You see the man in jewelry, black shades and a dorag. His mouth is running. Deion Sanders seems anything but a figure to replicate in marble, a statue for the ages. But put him in a football uniform and point out a man for him to cover, and he is the best defensive back in football, among the best of all time. There is no doubt that Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones, who lured Sanders away from the San Francisco 49ers and signed him on Sept. 9 to a seven-year $35 million contract, got himself a deal.
This is not news to everyone—certainly not to the quarterbacks who dread throwing in his direction, to the receivers who are routinely shut down by him, to the coaches who wish he were on their team. They know that the 28-year-old Sanders can take you places.
For each of the past six years—five of them with the Atlanta Falcons and one with the 49ers—the rest of the league has enjoyed a September respite from Sanders while he finished playing baseball. This season, ankle surgery has further delayed his arrival, perhaps until the Cowboys' game on Oct. 29 against the Falcons. But no one expects Sanders to be less dominating than he was in 1994, when he intercepted six passes for the Super Bowl-champion 49ers, returning three for touchdowns.
"You play him, it's just intimidating," Ram receiver Isaac Bruce says. Bruce was a rookie last season when he laced Sanders in Week 3. "I kept thinking he'd come out ragging me or talking a lot of noise. You know the image he has. I didn't have any nightmares beforehand, but during warmups when I saw him come out on the field, it was hard to look at anything else."
This is what a receiver sees when he stands across the line of scrimmage from Sanders: a man somewhat thick of hip, cut square and hard on top (he is not wearing shoulder pads on the cover of this magazine) and long-limbed. His stance is like nobody else's. He crouches low. On occasion he will hold his hands in front of his face, his fingers tickling invisible piano keys. To some he resembles Bruce Lee set to unload on a pile of bricks. One foot is thrown back, set there until the ball is snapped and he throws it forward to deliver what he calls a quick jam. A quick jam is just that: a fast and artful check on the receiver, designed to slow him and upset his rhythm. Sanders can pin you to the line. He can stop you cold.
Bruce, the greenhorn, looked at Sanders across the line, and what he saw was something altogether different from what he had been expecting. Standing there as mute as a scarecrow in a deep winter field, Sanders was smiling. He was smiling as if he and Bruce were old pals, linked to each other in ways too profound and mysterious to describe. "That's all he did," Bruce says. "Smiled. Then later I'm running my routes, and instead of giving me a hard time, he's kind of coaching me. He's saying, 'Look, you need to stay low when coming out of your cuts, so I won't be able to tell where you're going.' "
Bruce took Sanders's advice, but alas, he finished the game without any catches while Sanders was covering him. Bruce wasn't the first receiver to get dusted by Sanders. Nor was he the first to come away feeling slightly awed by the experience. The man was even better than his hype: quicker, faster, stronger. And, on top of everything else, Sanders could coach. To offer advice to your own teammates is one thing; to give it to the player you are engaged in trying to stop reveals a self-confidence that is downright spooky. Sanders told Bruce how to beat him; then he went out and beat Bruce anyway.
"When we played him last year, we talked about not even bothering to throw his way," says New Orleans Saint receiver Michael Haynes. "It was part of our game plan to keep the ball away from him. There were routes we wouldn't run toward Deion. He can take away that much."
"He takes one third to one half of the field away from the offense," says Flipper Anderson, the former star Ram receiver who is now on injured reserve with the Indianapolis Colts. "He'll be playing man-to-man on one guy, and the rest of the secondary will be playing zone. The quarterback is afraid to throw at Deion, and that frees the safety to cheat over to the opposite side. You've got Deion by himself on one side, covering a single man, and you've got everybody else on the other side. That makes it tough to either pass or run to that side because everybody's plugging it up and there's nowhere to go."
Sanders wasn't always great. When he left Florida State and turned pro in 1989, he was adept at man-to-man coverage, but teams liked to run the ball at him because he sometimes seemed reluctant to get his uniform dirty. As a pass defender he had not yet perfected the quick jam, and he often chose to play some distance off the receiver. As a consequence, anyone with speed and a gift for running clever routes could slip past him. In time Sanders became a more aggressive tackier, and his coverage against the pass became much better. He improved by studying film of his opponents and of himself for long hours. Former teammates and coaches say there isn't a more analytical self-scout in the game.