About a year or two before he suddenly retired, I took the next door neighbor to a Detroit Lions game. I don’t remember much about the game or even whom the opponent was. The only part I remember is Barry Sanders taking a hand-off, making one of his mind-boggling jukes, and then like the Flash in an ugly blue and silver costume, he’s suddenly at the other end of the field carrying the ball into the end zone.
Oh there’s one other thing I remember — like too many of Sanders’ games, this one was a loss that came after the Lions had already been eliminated from any possibility of the playoffs.
Some NFL teams have a knack for taking second-rates back and turning them into stars and their teams into champions. Sanders had the misfortune to play for a team and a number of coaches who excelled at taking one of the best NFL running back ever and turning out consistently bad teams. There were a number of years where Sanders won the league rushing title, but the Lions failed to make the playoffs. Pathetic.
Even when they made the playoffs or even the NFC championship in 1991, they were clearly outmatched and outgunned (that they made the playoffs several years in the 1990s had more to do with the low quality of the NFC those years rather than any genius moves by the team).
Personally, I always felt a bit sorry for Sanders. He was the right back at the right time — with the wrong team. Which is why I don’t blame Eli Manning for not wanting to play for the Detroit Lions West (also known as San Diego). It’s one thing to play for a losing team. It’s another thing ot play for an organization that doesn’t know how to do anything but lose.