Why is Sanders the greatest? Because he did it by himself

Aug 6th, 2010 | By sportsnews | Category: Sports

Barry Sanders is the best player in NFL history, and I don’t know why we’re even having this discussion.

If you saw him with your own eyes, then you know. If all you’ve seen is his highlight reel, then you know. And if all you’ve seen are his statistics, then you know. But if you’ve seen all three? Then you know — and you’re wondering the same thing I’m wondering: Why are we even having this discussion?

Sanders ran for 15,269 yards and 99 touchdowns in 10 seasons, and he did it in the most spectacular fashion imaginable. He gained five yards when five yards were impossible. He would get back to the line of scrimmage on broken plays that should have been stopped deep in the backfield. And if he had only a sliver of room, he was gone. He was the most feared 5-foot-8 munchkin in NFL history.

Had Sanders not retired at age 30, he would have put the career rushing record out of reach — forever. As it is, he’s third behind Emmitt Smith’s mark of 18,355 after a career in which Sanders gained 99.8 yards per game, second all-time to Jim Brown’s 104.3. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry. And he did it for the awful Detroit Lions, who never surrounded him with offensive talent and who were rarely ahead late in the game, which would have allowed Sanders extra carries to kill the clock. Detroit lost more than it won, which means Detroit was throwing the ball in the fourth quarter.

Who is the competition for this unofficial award, anyway — Jerry Rice? Jim Brown? Great players, no question about it, but Rice played on the edge where he had to beat one player to get the ball in his hands. He also needed the offensive line to make time for his quarterback, and he needed the quarterback to get him the ball. Rice played with two of the best quarterbacks of his era, Joe Montana and Steve Young, both Hall of Famers, and he played opposite great receivers like John Taylor and Terrell Owens, and he broke from the same huddle as great running backs like Roger Craig and Ricky Watters. Proclaiming anyone from those great 49ers teams as the Greatest of All Time is an insult to all his great teammates who helped make it happen.

That leaves Jim Brown, who’s much more serious competition for Sanders as the GOAT. Brown averaged more yards per game and more yards per carry (5.2) than Sanders, and he too retired young — at age 29 — rather than put the rushing record out of sight.

Brown was incredible. But Barry Sanders was Jim Brown minus Brown’s mutant genetic advantage. Brown was decades ahead of his time, playing running back at 6-2, 232 pounds when defensive linemen were close to his size and linebackers were significantly smaller. Sanders was 5-8, 203 pounds. He was a genetic mutant in his own way, impossible to tackle and sometimes even touch, but that’s a genetic advantage that would remain any era. Over time, other players caught up to Brown in size. Nobody has ever caught up to Sanders’ freakish elusiveness.

Plus, Brown played for a much better franchise. In his nine years, the Cleveland Browns finished 45 games above .500. In Sanders’ 10 years, the Detroit Lions finished four games below .500. Considering their individual numbers were nearly identical, I’m not buying the argument that Brown was able to lift his team onto his back, whereas Sanders wasn’t able to do the same for Detroit. They had the same stats, people.

While we’re at it, Sanders had the greatest season in NCAA history, too. He was the lead back for only one year at Oklahoma State, in 1988 — and ran for 2,628 yards and 37 touchdowns.

Insanity — same as the suggestion that anyone has ever played football at a higher level. On any level.

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