Someday, if we're lucky enough to reach Football Heaven, we'll see Red Grange running on artificial turf and Jim Thorpe operating as the deep back out of an I formation and Barry Sanders in an offense designed and constructed to get the most out of his unique talents. All of our what-ifs will be answered.
Sanders is a freak runner—you never know what he's going to do—and he has played most of his career in a freak system. During his first three years in the league he was the run in the four-wideout run-and-shoot. Then the Detroit Lions went to a "sometimes" offense: sometimes two tight ends, sometimes one, sometimes three wide receivers. But very seldom has Sanders run out of the traditional two-back set that yielded big numbers for the outstanding yardage machines of the past—Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson, Walter Payton, Tony Dorsett, Eric Dickerson.
What if Sanders had a big fullback like Jim Braxton, O.J.'s demolition man with the Buffalo Bills, clearing the way? What if the Lions had drafted a serious drive-blocking offensive line, as the Cleveland Browns' coach Paul Brown did for Jim Brown or the Bills' coach Lou Saban did for Simpson? The possibilities would be endless.
In Jim Brown's first six years Cleveland drafted nine offensive linemen in rounds 1 through 4. After Saban arrived in Buffalo, before Simpson's fourth season, the Bills selected five offensive linemen in five years with either first-or second-round picks. The Lions have chosen only two in the first four rounds since Sanders's rookie year, in 1989; one was lost permanently with an injury, and the other is riding the bench. Brown and Dickerson both ran behind seven Pro Bowlers during their careers. The Detroit offensive line has produced one, Lomas Brown.
There have been freak runners before, guys capable of weird and wonderful things, yet none who produced with Sanders's consistency. Remember Emerson Boozer's rookie year with the New York Jets, before a knee injury turned him into a blocking back? He bounced off tacklers, keeping his balance and escaping from hopeless situations. Buddy Young of the Baltimore Colts, a darting, flashing water bug, and Willie Galimore of the Chicago Bears, who got off some of the most incredible runs in history, were freak runners too. But Boozer is the guy Sanders reminds me of most.
One of the traits Sanders has in common with Brown, the greatest runner of all time, is terrific balance. The hand on the ground...he's almost down...no...woops, there he goes. Dorsett and Simpson had it too.
Simpson aside, what these greats of the past also had was another runner who took some of the pressure off them. Brown, in fact, was accompanied by two Hall of Famers—Bobby Mitchell and then, toward the end, Leroy Kelly. In every one of Sanders's seasons except for last year, when Sanders missed five games with a knee injury, the Lions' second-leading runner was the quarterback.
No one has done it with less help.