Barry Sanders is the greatest running back ever to play professional football. That’s it said, done, over.
The rest of this is going to be dedicated to showing why. All too often we get caught up in the conversation regarding who is the greatest and we settle on a committee compromise of Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders, a trio, designed to appease everybody and give an answer without actually committing to an informed decision.
As time passes and people’s memories haze, we’re even seeing Emmitt Smith start to enter into the conversation as his all-time rushing total acts as an all-too easy way of making his case.
Well this is different, we’re not going to water down the truth, Barry Sanders is the greatest running back ever to play, and he’s better than the other members of that committee.
The first thing to do is a little Barry Sanders 101. Barry Sanders grew up in Wichita Kansas, and began to develop the skills and unique running style that would become his trademark (literally). He did this by playing a game with his older brothers where the ball carrier had to make it from one end of the field to the other without being tackled. He made up for his lack of size by being simply impossible to catch.
During his senior season at North High School in Wichita, Sanders averaged a whopping 10.2 yards per carry. He was only 33 yards shy of the league rushing title when Coach Dale Burkholder, having pulled his starters, called Barry over and asked him if he wanted to stay in the game to get enough yards for the title. Barry Sanders told him without hesitation to “let the young kids play, coach”. This would be a theme throughout his career. Barry wasn’t a guy who went after the stats, he did what he could in order to win, but he didn’t care about the records, as Detroit Lions fans would first discover in 1989 and finally in 1999.
Despite this great season in High School, Sanders wasn’t heavily recruited, and settled on Oklahoma St, when his beloved Oklahoma Sooners never showed an interest. He began his career as a Cowboy in the shadow of Heisman candidate and now Hall of Fame RB, Thurman Thomas. Even as the backup and kick returner, people could see the talent that he had. Whilst preparing to play OSU, Coach Barry Switzer famously saw enough of Sanders whilst watching game film to say to his coaching staff, “Guys, we’ve got a problem. You’d better hope that Thurman Thomas doesn’t get hurt. You don’t want to play against this freshman named Barry Sanders!” Despite his coaching staff looking at him like he was crazy, Switzer would be proved correct the next year. After Thomas left for the NFL, Sanders assumed the starting position, and set about re-writing the NCAA record books. In his 1988 junior season, Sanders rushed for 2,628 yards, scored 39 TDs, and set or tied 34 NCAA records in just 11 games. It was the greatest single season a college RB has ever had, arguably the greatest college season period, and it earned him the Heisman trophy.
Barry Sanders declared for the draft after that season, and held out after being drafted, eventually signing only 4 days before their first regular season game. Despite only 1 day of non-padded practice, and having rehearsed only one running play in the pre-game warm-ups, Sanders was eventually put in the game in the 3rd Quarter. On his first run from scrimmage Sanders reversed the field, and ran for 19 yards. Running a variation of just that one play, Sanders finished the day with 71 rushing yards and a TD on just 9 carries.
Barry Sanders went on to break the rookie rushing record set by fellow Lion, and fellow #20, Billy Simms. By the end of that season, he finished only 11 yards short of the league lead (having again turned down the opportunity to stay in the game to take the title from Christian Okoye), was named All-Pro, earned NFL Rookie of the Year Honours and was selected to the Pro-Bowl. Sanders was well on his way to the mesmerising figure that would baffle NFL players and coaches for his entire career. During his 5th game as a pro, Sanders gained 99 yards against the Minnesota Vikings, and made so many would-be tacklers miss that Vikings Head Coach, Jerry Burns, actually asked the officials to check his jersey – to ensure it hadn’t been sprayed with silicon so it couldn’t be grabbed.
Sanders was to be at the centre of a young team in Detroit, which Head Coach Wayne Fontes hoped would restore the roar to the Silverdome. Things seemed to be going to plan as the Lions and Sanders found themselves in the 1991 NFC Championship game, having gone 12-4 during the regular season, and had 7 players selected to play in the Pro-Bowl.
In their first playoff game the young Lions team dismantled another young NFC team – the Dallas Cowboys – 38-6. This was the Dallas team that would go on to form a dynasty in the NFL, and that playoff game shows how far the Lions could have gone but for the want of some quality management. According to Lomas Brown, Offensive Tackle for the Detroit Lions at the time, the General Manager, Chuck Schmidt “didn’t like when players tried to use their power. He felt threatened. That’s why management ended up getting rid of so many guys on the team – Mel Gray, Bennie Blades, Jerry Ball, Chris Spielman, Brett Perriman, Willie Green, some others.” Had the Lions had better Front Office personnel, who knows where that team could have ended up, and what effect a better team would have had on Barry Sanders’ already breathtaking numbers? It’s also worth pointing out that in a Sanders/Smith meeting on the big stage Sanders had the biggest play despite the Cowboys loading up to try and take him away. The Lions passed 38 times in the game, but Sanders notched 99 yards and a touchdown on just 17 touches. Smith totalled 82 yards and no score from his 16 touches.
