Greg Eno

Archive for the ‘Barry Sanders’ Category

Packers Were In A Giving Mood When They Picked Mandarich

In Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Tony Mandarich on December 26, 2008 at 2:30 pm

(every Friday during the NFL season, OOB will run a nostalgic feature about the Lions’ upcoming opponents)

Much has been made, especially this week, of the Lions’ failure to win in Wisconsin since 1991. The pundits have rued the day the Pack traded for QB Brett Favre in 1992, which just so happened to coincide with the streak. Even Lions kicker Jason Hanson is wondering if the streak somehow has to do with him — since Hanson was a rookie in ’92 and has experienced every single loss on the road to the Packers.

But you don’t hear nearly as much about a gift the Packers presented the Lions with in 1989 — one that gave Lions fans just about the only reason to get excited about their team for the ten seasons spanning 1989 to 1998.

It was April, 1989. The NFL Draft. Barry Sanders was the jitterbug running back from Oklahoma State who also returned kicks and who was coming out of college a couple years early to try his hand at pro football. The Lions had just committed to the Run-n-Shoot offense — that scheme that involved four pass receivers running around the field at all times, and one lone running back. The change came about because the previous year, in explaining why he finally fired coach Darryl Rogers, Lions owner Bill Ford Sr. said, “We’re losing and we’re boring.”

So the Lions decided that if they were going to lose, they were going to be as exciting as possible in doing so. They had the Shoot part covered — at least in terms of quantity. But they needed the Run component.

Enter the Packers’ generosity.

As dazzling as Sanders was, as seemingly unlimited his potential seemed, the Packers had their eyes on a hulk of an offensive tackle, right in the Lions’ backyard, in East Lansing.

Tony Mandarich was the biggest thing — literally — to come out of Michigan State University in years. He was considered the best OL prospect to come down the pike in recent memory. The Packers had fantasies of Mandarich anchoring the left side of their line for at least the next ten years. They could always pick up a running back later.

So the Pack, with the no. 1 overall pick, snatched Mandarich off the board. The Lions heaved a sigh of relief.

Barry Sanders became a Lion, thanks to the Packers’ misguided selection of Mandarich, who would soon be derailed by a steroids scandal and gross under performance. The Packers got one of the biggest draft busts in history. The Lions got a Hall of Famer.

I remember being ecstatic when the Packers picked Mandarich. My opinion was the 180 degree opposite of Green Bay’s: when a talent like Sanders comes down the pike, you take him. You can always pick an offensive lineman later.

Sanders held out through training camp and the exhibition season that rookie year, haggling over his contract. Don’t forget that this was still the Russ Thomas Era. Thomas, the Lions’ GM, wouldn’t retire until the end of ’89. And he was still in charge of contract negotiations, a big reason why Sanders didn’t get signed until just a couple days before the season opener. Then, with virtually no practice, having not played in a football game in about nine months, Sanders simply took his first NFL carry for 19 yards. A legend was underway.

Of course, the Packers had the last laugh. Three years after the Mandarich miss, Favre came to Green Bay, from the Atlanta Falcons. What soon followed were playoff appearances, conference championship games, and eventually two Super Bowls, including a win in SB XXXI. Oh, and those 17 straight wins over the Lions at home.

It’ll be 20 years, believe it or not, come next April when the Lions have the no. 1 overall pick in the 2009 Draft, since the Packers overlooked Barry Sanders and took Tony Mandarich. After a potential 0-16 season, heaven help us if the Lions repeat the Packers’ mistake of that ’89 Draft.


New RB Johnson Needs An O-Line, Just Like Every Back In History Not Named Barry Sanders

In Barry Sanders, Lions, Rudi Johnson on September 2, 2008 at 2:17 pm

As far as I’m concerned, the only running back I ever saw that didn’t need the benefit of an offensive line was Barry Sanders. Barry was also the only runner I know who showed you something that you’d never seen before — every single week. Most of it, I’ll bet that you’ve never seen since. Or ever will, again.

So it’s nice that the Lions have continued their relentless pursuit of a running game by inking RB Rudi Johnson, the erstwhile Bengals back. He worked out for the team over the weekend, looked good by all accounts, and has the locker room abuzz. Johnson’s signing might mean the end — again — of Tatum Bell’s future in Detroit. Poor Tatum.

