irsay at the Ring of Honor Ceremony.

He completed his career with seven 1,000 yard seasons.  Finishing with 12,246 yards 80TDs, to go along with 443 receptions 3,364 yards and another 11 TDs. Up until his arrival in 1999 the Indianapolis Colts hadn’t won their division in 12 years. Afterward they won it 5 times during his tenure. In Arizona, the Cardinals had not played for the NFL championship since 1947 until James arrived. 1947??? That is 60 years!! He was voted All Pro four times and led the league in rushing twice. In a Hoosier Dome that once had Eric Dickerson and Marshall Faulk as tenants, it’s James who is the franchise’s all time leading rusher with 9,226 yards and 64 touchdowns. He’s also been inducted into the ring of honor for both the Miami Hurricanes and the Indianapolis Colts.

Did you know James, Barry Sanders, and Eric Dickerson are the only backs since 1980 to have 4 different 1,500 yard seasons?? Do you realize dating back to 1957, only James, Jim Brown, Earl Campbell, and Eric Dickerson are the only runners who began their careers as back to back rushing champions in their first two years?? Did you recognize every back mentioned with him in this paragraph are all in the Pro Football Hall of Fame??

For induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I present to you, from The [[_]], Edgerrin James!!

Thanks for reading and please share the article.