Barry Sanders had a running style all his own. Like all great running backs, everybody tried to find working comparisons, but none worked, because nobody has ever run like Barry Sanders. His style of being able to stop, change direction, and take off again, all in the same yard has never been matched, and it enabled him to break runs that nobody else could. As long as I have been watching football I have only ever seen one runner who moved like Barry Sanders, an ex Denver Bronco named Quentin Griffin (highlight video), and he wasn’t in the same ball-park in terms of talent.
The real skill he had that nobody has ever replicated was the ability to make people miss. One of my off-season projects is to go back and chart some Sanders games for PFF and I can’t even imagine the rate at which he forced missed tackles.
Former Bears LB Brian Cox once said that Barry Sanders made him miss 4 tackles on one play. Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary said “if you were able to get him running east to west, you had a chance. If he was moving north-south, forget about it. He was going to get you”. That’s one of the best linebackers ever to play essentially telling you he couldn’t stop Sanders one on one if he was coming right at him.
Teams game-planned for Sanders like no other back, because he could make plays even after everyone was convinced he had been stopped. On more than one occasion Sanders emerged from a pile of defenders, or was thrown to the ground, only to remain on his feet, spin out and break a big gain. The other backs in the discussion might have been productive, they might have been dominant, but nobody has ever run like Barry Sanders.
In 1997 Barry Sanders became only the 3rd player to rush for over 2000 yards in a season, after Eric Dickerson and OJ Simpson (Terrell Davis, Jamal Lewis, and Chris Johnson have since joined that group). After the first 2 games of the season, Sanders had only 53 yards. His final tally of 2,053 means that he gained 2000 yards in only 14 games, amassing over 100 in each of the last 14 games of the season, an NFL record. He finished the year with an average of 6.1 yards per attempt. This is second all-time only to Jim Brown’s 6.4 yards per attempt in 1963 and the yards gained that season moved him from 7th on the all-time list to 2nd, passing Marcus Allen, Franco Harris, Jim Brown, Tony Dorsett and Eric Dickerson – Hall of Famers, all. Barry Sanders added another honor to his ever expanding list that year when he was named the league’s MVP.
Before the start of the 1999 season, Sanders retired from professional football, within touching distance of the all-time rushing record, then held by Walter Payton, and in the prime of his career. He explains in his book that it was no single thing that caused him to walk away from the game, but rather a multitude of factors all combining that led him to realise he just didn’t need it anymore. “Around the middle of my career, the game became something else, almost a burden in a lot of ways, and I stopped loving it. I lost my will”. Sanders felt betrayed by an organisation that showed no will to win, and after his 10 years in the league, the team had come full-circle, and was firmly back in rebuilding mode. Shocking the media and fans of the NFL, Sanders showed once again that the records weren’t enough to motivate him, when he walked away from becoming the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, flipping the record to Emmit Smith in the same way as he flipped the ball to the official every time he scored a TD.
The day he retired Barry Sanders ranked 2nd on the all-time rushing list (he currently ranks 3rd). He is one of only 6 men to rush for over 2000 yards in a season, one of only 3 men to have multiple 1800 yard seasons. He holds the NFL record for most 1500 yard seasons with 5, and most consecutive 1500 yard seasons, with 4. He holds the NFL record for the most consecutive 100 yard games, most consecutive 100 yard games on the road, career TDs over 50 yards in length, most games of over 150 yards in a career, and is only two 100 yard rushing games away from the all time lead, in 73 fewer games than the holder of that record, Emmitt Smith. So why is there even a question of whether he was the greatest to ever play?
Sanders suffers from some perceived negatives in his game, created by people looking for reasons to knock him off the spot at the top of the pyramid. These are the same people that said he was too small for the NFL, and they employ the same kind of thought process. These myths can be debunked:
Myth 1 – Barry Sanders could not run inside or at the goal line.
This is a favourite of Barry Sanders critics. They point to his lack of TDs compared to other backs at the top of all-time lists, and the fact that his coaches took him out down at the goal line as evidence for a huge hole in his game. However, in the first 3 years of his career, Sanders scored 47 TDs, 21 of which came from within 4 yards, and 8 of which were from 1 yard out. The Lions coaching staff from 1992 onwards preferred having a bigger, power-back in on these situations, and took Sanders out of the game. He simply got shafted by a change in scheme philosophy. Does that mean that Sanders became a bad goal-line back overnight? The evidence of Sanders career, both college and pro, shows that Sanders could run as well as anybody around the goal line, but his numbers suffered because the Lions coaches preferred their own philosophy of using a heavy back in those situations. This is the same logic that sees Jamaal Charles being taken out of the game for Peyton Hillis when there is no clear evidence that he is actually better in tight quarters despite the size difference.
Myth 2 – Barry Sanders couldn’t catch.