Of course, Johnson won’t help the Lions, and nor will rookie Kevin Smith, or Bell, or the other rookie, Marcus Thomas — not at all, if the o-line doesn’t get its act together. Barry’s long gone, and gone with him is that not-human-way he had of making tacklers miss, even those who didn’t have to bother with the annoyance of being blocked.

When Sanders left the Lions on the eve of training camp in 1999, we knew that we’d never see the likes of him again. But I don’t think we truly believed that the Lions would never have a running game again, some nine years later. But with the exception of a decent James Stewart year in the early part of this century, and a hot second half by Kevin Jones in 2004, the Lions’ running game has been mostly non-existent. It’s another of those downers that’s coincided with the Matt Millen Era, but this one is strange because Millen, as a player and a broadcaster, was a big proponent of smash mouth football. Yet he’s fashioned a team built on finesse and tippy toes.

New offensive coordinator Jim Colletto seems to be connecting to his players, and the o-line is also committed to chewing up clock and running the football. Yes, it’s one thing to say and another to do; but in the past it hasn’t even been said all that much — at least not by the right people.

New Lions RB Rudi Johnson

A word now about Smith, the rookie from Central Florida. There’s a certain brashness about him that I like. It’s not Roy Williams-like, which I think is largely for show as opposed to being anything substantive. Smith, in training camp, wasn’t shy to talk about how he plans on bringing the Lions their running game, all by himself if need be, and that he sees himself as another Adrian Peterson type. I was impressed with his ability to be confident without appearing to be obnoxious or talking out of the wrong orifice, if you know what I mean.

I like the Rudi Johnson signing because the Lions saw that they still had a need, even after camp and the exhibition season, and weren’t afraid to add another player after the roster was supposedly “set.” Plus, he has history in the league as being a productive player. I don’t know the terms of the one-year deal, but I’m guessing they didn’t break the bank, either.

It would appear as if the Lions are headed in the right direction. They addressed needs in the secondary, and while they may be a little D-line heavy and LB thin, the overall defense should be improved. They drafted a beast of an OT in the first round. They acquired some runners. They laid off the receiving corps for a change. I’d still like to see a backup QB with NFL experience, but I guess we’ll just have to hope for another injury-free year from Jon Kitna, which would be three years in a row — and that’s rolling the dice in today’s NFL.

I’m not a prediction guy, but I think we’re still looking at 7-9, 8-8. The Lions may be a better team this year than they were in 2007 yet end up with much the same record. It’s a year where their development shouldn’t be solely judged by the won-loss record.

Sanders Was Always Content To Be An Indian, Not A Chief

In Barry Sanders, Lions on June 20, 2008 at 1:24 pm

Nobody seemed to know what to do with Barry Sanders when he was in Detroit. Not his coaches, not his teammates, and — in the end — not even his fans, who among everyone seemed to be the ones who had, indeed, figured it all out, until an abrupt retirement caused even them to turn into head scratchers.

And still, some nine years (can it be that long?) after his self-ziggy, reports trickle in from those who knew him best — folks who admit that they didn’t have a grasp on Sanders, after all. Kind of like the would-be tacklers who thought they had him wrapped up behind the line of scrimmage, only to be left clutching air and spitting out a mouthful of grass.

Former Lions head coach Bobby Ross can now be added to the list of the head scratchers.

Quoted, believe it or not, in the tiny Petoskey News-Review, Ross said, “I don’t know if Barry really loved the game, but he worked hard at it. He did what he was supposed to do. I always wanted him to be a leader, but he really didn’t want that role.”

It seemed that so many of us spent too much time deciding what WE wanted Barry to be, and not enough time just accepting him for who he was.

The coaches did this most of all. They didn’t trust his whirling dervish style near the goal line, and thus removed him from the game when the Lions had the ball inside the five-yard line. No telling how many touchdowns the Lions may have missed out on — settling for field goals instead — because of this cowardice thinking.

