Father says he knows what's best for Sanders, Lions

On The NFL

May 16, 1999|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

During the NFL draft last month, there was a lot of speculation that an NFC team might have trouble getting its star running back into camp.

The surprise is that the running back is not Ricky Williams, but Barry Sanders.

While Williams became the second first-rounder to sign Friday, Sanders is at the center of a bizarre controversy that has left his future somewhat unclear.

What is strange about the situation is that Sanders isn't doing the talking. His father is.

In a series of interviews, Sanders' father, William, has trashed the Detroit Lions and coach Bobby Ross.

"The Ford family is great, but there is no way [owner William Clay] Ford would hire some guys to run his company like they run his football team. If he did, he wouldn't sell a car," William Sanders said. "Barry is sick of [the Lions]. He's sick of losing. He is sick of the whole situation."

William Sanders also isn't happy that Sanders is used in a two-back offense instead of a one-back.

"[Ross] thinks the guy is another Natrone Means [whom Ross coached in San Diego]," the elder Sanders said. "He is not a power back. He doesn't need a fullback and a tight end in front of him slowing him. I think it's worse under Bobby Ross. That guy he's got running his offense [offensive coordinator Sylvester Croom] doesn't have any imagination whatsoever.

"If they don't change the offense, he won't be with the Lions in August. If they don't change, Barry's gone. They can clean Barry's locker out."

The only problem is that Barry Sanders hasn't commented. Neither has Ross, but there seems to be some tension between Ross and the player.

Ross is an old-school guy who gets annoyed when Sanders skips his mandatory minicamps, which he has done twice in the past three years.

But whether it's gotten to the point where Sanders might consider quitting is anybody's guess. Sanders is under contract with the Lions through 2002.

There's no doubt about one thing. Ross is on the hot seat to produce in his third season. If he doesn't get Sanders back, he's probably done at the end of the year.

Running to daylight

Sanders isn't the first great running back to fail to play on a championship team.

But a great running back needs to be complemented by a great quarterback to win a title.

Sanders hasn't had that luxury in Detroit and it's too early to say whether Charlie Batch will ever mature into a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback.

Sanders, a 10-year veteran who turns 31 in July, is running out of years.

The solution for Sanders would be to get traded to a contender that needs a running back. Miami would be the perfect choice.

But the Lions would get too much flak if they traded Sanders.

The corporate executive

There were raised eyebrows around the NFL when Ricky Williams signed with No Limit Sports, which was founded by the rapper, Master P, and had never done an NFL contract.

Leland Hardy, who does the negotiating for the firm, pointed out that he was a graduate of Penn's Wharton Business School (just like that well-known capitalist, Donald Trump), but there were worries that Williams would miss training camp in a holdout.

There was even speculation that Indianapolis passed on Williams for Edgerrin James because they figured James would be easier to sign.

It turned out that except for the silly "No Limit Sports" baseball cap that he wore at the news conference, Hardy turned out to be just another corporate executive. To start with, he loves to play golf and he and a New Orleans Saints executive, Terry O'Neil, played golf during the day and talked contract at night.

But Hardy was aware of the perceptions. He said, "The whole thing was No Limit wouldn't be able to interface properly with the 50ish-year-old old white guard as it was described of the NFL."

He also said that the usual practice of waiting until after the Fourth of July to start contract talks makes no sense.

"It's something that's just untenable and can't be supported by logic or reason," he said.

Now the question is whether other teams and agents will get the same message.

Art of the deal

The key to getting Williamssigned was for Hardy to agree that the contract wouldn't have voidable years. Williams is tied to the Saints for seven years plus an option year.

The other sticking point was the contract Andre Wadsworth signed with the Arizona Cardinals last year that kicked in $30 million in performance clauses when he got just five sacks last year. It was negotiated by Eugene Parker, whose trademark is long holdouts, and he didn't get Wadsworth signed until the eve of the first game.

O'Neil gave an emotional speech to Hardy in which he said it was unfair to the legacy of players like Reggie White to pay that much to a defensive lineman for an average performance.

They then agreed on a contract that can earn Williams up to $68.4 million, but only if he comes close to the numbers Terrell Davis put up in Denver.

"This is a deal about excellence, not about mediocrity," Hardy said.

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