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Here was something you don't see very often: NFL quarterbacks having to lower their voices in the huddle to avoid being overheard by their opponents. It was Dec. 24, the final Sunday of the 1989 regular season, and the silence in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was deafening. The Falcons were hosting the Detroit Lions, a team, like the Falcons, without so much as a tinsel strand of hope of making the playoffs. Forced to choose between watching the game in person or finishing up with last-minute Christmas shopping, Falcon fans headed for area malls in droves. Paid attendance was 7,792. The game of the week this was not.
However, it did contain one kernel of drama. When the Lions, leading 31-24, took possession with barely one minute remaining, Barry Sanders, their blockish, Scripture-spouting rookie running back, had 158 yards. Ten more and he would clinch the NFL rushing title.
On the Detroit sideline, this was brought to the attention of coach Wayne Fontes, who called Sanders over. "I said, 'You're 10 yards from leading the league in rushing,' " recalls Fontes. " 'Do you want to go in?' "
"I even asked him if there was anything in his contract that said if he led the league in rushing, he got more money," says Fontes. "He said, 'Coach, give the ball to Tony [fullback Tony Paige]. Let's win it and go home.' "
Sanders could not have cared less about winning the rushing title. "When everyone is out for statistics—you know, individual fulfillment—that's when trouble starts," he says. "I don't want to ever fall victim to that." So he stayed on the sideline, and the Lions won the game and went home. Christian Okoye of the Kansas City Chiefs won the rushing title.
Asked if he had any regrets over the summer about not winning the rushing title, Sanders shook his head. "I satisfied my ego last season," he said.
One would hope so. In a season when small backs made such a big imprint on pro football, the 5'8", 203-pound Sanders left a lasting impression when he gained 1,470 yards—10 fewer than Okoye, on 90 fewer carries—and started in the Pro Bowl. The feat was all the more impressive considering that Sanders 1) missed all of training camp in a holdout for a big contract, 2) did most of his running behind a patchwork offensive line and 3) ran out of the Silver Stretch, the Lions' shiny new version of a run-and-shoot offense—a one-back, four-wide-receiver set—which conventional NFL wisdom says you can't run out of.
That same wisdom dictates that a run-and-shoot is best defused with six defensive backs. So error-prone was the wretched Stretch, however, that opponents usually felt comfortable going with only five defensive backs, inserting an extra linebacker—in the Chicago Bears' case, two linebackers—the better to contain Sanders. He ran amok, regardless.
"From the system they're running out of, it makes him very elusive," says Bears middle linebacker Mike Singletary. "You not only have to figure out what's going on, but you have to find him. You have to tackle him with good technique. If you try to blast him, chances are he'll spin out of it and you'll end up looking a little silly."