They didn’t trust his blocking skills, and removed him during obvious passing downs. They didn’t have any real screen packages directed toward Sanders to speak of — plays that would have best accentuated his unscripted open field skills. As a defensive coordinator, I would have woken up in a cold sweat during “Lions week” with thoughts of Sanders catching screen passes all afternoon, zigging and zagging through and past my linebackers. In fact, one of my most-remembered Sanders plays was a little humpty-dumpty screen run near the end of the first half against Tampa Bay — one of Barry’s favorite victims — during his 2,000-yard season of 1997. Sanders took the impromptu pass well behind the line of scrimmage, near midfield, and — I swear I do not lie — ran thru the entire Bucs defense on his way to the end zone.

Even some of his own coaches — mainly the defensive ones — expressed frustration with the explosive Sanders, complaining that the Lions were “scoring too fast” with their frantic run-n-shoot offense featuring their jitterbug running back.

Some of the fans wished Barry would let loose more. We nodded in admiration that he simply handed the football to the official after a touchdown. Classy, we all said. But some tired of that quietness and wished Barry — just once — would have just spiked the damn ball. It would have been nice for him to have shown more emotion on the field. Of course, the Lions didn’t win much when Barry was here, so we don’t know how he would have reacted after a big playoff win. But when the Lions dispatched the Cowboys in January 1992 — their only playoff win since 1957 — I don’t recall Barry doing much more than he did after any victory, or any game, for that matter. That game, of course, contained another signature Barry moment — his long touchdown run after the play seemed to be bottled up. I can still see poor Tony Casillas of the ‘Boys, his back turned, almost stopped — and the utter look of surprise in his body language as he saw Sanders sprint past him, when he undoubtedly thought no. 20 was buried under a pile of bodies.

Ross’s admission that he wanted Sanders to be more of a leader doesn’t surprise me (who wouldn’t want his best players to be team leaders?), nor does his revelation that Barry didn’t really want that role. Sanders was a clock-puncher; he was content to be an Indian and leave the chiefly duties to others. Football was what Barry Sanders did, it wasn’t what he was. For some, the opposite was true. No crime in being either of those kind.

The fans thought they had all the answers, of course — mainly when it came to how best to deploy Sanders on the football field. There were never so many offensive coordinators in this state as when Sanders played for the Lions. But even those wise, super-duper smart fans were left holding the bag when Barry abruptly quit in 1999.

All Barry Sanders wanted to do was run the football, go home, and come back to do it again the next week. Oh, he wanted to win — make no mistake — but when he saw that that wasn’t in the cards here, he decided to punch out for good. Didn’t even ask for a trade to a contender. That kind of tells you how much football meant to Barry, at least at the end. He tired of it — the Lions’ losing ways no doubt accelerating those feelings.

Nobody knew what to do with Barry while he was here. The fans tried loving him, even when a lot of that seemed unrequited. The coaches tried hiding him and changing him to suit their needs, even when that was obviously fool-hearty. His teammates tried engaging him, even when he was content to just blend in.

Nothing wrong with being an Indian. Trouble was, the Lions had too few good chiefs with which to surround him.

Today, Lions Can Shoot, But They Need To Run, Too

In Barry Sanders, Lions, NFL on September 14, 2007 at 2:31 pm

(note: sorry about skipping “Thursday’s Things” in this space yesterday. Kinda busy at the homestead. But they’ll be back next week — as if you just can’t wait, right?)

The Lions’ new coach, Wayne Fontes, had just inherited his first head coaching job and he looked around the league and got some ideas.

The Houston Oilers, with Warren Moon at quarterback, were running an offense that mesmerized the newly-hired Fontes — who had the “interim” tag dropped from his title after coaching the final five games of the 1988 season in relief of the tardily-disposed Darryl Rogers. The Oilers, with some degree of success, were placing four wide receivers in pattern, running around the field, and a single running back in the backfield — often acting as a decoy. There was no tight end. They called it the Run-and-Shoot, or Run ‘n Shoot, for those more impatient writers.

Fontes was enthralled. He envisioned his Lions, so pathetically boring and predictable in 1988, as an NFC version of the AFC Oilers’ frantic offense. He hired one of the offense’s inventors, Mouse Davis, to coordinate things. Then Fontes snapped up wide receivers, left and right. Then, in April 1989, he had the mother of all football gifts dropped in his lap.

