Barry Sanders -- Overrated
Barry Sanders, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004 (his first year of eligibility), scored one touchdown for every 35 touches in his 153 regular-season games, but just one touchdown in 112 postseason touches in six playoff games.
Indeed, Sanders' only career playoff touchdown was a 47-yard run against the Dallas Cowboys in a 1991 divisional-round playoff game in the Pontiac Silverdome. The Lions won that game 38-6. Sanders' touchdown came in the final minutes of the fourth quarter with Detroit already leading 31-6. The following week, the Lions went on the road to play the Washington Redskins at RFK Stadium. Sanders was not a factor. Detroit took a 41-10 beating.
Sanders' postseason performance supports the notion that he was a product of the cozy, climate-controlled Silverdome. Nice carpet for easy, stop-on-a-dime maneuvering. Seventy-two degrees. Detroit faithful keeping the defensive line off balance with high decibel support.
In four career outdoor postseason games, Sanders averaged a paltry 2.8 yards per carry. He never scored a touchdown. And he never ran for more than 65 yards in a single game. With Sanders, the Lions went 0-4 in outdoor playoff games, losing by an average of 17 points.
Nobody is suggesting that a bust of Barry should not be in Canton. He's the third-leading rusher of all time with 15,269 yards. He holds the all-time NFL record for consecutive 1,000 seasons with 10, from 1989 to 1998. Sanders was the first player to rush for 1,500 yards in a season five times. He was selected to 10 Pro Bowls. In 1997, when he rushed for 2,053 yards, he was NFL co-MVP, an honor he should have not had to share with Brett Favre that season. In 1988, Sanders won the Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma State.
But this picture of perfection has a nasty blemish. Once Sanders got to the big stage, and got out of the Silverdome, he was a bust.
Take the wild-card playoff game at Lambeau Field in 1994. That season, Sanders averaged 5.7 yards per carry -- the second-highest total of his career. In the first round of the playoffs against the Green Bay Packers, on Lambeau Field's frozen tundra, Sanders set an NFL postseason record for rushing futility. He had 13 carries for minus-one yard. He had four catches that day -- for four yards. Which means he had 16 touches for a total of three yards -- 2.7 yards less than he averaged per rush in the regular season.
Now, the spirited defense of putting him in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot always includes the theory that Sanders was the only thing the Lions had going for them in The Barry Sanders Era. That's exactly what it is -- a theory, and a bad one at that.
Did we forget about wide receivers Herman Moore and Brett Perriman? The Lions stretched the field for Sanders -- especially in the Dome. This helped him be wildly successful -- in the regular season. And in the years when the Lions went to the playoffs, their defense was not awful. It was middle of the pack -- ranked 11th in 1991, 15th in 1993, 19th in 1994, 14th in 1995 and 10th in 1997.
There is another ugly scar on Sanders' career: His Greta Garbo act on the way out the door.
After rushing for 1,491 yards in 1998, Sanders abruptly and mysteriously retired. At the time, he was 1,457 yards shy of Walter Payton's all-time rushing record. His defenders say Sanders -- who played the game with dignity and class -- did not owe anybody anything. As long as he was at peace with the decision, that was enough. That's bunk.
Here was a man who benefited greatly from the support of his teammates, his organization and his fans -- and he just turned his back on them without a word of gratitude. He left his teammates and a franchise in the lurch, to the point that the Lions demanded he return $7.3 million of his signing bonus.
Years later, when it was time for him to become eligible for Canton, Sanders had to be coaxed into providing some kind of explanation for his untimely retirement.
It was too little, too late.
Postscript: Of the five leading rushers in NFL history, Sanders is the only one to never reach a Super Bowl. The others -- Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Curtis Martin and Jerome Bettis -- all reached at least one Super Bowl. And all but Martin won at least one NFL championship ring.