The proponents of Walter Payton use this one a lot. ‘Barry Sanders was only a runner, he couldn’t do the other things that a RB has to be able to do, Walter Payton could do it all.’ Well, Barry Sanders finished his career with 352 catches over his 10 years – he averaged 35 catches a year. Walter Payton finished with 492 catches over his 13 years – he averaged 38 catches a year. Payton scored 15 receiving TDs, Barry Sanders scored 10. Payton averaged 9.2 yards per catch, and Sanders averaged 8.3. The statistics do indeed show that Payton edged Sanders in each category, but enough to rank one as an accomplished receiver, and the other as a guy who couldn’t catch? Of course not. We’re talking about a pretty small difference between the two. Nobody would confuse Sanders for Marshall Faulk but to suggest he was an incapable receiver is just foolish. Similarly while Sanders may not have crushed people like Payton as a blocker, he was a capable blocking back able to pick up the blitz and do his job. At that point, who cares?
Myth 3 – Barry Sanders lost too much yardage to be the greatest.
Another myth brought up a lot is that for every one of Barry Sanders’ great runs, he lost a ton of yardage, so much so that he is the NFL’s all-time leader in negative yardage from scrimmage. Whilst it’s true that Sanders is the all-time leader in negative yards, he averaged only 46 more lost yards a year than Payton did. Walter Payton, the man who always fell forward, who never said die. Despite the vast differences in perception between Sanders as a runner and Payton in a runner, the statistics amount to a difference in less than 3 yards a game. On the other hand Sanders overcame that to gain an average of 12 yards per game more than Payton throughout his entire career (99.8 vs 88).
Myth 4 – Barry Sanders could only run on turf, in the dome.
This one’s the best myth of all. People will try and claim that Barry Sanders could only run on turf – ‘just look at his running style, it just wouldn’t work on grass!’ Unfortunately, these people have clearly never checked that out. During his career Sanders averaged 5.0 yards per carry both indoors and outdoors, on turf and on grass, at home and away. He was the very definition of consistency, averaging higher than 96 yards per game on any surface whether it was home or away.
Myth 5 - Barry Sanders couldn’t perform in the playoffs.
Well, whilst its true that Sanders didn’t perform outstandingly in the playoffs, he only played in 6 playoff games. The sample size just isn’t enough. That being said, the people who use this criticism rarely have a bad word to say about Payton in the same regard, yet Payton had only a lone 100 yard performance in 9 playoff games. Barry Sanders had only the one as well, but from 6 games, at a 4.2 average (as opposed to Walter Payton’s 3.5 yard per carry average. If this is a great flaw in Barry Sanders’ game, then we need to apply the same criticism to Walter Payton.
The only man to rival Barry Sanders statistically is Jim Brown, who shares some similarities to Sanders in his massive yards per carry averages, and the fact that he retired early in his career. The difference though is the eras in which they played, and how the yardage was gained. Jim Brown was a monster of a back, in an era where players weren’t as big as they are in the modern game. Brown was 232lbs at a time where linemen often weren’t any bigger, let alone linebackers. Brown could physically dominate, and could gain 6 yards just by lowering his head and charging. When Barry Sanders played, he played some of the greatest defensive players ever to step onto a field. He was running up against players like Reggie White, 300lb dominant forces. As well as players with the speed, and range of Ronnie Lott, Lawrence Taylor and Mike Singletary. These guys are all Hall of Famers, and in White and Singletary, were players he would face twice a year within the division, yet Sanders would average 5 yards a carry against them, without being able to physically run over them.
Curtis Martin made this point in the program A Football Life (video above), claiming Brown would be different today, but Sanders would be the best back in the NFL in any era, regardless of what the players looked like.
Jim Brown also stepped onto what was already a dominant team, having been to the Championship game in 5 of the 6 seasons before they drafted him. By contrast, the Lions had failed to win more than 5 games in any of the 3 seasons before drafting Sanders. Brown has amazing statistics, but they were inflated by the opposition he faced. Sanders faced a list of the greatest defensive players to play the game, and made them all look foolish. The great Reggie White claimed that Barry Sanders was the only player he ever feared. “There was one guy since I’ve been playing that I was afraid of because he could beat us at any moment. That was Barry”.
Sanders re-wrote the record books during his college career and he re-wrote them during his professional career. He was so dangerous that teams had to invent new ways of defending against him, just to try and contain him from breaking that big run that would kill them. Despite being on some poor teams, with the franchise so mismanaged that it systematically removed its best talent during his career, Sanders racked up statistics that rival anybody’s. He retired within sight of Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record, and remains one of only a few backs to average 5 yards a carry every time they touched the ball.
Barry Sanders could do things nobody before or since has been able to do on a football field, and it shows in the damage he did to opposing defences throughout his career, despite being in a division with some elite units, and playing against a list of Hall of Fame defenders.
If all that still isn’t enough, just watch the videos.