Practice had ended for the Detroit Lions, and coach Bobby Ross was the last one to walk off the field. He paused for a moment to cinch up the laces on his shoes and tuck his whistle inside his shirt, and then he was off and running. After most practices Ross, 62, can be seen jogging around the parking lot of the Pontiac Silverdome. He looks a bit silly circling the dome in his slacks, stopping occasionally to jot down notes on the pad he carries with him, but he says he doesn't run for the physical benefits. Rather, Ross uses the time to relieve the stress of coaching the Lions.
Given the kind of turmoil Ross has had to deal with since the beginning of training camp, it wouldn't be surprising if he'd worn a moat into the pavement around the Silverdome. The stress may be easing up, however, now that Ross has guided Detroit to the NFL's most improbable start. "Even my parents back home in Colorado must be watching television and going, Detroit 2 and 0? How can that be?" defensive tackle Luther Elliss said after Sunday's 23-15 win over the Green Bay Packers. "It's shocking but simple. Basically, we'd all like to say a big thank-you to Barry Sanders, because leaving the way he did finally woke us up and forced us to start acting like a real football team."
On the eve of training camp, the enigmatic Sanders, who was just 1,458 yards shy of the NFL's alltime rushing mark, retired via fax after 10 seasons with Detroit and then flew to London without so much as a word to his fellow Lions or to Ross. The announcement came a year earlier than Sanders's teammates had expected. During Detroit's 5-11 season in 1998, Sanders often joked that he was "on pace with the Y2K bug" and was going to expire at the end of 1999.
An arbitrator will probably have to decide if the Lions can recoup $5.5 million from Sanders, the pro rata portion of the $11 million signing bonus he received in 1997 Last week agent David Ware said Sanders would repay the $5.5 million if Detroit would agree to trade or release him. As of Monday the Lions' stance hadn't softened. "Either Barry is here and he's playing," said Detroit vice chairman William Clay Ford Jr., "or he's retired."
Although the Lions have lost one of the greatest running backs in NFL history, they seem to have gained something even more valuable: chemistry and spirit. To hear the Detroit players talk, the transformation began even before Sanders left. "We're all kind of sick of this topic, to be honest," says linebacker Stephen Boyd, who led the Lions with II tackles on Sunday. "We didn't just suddenly come together the day Barry retired. It helped. But it started way before that, and I give the credit to Coach Ross."
After suffering through his first losing season in seven years as a pro coach in 1998, Ross briefly considered retiring before Sanders did. Instead, Ross, a former Army lieutenant who had turned programs around at Maryland and Georgia Tech before guiding the San Diego Chargers to Super Bowl XXIX, subjected himself to a thorough self-analysis last winter—and was upset by what he found. "All the losing made me distant from my team," says Ross. "I was so engrossed in game preparation that I lost sight of something very, very important: the human side of this game."
Since then Ross has made an extra effort to improve his rapport with his players. He now spends more time in the locker room, weight room and lunchroom and less time off by himself, brooding over videotape. Already Ross's new approach has done wonders. For starters, there was a dramatic increase in participation in Detroit's off-season workout program, which improved the Lions fundamentally, prepared backups for emergency action and started bringing the players closer together.
Those factors were much in evidence on Sunday. After dislocating his left elbow late in the first half and temporarily losing consciousness from the pain, left guard Tony Semple refused to be carted off the field but insisted on walking off on his own. It was a powerful message that seemed to electrify the Lions' bench. Then, after the Packers scored on a two-yard run by Dorsey Levens in the fourth quarter to take a 15-14 lead, Ross went with a gut feeling and inserted cornerback Terry Fair as a kick returner. Fair dropped the oxygen mask he was using, ran onto the field and took the boot back 91 yards to Green Bay's eight to set up Detroit's winning score.
"Maybe in the past, we all subconsciously fell back on Barry, knowing he'd get it done," says Ross, whose theme for the week was, No one can do it by himself. "What we've tried to focus on is, Hey, this isn't a one-man game. Now we all have to work together."
In two weeks of starting in place of Sanders, Ron Rivers has gained 200 all-purpose yards and rushed for 4.5 per carry. "Hey, I definitely don't want Barry to return," said Rivers jokingly after Sunday's win. When cornerback Bryant Westbrook was lost with a strained hamstring on Sunday, ninth-year journeyman defensive back Robert Bailey stepped in, intercepting Brett Favre in the third quarter and batting down the Packers' final pass to preserve the win. "Guys didn't look at Barry's departure as a disappointment," says sensational second-year wideout Germane Crowell, who caught seven passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns in Week I against Seattle. "We all saw it as an opportunity."