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Barry Sanders: The Greatest Running Back of All Time?

Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders
In 1989 the Detroit Lions drafted Barry Sanders with the third pick overall. It was the greatest draft pick in the history of the Lions franchise. It was a horrible draft pick for the NFL.

How often do we see lists that rank Jim Brown and Emmitt Smith above Barry Sanders? First of all, and this will shock many, but I don't rank Jim Brown in the top five all time. Jim Brown dominated the sport in his day, there is no doubt about that, but that is because he was in an era when the talent was far less than it is now. The defenses are far bigger, stronger and faster than they were in Brown's day. As great as he was, if Jim Brown played in the modern era, he would be a very good, maybe great player, but he would not be all-time great. I would expect him to be more like Christian Okoye was.

There is always the ongoing debate about who was better, Barry or emmitt. If one looks only at the statistics, then they might take Emmitt. More career yards and more touchdowns. Not to mention the super bowl rings. In the years the two played in the league together, Barry Sanders had more yards in five of the nine seasons. This is including the last three seasons in a row before Barry retired early. Now considering how close in status these two played, when one brings who they played for into the format it changes everything. Emmitt Smith had a great team around him. He ran behind a great offensive line. Barry Sanders had an average team at best around him and his offensive line was one of the worst in the league. I have heard it argued before that the Lions offensive line was good because Barry's numbers prove it. However, I believe that Sanders got his yardage in spite of the line, not because of it. There were far too many times when he scrambled and spun and juked his way to a three yard gain. Too many times when he took a one yard loss ONLY because the offensive line could not stop a blitz and Sanders was hit as he took the hand-off. Those are not signs of a good line. Simply put, if Barry and Emmitt had been on each others teams, Emmitt would have never been close to his records and Sanders would have blown all records away.

As a Lions fan, I saw how great Barry Sanders was on a weekly basis. I saw the near superhuman feats he pulled off. The NFL has never before seen the likes of Barry Sanders talent and likely never will again. His hi-lite films are not running through gaping holes and not all just changes of directions to make players miss. His reels have scenes of him rolling head over heels, over top a would be tackler, only to land on his feet again and run away. It has clips of Barry stopping on a dime, surrounded by several defensive players, then taking off again as the defenders all dove to where he had been a moment before. No player has ever been able to stop, go, change directions, spin and bounce while keeping perfect balance like Barry could. No player in the history of the NFL has ever had fans holding their breath with each run like Barry did.

Barry Sanders was not another case of being a great player who happened to play in a bad era. Barry Sanders played in the best of eras and still left players, coaches and fans standing with their jaws dropped, wondering if they actually saw what they just saw. Other players have made jaw dropping plays, but none have done it near as often as Barry has. And he did it on a bad team, behind a bad line! And I cant help but to wonder, what if? What if Barry had played for Dallas instead of Detroit? What if Barry had gaping holes to run through and coaches that had enough guts to play him in goal line situations. What if Barry had actually played for a great team rather than the Lions? How much did the football world miss out on because it was the Lions who drafted him?

When the Detroit Lions drafted Barry Sanders, it was the greatest moment in Detroit History. It was the greatest loss in NFL history.

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