Sanders slips, slides away NFL: On and off the field, getting a handle on the Lions' peerless running back, who needs 131 yards today for 2,000, is easier said than done.

December 21, 1997|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Barry Sanders won't be boxed in.

Two thousand yards, you ask? Try him after the fact, not before.

A date with history? Relevant only if it's connected to a date in the playoffs for the Detroit Lions.

Sanders, perhaps the greatest running back of his time, will attempt to join Eric Dickerson and O. J. Simpson in the NFL's elite 2,000-yard rushing club today when the Lions face the New York Jets with playoff berths on the line at the Pontiac (Mich.) Silverdome.

Just don't expect any verbiage from Sanders, who needs 131 yards to make history in the regular-season finale. The 5-foot-8 dynamo slips past questions with the same ease he jukes past tacklers.

Barry, what would 2,000 yards mean to you?

"I really can't say," he says. "I've never done it."

Barry, do you think you have a shot at the Most Valuable Player award?

"That's even less on my mind because there are so many people you could give it to."

Who would you give it to?

"I haven't thought about it."

There you have it. The end run, the zigzag, the stiff-arm. And that's before he even lines up against the Jets' defense.

Sanders almost certainly will wrap up his fourth NFL rushing title today -- and third in the past four years -- but he's never going to lead the league in interviews.

In an age of show-and-tell, Sanders, 29, comes from the old school, where actions speak louder than words. Prodded on a national conference call last week, he talked only reluctantly about the quest for 2,000.

"There's no guarantees as far as 2,000 yards," Sanders said. "We want to make sure we're playing not just this week, but next week, preparing for a playoff game.

"The amount of yards I have now is plenty. So I'm doing all I can to forget about 2,000 yards."

That's the priority of the day. Playoffs first, 2,000 yards second. But if either the Washington Redskins or Minnesota Vikings lose in their 1 p.m. games today, the Lions, playing at 4 o'clock, have an NFC playoff spot locked up. Then they can focus on the task of getting Sanders a proper coronation to a nine-year career too often submarined by mediocre Lions teams.

In that case, these are the numbers of note: In 1973, Simpson became the first NFL rusher to crack the 2,000-yard barrier, gaining 2,003 yards for the Buffalo Bills.

Eleven years later, Dickerson did it for the Los Angeles Rams. He pushed the bar to 2,105.

Thirteen years after that, Sanders has 1,869 yards and an NFL-record 13 consecutive 100-yard games. His rushing title appears secure; he has a 119-yard lead over the Denver Broncos' Terrell Davis and a 204-yard lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers' Jerome Bettis, both of whom are nursing injuries and figure to play sparingly today.

While contemporaries Emmitt Smith of the Dallas Cowboys and Thurman Thomas of the Bills are on the decline, Sanders appears to be getting not only better, but also quicker.

"He's awesome," Jets cornerback Otis Smith said. "He has a lot of moves. This year, it seems like he's gotten faster."

That may explain why Sanders has four touchdown runs of more than 50 yards this season, including three of 80 or longer.

But Sanders' trademark is the stop-and-go, cut-on-a-dime, spin-and-glide moves that torment defenders. It's not by accident.

"The fact you practice all week, you expect to go out and make big plays," he said. "I just never know how they'll unfold. On every play, I expect to make something happen.

"That's what I train for in April, in the off-season. I train to make the plays I'm making now. You can't do it without some sort of planning, some idea of what you're doing."

Asked to define his strengths, Sanders remains elusive.

"I don't think I am physically the best," he said. "I don't have the most experience out of everyone. I think I'm fortunate to have a good combination."

It's a remarkable combination. He was named to his ninth straight Pro Bowl this month. He is second in all-time rushing yards to Walter Payton (16,726), and, health permitting, could pass the Chicago Bears great in 1999.

Ever on the run, Sanders tells the national media he must go to practice. A reporter asks one final question. Too late. Sanders has left the phone, if not the building.

Missed him again.

The quest for 2,000

The Lions' Barry Sanders (above) is threatening to join O. J. Simpson and Eric Dickerson as the only NFL players to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. Simpson gained 2,003 in a 14-game schedule in 1973, Dickerson 2,105 in 16 games in 1984. Sanders is 131 short of 2,000 entering today's season finale against the New York Jets. A comparison of Sanders' game-by-game yardage (Game) and season total after each week (Sea.) with Dickerson's and Simpson's in their 2,000-yard seasons:

.. .. .. .. .. ..Dickerson .. .. ..Simpson .. .. ..Sanders

.. .. .. ... ..Game .(Sea.) .. ..Game .(Sea.) ..Game .. ..(Sea.)

Game 1 .. .. ...138 ..(138) .. ...250 ..(250) .. .33 .. ...(33)

Game 2 .. .. ...102 ..(240) .. ...103 ..(353) .. .20 .. ...(53)

Game 3 .. .. .. .49 ..(289) .. ...123 ..(476) ...161 .. ..(214)

Game 4 .. .. .. .89 ..(378) .. ...171 ..(647) ...113 .. ..(327)

Game 5 .. .. ...120 ..(498) .. ...166 ..(813) ...139 .. ..(466)

Game 6 .. .. ...107 ..(605) .. ....55 ..(868) ...107 .. ..(573)

Game 7 .. .. ...175 ..(780) .. ...157 (1,025) ...215 .. ..(788)

Game 8 .. .. ...145 ..(925) .. ....79 (1,104) ...105 .. ..(893)

Game 9 .. .. .. .38 ..(963) .. .. .99 (1,203) ...105 .. ..(998)

Game 10 .. .. ..208 .(1,171) .. ..120 (1,323) ...105 ...(1,103)

Game 11 .. .. ..149 .(1,320) .. ..124 (1,447) ...108 ...(1,211)

Game 12 .. .. ..132 .(1,452) .. ..137 (1,584) ...216 ...(1,427)

Game 13 .. .. ..191 .(1,643) .. ..219 (1,803) ...167 ...(1,594)

Game 14 .. .. ..149 .(1,792) .. ..200 (2,003) ...137 ...(1,731)

Game 15 .. .. ..215 .(2,007) ... ... .. .. .. ...138 ...(1,869)

Game 16 .. .. ...98 .(2,105) .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..vs. Jets

Per game .. .. ..131.6 .. .. .. ...143.1 .. .. .. ..124.6

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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