Cowboy backup quarterback Wade Wilson learned about Sanders's quickness in 1992 when, after leaving the Minnesota Vikings, he joined the Falcons where fellow quarterbacks Billy Joe Tolliver and Chris Miller gave him a warning one day before practice. "They said, 'If you're going to throw against Deion in practice, be prepared. He's going to bait you like he's beat, and you'll throw the ball, and he's got the speed to go get it,' " says Wilson. "I said, 'That's ridiculous. If you throw the ball out there, and your receiver has a step, it shouldn't matter how quick he is.' Well, it matters in Deion's case. He would lay low, and when the receiver went by him, he made up the ground while the ball was still in the air, and I've never seen anybody who has been able to do that. It's phenomenal, but he can actually catch up to the ball. He's that fast."
Sanders takes chances, some of them highly dangerous, and this is one of the few knocks against him. Say a receiver breaks hard right on an out pattern. If the spirit moves him, Sanders is likely to make a play for the ball, setting himself up for trouble. If the pass gets by Sanders and finds its mark, the receiver has nothing but open field ahead of him. Sanders, however, is that rare player who can gamble and lose and still avoid getting beaten. His quickness and speed allow him to recover in time to get back on the receiver and either bat down the ball or intercept it. Says Holmoe, "That Deion takes risks is both a strength and a weakness. It's a strength when he's right, and it's a weakness when he's wrong. But he's seldom wrong. And not too many people are going to test him. He'll burn you if you do."
And when he burns you, there are few more terrifying experiences for an offense. "Every time he touches the ball you say to yourself, 'This guy may go,' " says Steve Walters, the Saint receivers coach. "If he intercepts the ball in the open field, it's almost like a punt return or a kick return, only worse. You've got guys on the ground trying to get up to cover, and with the way he runs, there's always a chance for a touchdown or a big return."
So, is there any way to beat Sanders?
"You have to be patient in your routes," Anderson says. "You have to know that most of the time he's going to give you the underneath stuff, and when he does, you have to come back to the ball. You have to come back to it real hard because with his speed and quickness he can break in front of you and intercept the ball. You have to be defensive against Deion as well as offensive because when the ball's in the air nobody goes at it harder than he does."
"He gets in this Deion zone, this force field, and you have to get him out of it," says Wright. "If I was a receiver, I'd try to keep him out of sync. I'd try to overpower him. I'd try to knock him down, and I'd tell him a few words, talk to him. Instead of trying to run away from him, I'd run over him."
"You have to go at him if you want to have a chance," says Holmoe. "You can't say I'm going to stay away from him and then suddenly go and try to get him. I've seen teams do that, and they fail every time. They leave him alone for a long time, and then they say, 'O.K., we'll go get him now.' And then, on that one play he's right on. They get hurt, and then they say, 'Well, forget that. We're not going back to him again.' "
"Think about it," Bruce says, in perhaps the most succinct evaluation of Sanders's importance to a defense. "Deion doesn't need any deep help. He doesn't need any help behind him like other defensive backs do. I mean, that alone tells you how good he is. It's like he's this lone man out there. He's on an island, protecting that island all by himself."
And nobody's going to get close.