Friday, June 20, 2008

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

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.

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