Barry Sanders is running circles around NFL defenses with an electrifying style unlike anything the league has seen
Posted: Tuesday September 11, 2007 3:49PM; Updated: Tuesday September 11, 2007 4:23PM
This story originally appeared in the Dec. 8, 1997 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Barry Sanders is what people in the NFL call a "freak runner." Defensive coaches can't draw up a scheme to stop him because his style follows no predictable pattern. It's all improvisation, genius, eyes that see more than other people's do, legs that seem to operate as disjointed entities, intuition, awareness of where the danger is--all performed in a churning, thrashing heartbeat.
The coaches will say things like "surround him," "cut off his escape angles" and "make sure you maintain your backside lanes," all the stuff they have been preaching since the days of Red Grange. For a while this might work, and there will be a neat little collection of one- and minus-two-yard runs in Sanders's pile. Then perhaps someone will get a little tired or misjudge an angle, and it's whoosh, there he goes!
He's a freak runner. We saw it again last Thursday when Sanders busted the Chicago Bears for 167 yards--including scoring jigs of 40, 25 and 15 yards--on only 19 carries. It doesn't matter where the play is blocked; he'll find his own soft spot. It doesn't matter if he's running with a fullback in front of him or from a double-tight-end set or out of the old three- and four-wideout Silver Streak offense that the Detroit Lions used to employ. "What a waste," we used to say. "Four wideouts and Barry. Give him a fullback like Moose Johnston, put him behind a Dallas-caliber All-Pro line, and he'd get his double G-note in yardage every season."
Well, this year the Lions gave him a blocking fullback and a fairly conventional offense, and after Sanders ran for 53 yards on 25 carries in his first two games, we all said, "Look what they've done. They've ruined him." Since then he has reeled off 11 straight games of 100 yards or more rushing.
The point is, the scheme doesn't seem to matter with Sanders. He can run from any alignment. While other people are stuck with joints, he seems to have ball bearings in his legs that give him a mechanical advantage. But there are drawbacks: He's not a goal line or short-yardage runner, though he's staying in the game more than he used to in those situations. When you need someone to smack in there for a tough yard, you can't take a chance with a guy who can lose three as easily as he gains 30. (During his nine-year career, he has been dumped for losses on 336 carries, almost 14% of his total rushing attempts, for 952 yards.) For this reason I believe he is behind Jim Brown on the alltime list of great running backs. Brown had that extra dimension of short-yardage muscle.
Sanders reminds me of Emerson Boozer in '66, his rookie year with the New York Jets. He was another freak runner, a pinball, bouncing off tacklers in a dazzling progression. Then a knee injury in his second season took away that skill. Willie Galimore, playing in the late 1950s and early '60s for the Bears, had those crazy legs and that highlight-reel potential every time he touched the ball. Again, injuries plagued him throughout his career, and we saw only flashes. And, of course, there was the King, Hugh McElhenny, a magician in space, nifty, light-footed, a heartstopper who spent most of his 13-year career with the San Francisco 49ers.
When you look at some of the great runners of the past--Grange, Bill Dudley, Ollie Matson, Gale Sayers--that's what you see, great running through a broken field, a field in which there's space to maneuver. Sanders's finest runs often occur when he takes the handoff and, with a couple of moves, turns the line of scrimmage into a broken field. Walter Payton ran with fury and attacked tacklers. O.J. Simpson and Eric Dickerson were instinctive runners who glided into the line and sliced through it with a burst, but nobody has ever created such turmoil at the point of attack as Sanders has.
Freak runners usually burn out quickly. One injury, one glitch in the stop-and-start mechanism, and the whole equation breaks down. But Sanders has missed only seven games because of injury, one in his rookie season, one in 1991 and five in '93. Knock on wood, he seems indestructible.
This story originally appeared in the Dec. 8, 1987 issue of Sports Illustrated.