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Inside the NFL
By Peter King
Posted: Wed October 21, 1998
The clock is ticking on Barry Sanders as he chases an elusive title
So this is what it's like trying to tackle Barry Sanders. "Come on," he said to me over his shoulder, and with a deft move past a minicam crew, Sanders turned the corner and headed toward an exit in the Lions' locker room, trying to escape the commotion after Detroit's 27-20 upset of the Packers at the Silverdome last Thursday night.
Sanders froze for an instant outside the locker room door to sign an autograph, so I began to ask about whether he might be the best player never to win a Super Bowl. "Do you?" But Sanders knew what I wanted to talk about and quickly cut me off. "No!" he said. "I don't agree."
It seemed an appropriate time to raise the subject. He had just rushed for 155 yards against one of the premier teams in the league, galloping 73 yards for a touchdown and having an 80-yard run for another score called back because of a holding penalty. Yet the Lions' win only evened their regular-season record at 75-75 since they drafted Sanders third in 1989. As he bounded up a back stairwell, I wondered, was Sanders's NFL life passing, unfulfilled, before his eyes?
Even if he shatters Walter Payton's career rushing record (he needs 2,310 yards), it's debatable whether he's the best of an elite group of players never to have won a Super Bowl, which includes Dick Butkus, Dan Marino and O.J. Simpson. Regardless, Sanders is admired by teammates and even by the Lions' fiercest rivals for his transcendent breakaway runs and his humility. If he ever reaches a Super Bowl, he might have more people cheering him on than John Elway did last season. Unlike the Broncos, however, the 2-4 Lions aren't championship material. How many more years can Sanders maintain his performance level?
Of a possible Super Bowl shutout, Sanders said, "I guess it could happen." Then motoring to the lobby off the Lions' offices, he added, "But I've got too much life to live, too many games to play."
In the lobby Sanders took a left past a man in a trench coat, sidestepped a woman in a faux leather coat and power-walked through the revolving front door to freedom. "Let me read you something from Lomas Brown," I said to Sanders's shadow. Brown was Detroit's left tackle from 1985 through '95 but now plays in Arizona. Sanders turned his head slightly to listen.
"Here's what Lomas says," I began, reading from my notes. "'I don't think not winning a title has been that hard on Barry. He wants to win, believe me. But he's not consumed with self-gratification. He's just consumed with being the best he can be. You won't see him lose sleep over it. Not to say he doesn't care. But football is not his whole life.'"
"Lot of truth to that," Sanders said, opening a brown paper bag that contained one overripe banana, which he peeled and ate as he talked. "But you know, this is a great team game, where so many people have control over who wins and loses. If I could transfer my skills to the NBA, I could have more control over who wins. No matter how well one guy plays in football, he needs a lot of help to win a Super Bowl."
According to some of Sanders's acquaintances, however, the losing is starting to bug him. Asked last week about the Lions' 1-4 start, Sanders replied quietly, "Same old s-." One reporter says it was the first time he had heard Sanders swear. "A lot of times after a bad loss," said Sanders, now standing by his fire-engine-red Range Rover, "I go home, and I'm ready to quit. Can't stand it."
He never won a high school state football championship while playing in Wichita, Kans., never won a Big Eight title at Oklahoma State and has come no closer to the Super Bowl than the '91 NFC Championship Game, which the Lions lost to the Redskins 41-10. Still, the thought of playing in the Big One, he says, keeps him going.
"I envision playing in a Super Bowl," he said. "I really do. I don't dream about it, just think of it sometimes when I'm awake. Packed stadium, laying it on the line, taking over a game. I can see it happening."
Even if no one else can.
Trailing the Giants 17-7 on his team's first possession of the third quarter on Sunday, Cardinals second-year quarterback Jake Plummer rolled right and forced a deep sideline pass into heavy coverage. Strong safety Percy Ellsworth intercepted, and New York was on its way to a 34-7 win. "I'm bulletproof, I'm Jake the Snake," Plummer said sarcastically after the game. "I thought I'd slip it in there."
Anointed as a young Joe Montana coming into this season (SI, Aug. 17), Plummer has been having some rough days at the office. Against the Giants he completed 12 of 21 passes for 139 yards, threw one touchdown pass and a pair of interceptions, and was sacked seven times. After Marc Trestman took over as offensive coordinator in the off-season and installed a variation of the West Coast attack, Plummer had to learn his second system in as many years. Though he has completed 59.5% of his passes, his 11 interceptions are third highest in the league, and he has thrown for only six scores.
Plummer is also taking a beating behind perhaps the league's worst offensive line. Last season Arizona quarterbacks were sacked 78 times, the second-highest total in NFL history. Although the Cardinals are on pace to shave 21 sacks off that number, Plummer has still gone down two dozen times. Bottom line: It's ludicrous to dump on this guy when he's often under an avalanche of pressure.
"This is a process that'll take a while," says Trestman. "I like where he's going. We can't treat it as Armageddon when he doesn't play great."
As the 4 p.m. EDT trading deadline approached on Oct. 13, Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi took one call from a fellow G.M. who asked if Accorsi would like to acquire a marginal player. "No interest," replied Accorsi. The discussion took all of 15 seconds.
"I've got him beat," says Bills general manager John Butler. "We got no calls for trades [that day]." The Bills didn't put out any feelers either.
