You could call him the best running back, and there would be no real argument. But you could go even further: Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions might be, quite simply, the best player in the game. Were he to be judged only for the magic he creates with a handoff, his supremacy would end at his position. But Sanders has accomplished something remarkable, if not unprecedented, since the days of Jim Brown. The current of terror that begins to flow in the days and hours before a game usually emanates from vicious defenders and flows white-hot into the rattled psyches of the players who earn their pay with the ball in their hands. But alone among his offensive fellows, Sanders has reversed that current. Sanders has a whole breed of men best known for barking like dogs instead praying out loud.
In a week of preparing for Sanders, says Chicago Bear linebacker Vinson Smith, "you have to not sleep for a couple of nights." Really? "Yes. Yes." And even during fitful dozing, says Minnesota Viking defensive tackle Henry Thomas, who usually dreams of sacks and motorcycles, "you sit up in the middle of the night hollering, 'Barry! Sanders!' "
"The whole week of practice is like, Oh God," says the Bears' most horrific hitter, safety Maurice Douglass. "Looking at those films, looking at those things he's done to other teams, you're thinking, Oh God, I hope he doesn't do that to me. You're all tensed up and sweating." During a week of preparing for Sanders, says Douglass, "I probably lose an extra five or six pounds of water."
By game day comes the realization that "you could worry yourself to death," says Smith. "So you tell yourself, Just play." Then the game begins. "It's like a bad dream," Smith continues. "It's like going a hundred miles an hour the entire game. You can never rest. You can never stop. One inch—I mean one inch!—one seam, with this guy, can change the game. You can never let your mind rest. You break huddle and look across the line, and you see him looking around, and you think, Oh God, what is he going to do?"
Thus terrified stand the terrorists, predators unaccustomed to being preyed upon, across the line from one small running back—only 5'8" and 203 pounds—with a mediocre team that after a Thanksgiving Day win over the Buffalo Bills is only 6-6. The Lion offense comes to the line of scrimmage, and there in the I stands Sanders, hands on his thighs. What is he looking at, through eyes so ominously calm? The defensive alignment?
"Sometimes," he answers softly. Then he smiles and shrugs. "But sometimes I'm just looking around—just to be looking."
What is he thinking?
"I might be thinking," he says, "about what my mother is doing at home."
Now the ball is snapped, and he is taking a handoff, deep in the Lions' backfield, the play beginning as no more than what mortals have run for decades as a sprint-draw. Except that what emerges now is a sprinting stump, a little bull in a whirlwind, "everything about him in constant motion, his legs moving, his shoulders moving, his hips moving," says Bear defensive end Trace Armstrong. And neither Lion linemen nor coaches nor even Sanders himself has a clue as to what is next. Maybe he will pound against a pile and, ping, like a pinball he'll be back out of it, the legs, the enormous taut springs, releasing him in a single step. The back side defenders will most likely have stayed at home (Sanders's extraordinary ability to cut back negates a rudiment of defensive football, swarming pursuit), and now they will come up to take their best shots and—ping ping ping—he'll stop, bounce, start again, and there he'll go, into the distance....
"There have been many times when I knew I had him," says veteran Dallas Cowboy safety Bill Bates, "when I knew it was about to be one of those tackles where the guy is just going to get his clock cleaned by me. And I tackled air."
Just how, specifically, is Sanders such a terror? Let his opponents count the ways:
"His legs go in 14 different directions at one time," says New England Patriot nosetackle Tim Goad. "Then he stops, but usually you don't."
"It's the ankle flexion," says Fox TV's Jerry Glanville, the former Houston Oiler and Atlanta Falcon coach known for his obsession with stopping the run. "It's like his ankles are ball joints, and the foot stays flat as the leg leans over laterally. We could lock his leg in a vise, and you and I together couldn't bend his ankle enough to sprain it."
Others say it's the strength of Sanders's tree-trunk legs. In the weight room at his alma mater, Oklahoma State, Sanders used to squat 600 pounds. And on the field the powerful thrust of those legs, like the uncoiling of huge steel springs, resembles the motion of the weightlifting squat.
"He's a 280-pound man who was cut off at the knees and had his shoes put back on," says Tampa Bay Buc defensive coordinator Floyd Peters. "People who hit him around those thunder thighs just bounce off."
"You can hit him up top, but he'll just pivot and make you slide right off him," adds Armstrong, who's 6'4", 260.
Then there is the pure speed and the quickness. "He's like a Walt Disney deer bounding through the forest," Peters says.
"He has the most unusual ability to stop and start that I've ever seen," says Dan Henning, former offensive coordinator at Detroit and now concluding his first year as coach at Boston College. "He's running full speed, he stops, he goes in another direction. It's like everybody else is a full second behind."
"More than all his other great qualities," says Bill coach Marv Levy, "his unique balance leaps out at me."
Says Armstrong, "His being short actually adds to his package, because he's more difficult to find in the piles and more difficult to draw a bead on."
And then there is this: "The frustrating thing about him is that he doesn't turn the ball over," says Bear coach Dave Wannstedt. "He's not a fumbler."
Topping off this sublime package is "his running instinct—for feeling guys around him, knowing when to cut back, when to make a move," says Minnesota Viking defensive coordinator Tony Dungy. "He doesn't get touched on a lot of his runs. It's instinct. You can't coach it. You can't practice against it, because you don't know where he's going—and he probably doesn't know where he's going when the play starts."
Is there anyone in the league remotely like him? "No. Nobody," says Dungy.
Sanders's uncanny ability to cut back is the main reason why he disrupts defenses. "He screws you up," says Dungy. "You know you have to get to the ball, you have to swarm, because you can't rely on one guy to tackle him. But if you overpursue and he cuts back, that's when he makes a lot of big runs."
