Who Needs Barry? Not Detroit, apparently. The Sanders-less Lions are, at 2-0, the NFL's biggest surprise

September 26, 1999

Practice had ended for the Detroit Lions, and coach Bobby Ross
was the last one to walk off the field. He paused for a moment
to cinch up the laces on his shoes and tuck his whistle inside
his shirt, and then he was off and running. After most practices
Ross, 62, can be seen jogging around the parking lot of the
Pontiac Silverdome. He looks a bit silly circling the dome in
his slacks, stopping occasionally to jot down notes on the pad
he carries with him, but he says he doesn't run for the physical
benefits. Rather, Ross uses the time to relieve the stress of
coaching the Lions.

Given the kind of turmoil Ross has had to deal with since the
beginning of training camp, it wouldn't be surprising if he'd
worn a moat into the pavement around the Silverdome. The stress
may be easing up, however, now that Ross has guided Detroit to
the NFL's most improbable start. "Even my parents back home in
Colorado must be watching television and going, Detroit 2 and 0?
How can that be?" defensive tackle Luther Elliss said after
Sunday's 23-15 win over the Green Bay Packers. "It's shocking
but simple. Basically, we'd all like to say a big thank-you to
Barry Sanders, because leaving the way he did finally woke us up
and forced us to start acting like a real football team."

On the eve of training camp, the enigmatic Sanders, who was just
1,458 yards shy of the NFL's alltime rushing mark, retired via
fax after 10 seasons with Detroit and then flew to London
without so much as a word to his fellow Lions or to Ross. The
announcement came a year earlier than Sanders's teammates had
expected. During Detroit's 5-11 season in 1998, Sanders often
joked that he was "on pace with the Y2K bug" and was going to
expire at the end of 1999.

An arbitrator will probably have to decide if the Lions can
recoup $5.5 million from Sanders, the pro rata portion of the
$11 million signing bonus he received in 1997. Last week agent
David Ware said Sanders would repay the $5.5 million if Detroit
would agree to trade or release him. As of Monday the Lions'
stance hadn't softened. "Either Barry is here and he's playing,"
said Detroit vice chairman William Clay Ford Jr., "or he's
retired."

Although the Lions have lost one of the greatest running backs
in NFL history, they seem to have gained something even more
valuable: chemistry and spirit. To hear the Detroit players
talk, the transformation began even before Sanders left. "We're
all kind of sick of this topic, to be honest," says linebacker
Stephen Boyd, who led the Lions with 11 tackles on Sunday. "We
didn't just suddenly come together the day Barry retired. It
helped. But it started way before that, and I give the credit to
Coach Ross."

After suffering through his first losing season in seven years
as a pro coach in 1998, Ross briefly considered retiring before
Sanders did. Instead, Ross, a former Army lieutenant who had
turned programs around at Maryland and Georgia Tech before
guiding the San Diego Chargers to Super Bowl XXIX, subjected
himself to a thorough self-analysis last winter--and was upset
by what he found. "All the losing made me distant from my team,"
says Ross. "I was so engrossed in game preparation that I lost
sight of something very, very important: the human side of this
game."

Since then Ross has made an extra effort to improve his rapport
with his players. He now spends more time in the locker room,
weight room and lunchroom and less time off by himself, brooding
over videotape. Already Ross's new approach has done wonders.
For starters, there was a dramatic increase in participation in
Detroit's off-season workout program, which improved the Lions
fundamentally, prepared backups for emergency action and started
bringing the players closer together.

Those factors were much in evidence on Sunday. After dislocating
his left elbow late in the first half and temporarily losing
consciousness from the pain, left guard Tony Semple refused to
be carted off the field but insisted on walking off on his own.
It was a powerful message that seemed to electrify the Lions'
bench. Then, after the Packers scored on a two-yard run by
Dorsey Levens in the fourth quarter to take a 15-14 lead, Ross
went with a gut feeling and inserted cornerback Terry Fair as a
kick returner. Fair dropped the oxygen mask he was using, ran
onto the field and took the boot back 91 yards to Green Bay's
eight to set up Detroit's winning score.

"Maybe in the past, we all subconsciously fell back on Barry,
knowing he'd get it done," says Ross, whose theme for the week
was, No one can do it by himself. "What we've tried to focus on
is, Hey, this isn't a one-man game. Now we all have to work
together."

In two weeks of starting in place of Sanders, Ron Rivers has
gained 200 all-purpose yards and rushed for 4.5 per carry. "Hey,
I definitely don't want Barry to return," said Rivers jokingly
after Sunday's win. When cornerback Bryant Westbrook was lost
with a strained hamstring on Sunday, ninth-year journeyman
defensive back Robert Bailey stepped in, intercepting Brett
Favre in the third quarter and batting down the Packers' final
pass to preserve the win. "Guys didn't look at Barry's departure
as a disappointment," says sensational second-year wideout
Germane Crowell, who caught seven passes for 141 yards and two
touchdowns in Week 1 against Seattle. "We all saw it as an
opportunity."

With wideout Herman Moore sidelined for a month with a torn
ligament in his left knee and Crowell smothered by Green Bay
defenders, Detroit's dynamic young quarterback, Charlie Batch,
turned to other scoring options. He took a Superman-like leap
into the corner of the end zone for one touchdown, hit tight end
David Sloan on a 74-yard pass in the second quarter for another
and threw a 45-yard strike for a third to wideout Johnnie
Morton, who finished with four catches for 118 yards.

After his score Morton climbed into the stands and stood on the
railing, thumping his chest directly below a sign with a message
that is quickly becoming the Lions' 1999 motto: BARRY WHO?

--David Fleming

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Run support Rivers is no Sanders, but he's averaging an impressive 4.5 yards per carry.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)