How Sanders handles age will determine greatness


July 19, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

For an NFL running back, a 30th birthday doesn't call for much of a celebration.

That's because few backs are effective once they turn 30.

Only four running backs in NFL history -- John Riggins, John Henry Johnson, MacArthur Lane and Rocky Bleier -- gained more yards in their 30s than 20s. Walter Payton, the all-time rushing leader, is the only back to post three thousand-yard seasons in his 30s. Only 12 runners have posted thousand-yard seasons once they hit 30.

Emmitt Smith starting losing it even before he turned 30. He's only 29 and has obviously slowed.

That's why it was significant that the Detroit Lions' Barry Sanders turned 30 last week.

Sanders, who has 13,779 yards in nine seasons and is closing in on Payton's record of 16,726 yards, showed no signs of slowing last year when he rushed for 2,053.

Even more impressive: He has averaged 5.1 yards a carry in his carer. Jim Brown, who walked away from the game to make movies after nine years, set the standard with 5.2 yards. Payton averaged 4.4 a carry.

If Sanders doesn't slow at 30, he could have a shot at 20,000 yards.

Sanders has annoyed coach Bobby Ross in the off-season by skipping the voluntary workouts that most coaches treat as if they were mandatory.

But as long as Sanders produces on the field, Ross has to live with Sanders' way of doing things.

Meanwhile, Sanders has a chance to stake his claim to being the best runner of all time.

Brown may be the only player who could rate with Sanders. Although Brown is now fifth on the all-time list with 12,312 yards, he started his career in the era of the 12-game schedule and his 5.2 yards-per-carry mark is still the record.

Nobody knows what Brown would have done if he had played in his 30s. And it's difficult to compare Brown with Sanders because Sanders of their different styles. Brown was the bigger back at 6 feet 2 and 228 pounds, while Sanders is quicker at 5-8 and 200.

Ravens owner Art Modell, who owned the Browns at the end of Brown's career, said, "They were completely different runners. Sanders' quickness is what sets him apart, but Brown had that tremendous ability to get the extra yard in a pile."

It's noteworthy that one of Brown's biggest fans is a Wichita roofer named William Sanders, who happens to be Barry's father. He grew up watching the Browns play on television.

Sanders won't say his son is as good as Jim Brown. He calls all the other top runners "imitations of how great a back Jim Brown was."

But Sanders' father probably sums up it best when he puts his son on the top five all-time list.

"I'm not going to to put him No. 1 or No. 2, but I'll put him in the top five and let them argue about who the other four were," he said.

Let negotiation games begin

When training camps open this week, top draft picks Peyton Manning of Indianapolis and Ryan Leaf of San Diego likely will become official holdouts.

That will begin a duel between two of the most powerful agents in the business -- Leigh Steinberg, who represents many of the top quarterbacks, and Tom Condon, who heads the football division of the IMG conglomerate. Condon has the first pick, Manning, and Steinberg the second, Leaf.

IMG, with divisions in various sports, prides itself on its big deals.

Novelist Rita Mae Brown, a former companion of Martina Navratilova, summed up the IMG attitude in her autobiography, "Rita Will," as she characterized IMG's representation of Navratilova.

"The good thing about her agents, IMG, was that they only cared about the money and were up front about it," Brown wrote.

But IMG has had trouble cracking Steinberg's hold on the top quarterbacks.

Four years ago, when IMG represented Heath Shuler, they held him out of the Washington Redskins' camp 13 days and settled for the deal that was on the table when camp opened, except that the club gave him a $500,000 advance on his first year's salary.

The holdout got Shuler off to a late start and he never caught up with and eventually lost the job to Gus Frerotte.

Steinberg and IMG will try to top each other and they'll both want to exceed the Buffalo Bills' $25 million deal with Rob Johnson that included an $8.5 million signing bonus. To reach that goal under the rookie salary cap, they'll need a deal with voidable years.

The wild card in the deal is how long Manning wants to hold out. He has a good image that could be tarnished by a long holdout and he may force IMG to make a deal that would give Steinberg the edge.

Free-agent derby

They brought the curtain down on the 1998 free-agency signing period last week with 113 unrestricted free agents signing with new teams. That's an increase from last year's figure of 87. Another 113 signed with their old teams.

The record for movement was set in 1995 when 173 changed teams, although clubs are now making more effort to keep their own players.

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