Sanders runs for record book Back will carry day for two 5-10 teams

December 24, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Watching Barry Sanders run with the football is like finding a Picasso at a flea market.

Sanders, only the second back in NFL history to pass the 15,000-yard rushing mark, is on the short list of the best backs in NFL history and is likely to smash Walter Payton's rushing record before he retires.

Yet Sanders, who'll probably make the only appearance of his career in Baltimore on Sunday when the Detroit Lions face the Ravens, has yet to get to the Super Bowl stage and has been obscured much of his career.

Earlier in his career, he was in the shadow of Emmitt Smith, who won three Super Bowl rings, and the last two years he's been overshadowed by Terrell Davis, who's trying to win his second straight Super Bowl ring.

It was almost symbolic that when Sanders passed the 15,000-yard milestone on Thanksgiving Day, he was upstaged by the referee blowing the coin toss.

Not that the low-key Sanders, who lets his running do his talking for him, seems to care.

"I didn't really think a whole lot about it [the 15,000 yards], the win was a lot more important," he said.

Although football is the ultimate team sport, the Lions in the Sanders era have been more of an attraction than a team. They've won only one playoff game since he was drafted in 1989.

But the fans don't come to see the Lions, they come to see Sanders.

By Sanders' standards, this hasn't been a vintage year. He's been slowed by rib and knee problems and an attack of the flu and has been handicapped by the team's poor play. He's gained "only" 1,450 yards. For anybody else, that's a smashing season. For Sanders, it's a drop-off from last year's 2,053-yard season.

Sanders has now rushed for 15,228 yards in his career, second only to Payton's 16,726, a figure he could break next year.

But his most eye-popping achievement is that he and Jim Brown are the only two backs ever to average over 5 yards per carry for their career.

Brown, still the consensus pick as the best back of all time, is only fifth on the all-time list with 12,312 yards rushing because he retired in his prime at age 29.

Brown, though, left behind the most impressive rushing statistic of them all -- a 5.22-yard average.

Sanders is at 5.01 and only one back -- O.J. Simpson at 4.67 -- is within a half-yard of them. Eric Dickerson is a distant fourth at 4.43 yards a carry.

Sanders didn't help his average Sunday, when it took him 25 carries to get 95 yards against Atlanta.

It hasn't helped Sanders that the Lions haven't had a good passing game to complement him this year. Coach Bobby Ross benched Scott Mitchell for Charlie Batch after two games, but he's now injured and veteran Frank Reich will start against the Ravens.

The result: The game plan is pretty obvious when teams play the Lions.

"When they look at us, they say first and foremost, the thing you've got to do is stop Barry," Ross said. "He has to run against stacked defenses most of the time."

Meanwhile, Sanders makes every game he plays in an event.

Sunday's Ravens-Lions finale matching two 5-10 teams isn't much of an attraction except for Sanders.

The Ravens know Sanders could have a record-setting day if they sleepwalk through the game the way they did last week against the Bears.

"We've had guys we didn't even know their names rushing for 150 yards this year," Ravens cornerback Rod Woodson said in an obvious reference to Bears rookie James Allen.

"If we start running around like chickens with our heads cut off, he's going to run for about 300 yards," Woodson said.

Woodson said Sanders is "without a doubt" the best back he's ever faced.

"He sees the holes very well and he's faster than a lot of people think and stronger than a lot of people think," Woodson said.

Discussing the strategy for stopping Sanders, Woodson said: "You've got to be very aggressive with that guy, but you have to be smart with your defensive front. That's what it starts with with Barry Sanders. You can't be rushing your ends up the field, down in and down out. You've got to play like a saucer and keep him in a cup."

Sanders also shows no signs of slowing down at age 30.

Ross said: "Early in the season, I thought he looked quicker this season than last year."

The only question left about Sanders is whether he's the best ever.

Ross ducks the question.

"I haven't seen enough of them to know. You're talking about people like Jim Brown and Gale Sayers and people of that nature. It's hard for me to make that comparison because I haven't been around those people. He's one of the top two or three ever," he said.

His father, William, who grew up a Cleveland Browns fan, keeps Barry humble because he puts Brown No. 1.

"O.J. Simpson, Tony Dorsett, Franco Harris, Eric Dickerson, the kid from Dallas -- Emmitt Smith -- they're only imitations of Jim Brown. Even Barry. They're just imitations of how great a back Jim Brown was and what he did over a lifetime," he said last year.

His son is too modest to disagree.

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