The atmosphere in the Silverdome was electric, what with the Detroit Lions having clawed their way back from a 20-3 deficit to the Minnesota Vikings by scoring two touchdowns inside the seven-minute mark. Now, with 43 seconds left, the score was 20-17, the Lions had the ball at the Viking 15 and the crowd of 63,423 pleaded as one: "BAA-ree! BAA-ree! BAA-ree!" Then Barry Sanders heeded that call.
Taking a handoff from quarterback Rodney Peete, Sanders burst out of the scrum at the line, paused for a millisecond before dashing for the end zone, and then lunged through Minnesota defensive backs Reggie Rutland and Joey Browner, coming to rest with the nose of the ball just over the goal line. Detroit tackle Lomas Brown was the first to embrace Sanders, screaming into the ear-hole of Sanders's helmet, "I love you!"
Such were the sentiments of an entire city after the Lions' remarkable 24-20 victory that put them atop the NFC Central with a 5-1 record. That's a heady start for a team that has only two players—linebacker Michael Cofer and and kicker Eddie Murray—who have been on a Detroit team that finished with a winning record. Thanks to Peete's two late scoring passes and Sanders's 192 combined rushing and receiving yards, the Lions went into their bye week with a five-game winning streak.
With the roar of the Silverdome crowd still ringing in his ears afterward, William Clay Ford, the 66-year-old owner of the Lions, tried to remember the last time he saw his team make such a great comeback. "When Bobby brought us back against Baltimore, in 1957," Ford said.
"Bobby Layne," said Ford. He was right on. Thirty-four years ago, two Layne-to-Hopalong Cassady touchdown strikes in the fourth quarter helped Detroit transform a 27-3 deficit into a 31-27 victory over the Baltimore Colts.
Sanders doesn't live the way Layne, a legendary night owl, did—a bachelor, Sanders had dinner with his dad and an early night in bed on Sunday—but he is as exhilarating as any player in the NFL. The Washington Redskins routed Detroit 45-0 in Week 1, but Sanders, a 5'8", third-year pro, missed the game with bruised ribs. The Lions haven't lost since, and Sanders has averaged 128 rushing yards a game.
Detroit is not a great team yet—Peete is still inconsistent, the Lions aren't deep in quality players and the five wins have come against opponents with a combined record of 7-23—but Sanders, who contributed a total of 91 yards rushing and receiving to the final three scoring drives against Minnesota, gives Detroit the potential to win every time out.
The Lions also recognize how far Sanders can take them. Last year run-and-shoot guru Mouse Davis, then Detroit's quarterbacks and receivers coach, posted the Lions' offensive statistics every four games. They were fine numbers, indeed. The Lions even ended the year with more points and a better rushing average than the San Francisco 49ers. But Detroit's offense also had the worst time-of-possession average in the league, and the defense was battered from being on the field so much.
So while Davis read off the numbers that supported his pass-oriented offense, a bunch of the players seethed because the team's record after each quarter of the season was 1-3, 3-5, 4-8 and, finally, 6-10. Coach Wayne Fontes fired Davis after the season, and now the Lions are playing mostly Barryball. "When you've got a Secretariat, you've got to ride him," says Fontes.
Saddle him up, coach. You've got 10 races, at least, remaining.