Barry Sanders, the jitterbug runner from Oklahoma State, was still on the board when the Lions drafted #3 overall. The Packers, picking one slot ahead of them, shocked the football world by selecting the steroid-built offensive tackle Tony Mandarich out of Michigan State. So Sanders, in all his splendor, was there for the taking, adorning the window as the Lions went on the clock.

Doubtful that they needed all their alloted time to nab Sanders, who was 20 years old, 5’8″ on his tippy toes, and with legs of granite. And with speed. But more moves than speed. Moves that few had seen before, and even fewer have seen since.

So Fontes had the back for his run ‘n shoot. He had some receivers, though they were hardly the quality of the ones being used in Houston at the time. His run ‘n shoot definitely had the “run” part secured. It was the “shoot” that became problematic.

Fontes and Mouse unveiled their new offense in a pre-season game against the Browns at the Silverdome, and the results were less-than-thrilling. The Lions had receivers running around the field, alright — as promised — but the QBs had the darndest time finding them. And, when they did zero in on a target, often times the target violated a rule of thumb in such an offense: you must catch the ball.

The Oilers had Moon and gifted receivers like Ernest Givins, Haywood Jeffires, and Curtis Duncan. They didn’t have the “run” like Sanders, but they blew the Lions away with the “shoot.” The Lions were trying to make it a go with Rodney Peete or Bob Gagliano at QB, and pass catchers like Richard Johnson, Robert Clark, and Kez McCorvey. It wasn’t the NFC version of the Oilers. It was more like a strike-season version of the Oilers.

Ahh, but the Lions had Sanders, and the Run ‘n Shoot quickly became the Run ‘n Run Some More. With receivers galore spreading the defense, Sanders was able to run wild. He was even able to do so with his blockers running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Sanders certainly led the league in Most Yards Gained By Himself.

The Run ‘n Shoot was put to rest after a few seasons, when Dan Henning came in to run the offense and installed a more traditional tack. Part of the reasoning, it was reported, was that Mouse Davis thought the Lions’ problem was that they were “scoring too fast.” Whatever. Eventually out were Peete and most of the second-rate receivers. In was a tight end and a fullback.

Today the Lions again have receivers running around all over the field. But they do not have Sanders — no one close, really — so you don’t dare call Mike Martz’s packages Run ‘n Shoot. Today, the “shoot” is in place, while the “run” is a concern. Still, with a mostly one-dimensional attack, the Lions put 36 points on the board in Oakland on Sunday. One can only imagine what they’re capable of if they get their “run” in order.

By the way, using a version of the offense Henning installed in 1992, the Lions went into the playoffs three years later, against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles destroyed the Lions, 58-37 — and it wasn’t close to being that close. The Eagles QB who helped fillet the Lions that New Year’s Eve was Rodney Peete.

Go figure.

Eight Years Later, Barry’s Departure Still Haunting Lions

In Barry Sanders, Lions, NFL on September 2, 2007 at 3:55 pm

It’s hardly the Kennedy assassination, but I pretty much remember where I was when I heard the news.

It was July, 1999. The Tigers were, once again, stumbling and bumbling their way through the American League. Nothing much happening, except Lions training camp, which was about to start.

Then the news hit. The Internet and talk radio started bubbling rapidly, like molten lava.

Barry Sanders, the jitterbug running back, had retired. Just like that. Faxed in his intentions, then hopped a plane for England.

But only those with deaf ears and blinders on could have been TRULY rocked by the announcement, which slugged Lions fans in the gut. For months, Sanders’s unhappiness with the organization was being talked about by his father, William. If his son had his way, William Sanders asserted, he’d walk away from football. That’s how bad things had gotten for the most exciting player in franchise history.

Nobody listened. Certainly no one with the Lions. Except Coach Bobby Ross, who peppered Barry with letters and phone calls. Not once did his star running back pick up a phone, or drop a line in the mail. The silence, to coach Ross, was deafening.

The silence was broken that July morning, the day before the Lions were to report for camp. Barry Sanders has retired. Pass it down.