So, says Glanville, "the people on the back side have got to sit, to make sure he's not coming back that way. Then, if he goes on to the front side and pops it, there's no pursuit."
"You've got to protect your back-side and front-side gaps equally," says Wannstedt, "which is very different from defending against most running backs."
On offense, most teams give the back side only cursory blocking. The Lions block the back side of a play as intensely as they block the front side. "The way he changes our blocking patterns," says Detroit offensive coordinator Dave Levy, "is that we don't do a lot of pulling or blocking down. We try to get into people and stretch them, and then let him see the lanes wherever they are."
At that point, says Sanders, "your eyes aren't going to lie to you." He speaks of his superb vision as though he can zoom it in or out: "People say my eyes get big right before a run, when my peripheral vision is really kicking in."
Sometimes Sanders cuts back so quickly that it seems as though he must have known, even in the huddle, that he would be going against the flow of the play. How does he know ahead of time? "You always get a feel for how people are playing defensively," he says. "Obviously, if they're pursuing hard, then there are going to be more cutback lanes. You can usually get a pretty good feel for that during the course of a game." Still, he says, once he has the ball, "you can't count on them to pursue. You have to see it and react to what you see."
In preparing to face Sanders, defenders must relearn for one game the way they play their positions. Safeties, for instance, are taught to deliver kamikaze hits. That won't work against Sanders. "You're trained to deliver the heaviest lick you can—try to knock the guy out," says Glanville. "But this guy's going to make you miss, doing that. Lord, nobody wants to coach a safety to just grab and hang on. But you have to, with Sanders. He's so slippery he doesn't take a big hit."
"You've got to change, not just for safeties, but for every position," Wannstedt agrees. "We tell our linebackers the same thing."
Stripped of their usual tactics, defenders are reduced to "just trying to put a different-colored jersey in a spot he may want to think about cutting back to," says the Bears' Douglass.
After Sanders ran for touchdowns of 35 and 39 yards on a 131-yard day against the New England Patriots on Sept. 25, safety Harlon Barnett of the Pats said, "I'm not embarrassed about what happened. I thought I did pretty good. I got in front of him twice." Then Barnett added, "I just didn't stay there."
The Bears, having given up 167 yards to Sanders on Oct. 23, found a way to deal with him in their second game, on Nov. 20. Chicago changed its offensive game plan with Sanders in mind. To keep Sanders off the field, the Bears downshifted to a more plodding attack than usual, smothered Detroit in time of possession—44:12 to 15:48—and thus appeared to have had a spectacular defensive day against Sanders, limiting him to 42 yards on 11 carries in a 20-10 Chicago win.
"When you're trying to stop a Hall of Fame player, the best place for him to be is off the field," says Wannstedt. "The best defense we had was our offense."
Giving Sanders his customary number of carries is disaster for a defense. Let him carry 30 times, "and you may stop him 27 times," says Armstrong, "and the other three times he goes for 155 yards on you." On Nov. 13, Tampa Bay held Sanders to 37 yards in the first half and then gave up 200 to him in the second.
Going into the Lions' game against Buffalo, Sanders was on pace to become only the third player in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season (O.J. Simpson and Eric Dickerson were the first two). But on Thanksgiving his quest was sacrificed to the cause of Detroit's struggle to make the playoffs. The Lions, expecting Buffalo to overcommit in an effort to stop Sanders, had devised a pass-saturated game plan. The Bills limited Sanders to 45 yards on 19 carries, but he did score a touchdown on a four-yard run that began with a stunning stop-and-go. And while the Buffalo defenders met Sanders with an eight-man front, Detroit quarterback Dave Krieg threw over them for 351 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-21 Lion victory.
On the second play of the game Sanders took a handoff and the Bills' defense engulfed him. He stepped into the line and then whirled and flipped a flea-flicker to Krieg, who connected easily with wideout Herman Moore for a 51-yard touchdown. How did Krieg account for his remarkable performance? It was, he said afterward, "because of Barry Sanders."
More precisely, fear of Barry Sanders. Now, with the Sanders-as-decoy game plan exposed, the Lions will once again rely heavily on Sanders himself for the final four games of the season. And so there will be more sleepless nights for defenders, the cold fear of being made to look bad.
"He makes you miss so bad, you kind of look up in the stands and wonder if anybody's looking at you," says Atlanta cornerback D.J. Johnson. "You've got 60,000 people in there, and you wonder if anybody saw you miss that tackle."
A player that awesome could, if he wished, be the trash-talkingest guy in the league, with the flashiest lifestyle. Sanders has never been heard to utter so much as a syllable of trash, and since arriving in the NFL in 1989 he has never spiked the ball after a touchdown. "Usually guys will say to me before a game, 'If you score, you've got to spike or dance,' " he says. "Sometimes I think about it, but when I actually do score, either I'm tired and just want to get back to the bench, or it just doesn't cross my mind."
And he is as understated off the field. "I had eight sisters and two brothers and grew up in a normal little neighborhood in Kansas," he explains. "I got enough attention from my parents and friends and loved ones. I didn't have a deep craving to be some superstar or whatever. I like to watch movies, I like to go bowling, I like the company of good friends, I like good meals. I'm not living a lifestyle of the rich and famous."
As nice a fellow as he appears to be, does he ever feel bad about terrorizing the terrorists of the league, making them look so inept?
"No," Sanders replies. "I've played defense, and I know what people are thinking on defense. I know what they're trying to do to offensive players. And it's not pretty. What I do is basically survival. That's all it really is. If I don't make a guy miss or if I don't outrun him, he's going to do his best to drive me into the ground. So, no, I don't feel sorry for those guys."