The next entry in the Barry Week series comes from Michael Schottey. Besides his excellent work covering the NFL for Bleacher Report, he also manages B/R internships, guest blogs about the Lions at Mlive.com, and has his own Lions blog at BlueandSilverPride.com. But, for the purposes of this post, the most relevant work he’s done is draft prospect scouting/evaluation—you can see his stuff at DraftTek, amongst other places.
Clearly, Barry Sanders was one of the most special athletes to ever grace the gridiron. The brightest star during an era Detroit sports wasn't exactly filled with marketable names or elite athletes. Barry was in a league of his own in so many ways. Arguments about the best running back ever will always ignite fanbases--Barry? Sweetness? Emmitt? Jim Brown?--everyone has their favorite. As Lions fans, many of us will always say Barry. Yet, even outside observers will almost always place the former Lion at or near the top of their lists as well. The NFL Network just put him as number 17 on their top 100 players of all time!
If Barry were still in his prime, he would likely be lighting up the league just as he did in the 90's. His talents translate to the football field no matter what era he would have played in. As time goes on, pundits will look to smaller, quicker, more agile backs and compare them more and more to Barry. While a total comparison of any current NFLer to the 17th best NFL player ever is a bit of a stretch, some athletes do certain things just as well. Using current running backs, which possess each of Barry's best attributes.
An underrated bit of Barry's game, he was never going to run over players like Jim Brown did, but he did have impressive leg drive and upper body strength for his size. Every highlight reel is going to showcase Barry's elusiveness, but most of his better runs also involved yards after first contact, broken tackles, and ridiculous stiff arms.
Current backs like Peyton Hillis, Brandon Jacobs, and Adrian Peterson are much stronger than Barry ever was. However another back in today's NFL that has similar strength to Barry is Ahmad Bradshaw. This year, Bradshaw exploded into a lead back role with the New York Giants. While fans compare him to the much bigger Jacobs, Bradshaw is an underrated power runner as well. While he never is looking to run anyone over, Bradshaw--like Barry--can pull away from tackles and punish smaller defenders.
Watching Barry, it always seemed like he was going faster than he really was. Remembering him, many might overestimate his speed. Speed was a huge part of Barry's game, but is wasn't as if he had a four-flat forty. He was fast, not all-time fast, not track-star fast, he wasn't the fastest Sanders in the NFL and he wouldn't be the fastest Lion today. Yet, his 4.37 40-yard-dash at the combine was impressive and when an athlete runs that fast, coaches and scouts take notice. When a football player continues to run that fast with pads and a football in his hand, he makes an impact.
CJ Spiller ran that exact same 40-time in Indianapolis last April. Moreover, he has a similar type of speed that Barry once used to electrify the league. Able to stop on a dime and immediately reach top speed moments later, the Bills took a chance on Spiller who has yet to make much of an impact for a winless team in Buffalo.
Yes, Barry is second to none when it comes to balance, agility, elusiveness, whatever you want to call it. It was his greatest attribute and even if his strength, speed, and everything else were diminished, his ability to evade defenders and stay on his feet would have kept him in the league much longer than he actually stayed. Saying anyone is more elusive or as elusive as Barry Sanders is blasphemy to Lions fans. However, it isn't as if no current backs aren't close.
DeAngelo Williams has been injured (either out entirely or limited by nagging injuries) for much of his NFL career but is always a consistent performer when he is on the field. Williams has that same type of ability Barry once had--not as much, of course, but it's close. Williams, at 100% is never taken down before the other team has him absolutely surrounded, and even then, like Barry, Williams can usually find a way to bounce it to the outside.
Leadership isn't something that is usually (ever?) talked about when it comes to Barry. Not only was he a quiet athlete who didn't do a lot of talking, many consider his retirement "too early" and "abandoning" the team. Take note: leadership isn't always the kind that Ray Lewis, Drew Brees, or Donovan McNabb display. Barry carried the team on his back while he never had the help that other top backs had. He came to work and did his job.
Adrian Peterson--while not exactly loved by Lions fans--has that same mentality. He's not quiet to a fault, but he's not a big talker either. I had the privilege to cover Peterson while I did sports radio in Minnesota. In my years there, I never saw him address the locker room or yell at a player on the practice field, but everyone looked at the example he set with his work ethic and his play.
Does it all add up?
So, if you were able to play Doctor Frankenstein and add Ahmad Bradshaw's strength to CJ Spiller's speed; a dose of Deangelo Williams' balance and Adrian Peterson's quiet leadership, would you have a 2nd coming of Barry? Probably not. Barry, above everything else, excelled because he was the perfect combination of the attributes and he also had a runner's instinct that was second to none. For that reason (among others), Barry is one of the most unique athletes to ever play the game.