At first, the delivery of such abhorrent news was met with denial. A bad, twisted joke, it must have been. Only a fiction writer could think of it: Barry Sanders quits the Lions, on the eve of training camp. When he had all year to tell the team of his intentions.

He had. But no one was listening.

Only later was it revealed: that the Lions had been aware of Sanders’s disgust, far in advance of his quitting. William Sanders’s warnings throughout the spring should have been heeded, after all.

Yet the Lions didn’t take their best player seriously, apparently.

Someone would have to play running back for the 1999 season, even though the notion of replacing the 10-year veteran Sanders with anyone other than Jim Brown himself was considered unfathomable – and futile. That notion proved absolutely correct.

The Lions found someone. He was Greg Hill, the erstwhile runner from Kansas City. He had never rushed for more than 667 yards in any NFL season. Barry Sanders, alone, had tripled that in 1997. Simply put, Hill was to Barry Sanders what saccharin is to sugar. But then again, someone would have to play running back for the 1999 season.

The statistics read thusly:
1998: Sanders (343 carries, 1,491 yards, 4.3 avg)
1999: Hill (144 carries, 542 yards, 3.8 avg)

Saccharin, indeed.

But that was eight years ago. Surely enough time for an organization to recover, find a fairly suitable replacement, and move on with its life.

It’s my contention that the Detroit Lions are still struggling to find the air that was kicked out of them when Barry Sanders quit on them so suddenly in 1999.

It’s not just the matter of who will carry the football, though that’s been tough enough to determine. When Sanders bolted, it set off a chain reaction of events – mostly bad. It’s happened before with the Lions.

In October 1962, a loss was suffered on a gray, muddy day in Green Bay that many point to as being the negative splitting of the team’s atom.

The Lions, leading the division-leading, undefeated Packers by a measly point, 7-6, had the ball as the clock stubbornly wound down. It was third down, around midfield. A couple minutes remained. The Lions really didn’t need a first down. A punt deep into Packers territory would probably do the trick. But quarterback Milt Plum faded back to pass. Receiver Terry Barr ran his route, turned, and … fell down in the Green Bay mud. Plum’s moist pass fluttered to cornerback Herb Adderley, who raced down the sidelines, well into field goal range. As the seconds ticked down, Paul Hornung booted the game-winning kick.

That 9-7 loss to the Packers, a game that clearly should have been won and thrusted the Lions into the thick of the playoff race, tore the team’s heart out. In the locker room after the game, defensive tackle Alex Karras, enraged by Plum’s flippant response when he asked who the dumb S.O.B. was who called the pass play, hurled his silver Lions helmet at the surprised QB, missing his head by inches.

“Even the newspaper guys who traveled with us, who were usually like pallbearers, were trying to cheer us up,” Karras once said about the plane ride back to Detroit.

The Lions got their revenge of sorts when they beat the stuffing out of the Packers that Thanksgiving. But the damage was done. Vince Lombardi’s men ended up wearing championship rings that the Lions figured should have been theirs.

In the 44 seasons after that ’62 debacle, the Lions have won one playoff game. And many feel the downward spiral began on a muddy field in Wisconsin, with an errant pass and a slip-sliding wide receiver.

And so it has been with Barry Sanders’s retirement. The Lions went 8-8 in ’99, but slumped badly toward the end of the year. They were blown out in the playoffs. In 2000, Ross pulled his own Barry – quitting abruptly, in November. The Lions still had a chance for the playoffs. But a Paul Edinger field goal on the last play of the season lifted the Bears over the Lions. No playoffs. A housecleaning began. The Matt Millen Era was dumped upon an unsuspecting Lions fan base.

In six seasons with Mr. Millen running things, the Lions are 24-72.

Would all that had happened if Barry Sanders stayed unretired in 1999? Probably not, though it’s unclear how much better things would have been.

This ISN’T unclear: the Lions still struggle to find their footing eight years after Sanders’s retirement. Their running game is almost annually moribund. They still seek players who can provide weekly excitement. They haven’t sniffed the playoffs.

Barry left, and so much life left with him. I wonder if he knows what he’s done. I wonder if he knew at the time. Then again, did Milt Plum know what he was about to unleash?