On the day of the major league baseball trading deadline last July, 14 deals were struck. By comparison NFL teams made one: The Bears sent running back Bam Morris to the Chiefs for a conditional fifth-round pick in 1999. In-season trades have become rare in the NFL, largely because it takes too long for a player to pick up his new team's systems.
The salary cap can also pose problems. Most teams are at or near their cap limit, meaning they'd have to restructure contracts to make room for a new player. Also, if a player who is not in the last year of his contract is dealt, the remainder of his signing bonus is immediately applied to his former team's cap. Thus deals that might make football sense don't add up economically.
Still, with more than half the season remaining, it's hard for a trade maven such as Packers general manager Ron Wolf to believe that teams can't figure out ways to acquire players. "Teams don't trade because [front-office] people are afraid of their own shadows," says Wolf, who tried unsuccessfully to upgrade Green Bay's secondary.
Panthers kicker John Kasay missed a 47-yard field goal with five seconds left, sealing the Bucs' 16-13 win. "It was a perfect snap and perfect hold," said Kasay. "I hit it completely square. Believe me, that ball should have moved right, and it went left. I can say with absolute confidence that God did not want me to make that field goal." ...
The league will address one of the problems of a 31-team schedule in '99 by giving byes in the final four weeks to the four teams that finish with the worst records in '98. This is to alleviate concern that a potential playoff team would benefit from a week off late in the year....
For Office Pool Use Only: In their first 37 years the Cowboys never lost a game 13-12. In their last 16 games they've lost by that score three times.
1. Colts 31, 49ers 20 We've corrected the score because referee Walt Coleman's crew robbed Indianapolis blind at 3Com Park on Sunday and handed San Francisco a 34-31 gift. Peyton Manning really beat the Niners with a fearless, three-touchdown, no-interception day.
2. Mount Ditka erupts With this postgame explanation of how the Falcons beat his club 31-23, Saints coach Mike Ditka showed why it's great to have him in the league: "They smacked us in the mouth and said, 'You like that?' Evidently we said yes, because we let them smack us in the mouth again. This game is not about tricking people. You hit them in the mouth enough times, their eyes start watering. We didn't hit anybody in the mouth today."
3. No Place Like Home On a Sunday when all 11 home teams won, the Oilers picked up their first win ever in Nashville. Best news for Tennessee fans? Fourth-year quarterback Steve McNair had his finest day as a pro, completing 16 of 21 passes for 277 yards and one touchdown and running for another score in the 44-14 victory over the Bengals.
When Bills quarterback Jim Kelly announced his retirement in January 1997, one of the first things that went through the mind of Buffalo director of pro personnel A.J. Smith was, Doug Flutie's going to be a free agent after this season. I've got to get to work.
Smith spends about a third of his time during the season preparing a scouting report each week on Buffalo's upcoming opponent. On Sundays he sits in the press box and scrutinizes the Bills' next foe for weaknesses. The rest of Smith's job revolves around the magnetized boards that line the walls of his 10-by-18-foot office at Rich Stadium. On one wall are posted the depth charts of every NFL team with the players' names color-coded (blue for excellent, red for very good, purple for good, black for run-of-the-mill). On other walls are lists of prospects from the Canadian Football League, NFL Europe and the Arena Football League.
Smith's most important meeting of the year occurs a few days after the end of the Bills' regular season when he visits with John Butler, the club's general manager, and the coach, which was Marv Levy when they convened last Dec. 23. Smith goes to the meeting with a list of players he thinks will be the top 150 free agents on the market, with 15 highlighted as the best of the bunch. Then, like a carnival barker, he touts three or four players. Last winter one of his favorites was the 35-year-old Flutie, the 5'10" Toronto Argonauts quarterback, whom Smith had scouted twice in person and five times on tape in '97.
When he began pitching Flutie, Smith was ready for the funny looks he got from Butler and Levy, but he pressed ahead. "I don't care about age, I don't care about height, I don't care about how defensive coordinators say they can game-plan him easily. There's an exception to every rule. Some guys are just football players, and Doug Flutie's a football player who can help the Buffalo Bills."
In the weeks that followed, Butler quizzed Smith about Flutie. "He's been in the shotgun in Canada, and we'll have him under center," Butler said on one such occasion. "Can he make the adjustment?" Another time the question was, "Is his arm good enough?" Smith kept plugging his man, and he also dispelled one of the biggest concerns about Flutie. When he came out of Boston College in 1984, Flutie ran a 4.9 40, mediocre for a quarterback. Smith timed Flutie in 4.7 and presented his evidence that the quarterback could outrun many of the linebackers who would be chasing him.
Helping Smith's cause was the fact that Flutie wanted no guaranteesonly a chance to make the Bills and a pittance of a signing bonus ($50,000). When he closed the deal on Jan. 20, Flutie turned to Smith and hugged him. "Thank you," said the quarterback who had last played in the league in '89, with the Patriots. "I'm back in the NFL."
With a vengeance. In two extended outings in relief of the injured Rob Johnson, Flutie completed 72.9% of his passes, with four touchdowns and only one interception. With Johnson hobbled, Flutie got his first start for Buffalo on Sunday and engineered a last-minute drive, capped by a bootleg run for the winning touchdown, in the Bills' 17-16 upset of the Jaguars.
"A lot of teams are afraid to [take a chance]," Smith says. "I'm lucky to work for one that isn't."
Issue date: October 26, 1998
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