20 years later: How Barry Sanders ran for 2K and a place in history
Barry Sanders took the handoff with a little over two minutes left that late Sunday afternoon in December. He bounced forward, jumped a little bit and plunged into the pile. He got up, shook himself off and went back to the huddle.
It was like nothing happened. The ball was reset into play. Only then did someone stop what was going on. Sanders had reached a rarefied NFL plateau: 2,000 yards.
The Silverdome crowd delayed a cheer. Sanders seemed momentarily confused. Tight end Pete Metzelaars went up to him and shook his hand, and the rest of the Detroit Lions offense gathered around. The referee handed Sanders the ball. Sanders gave it to his father, William, watching on the sideline.
"When he hit it," offensive tackle Ray Roberts said, "it was the most non-Barry run ever."
The next play -- a vintage-Sanders, 53-yard run to cement his place in history -- gave him 2,053 yards and gave the Lions a win and playoff berth. Center Kevin Glover and guard Larry Tharpe lifted Sanders onto their shoulders.
It led to a picture with Sanders (No. 20) atop Glover (No. 53). The two close friends wore the exact numbers Sanders ended up with for yards during his historic season. As the reluctant superstar went on the shoulders of the men who blocked for him that year, he told them not to drop him.
Some of this was planned -- Roberts said he, not Tharpe, was supposed to pick Sanders up with Glover. The rest of it was spontaneous celebration of an achievement that meant as much to the franchise, the city and the offensive line as it did to Sanders himself.
"It was thrilling, exciting, kind of humbling," Sanders said. "It's kind of -- everyone had known what you did, so all eyes were already on you, and so once they hoist you on their shoulders, that's even more so the case.
"And so I felt a little bit uncomfortable but just proud of what we had accomplished going against a tough Jets team, a team coached by Bill Parcells, knowing that nothing was going to come easy."
Sanders' wizardry of shoulders, hips and feet took him to 2,000 yards 20 years ago. Had it not been for a meeting and a string of unbelievable games, it wouldn't have happened at all.
Wayne Fontes had been fired following the 1996 season. Bobby Ross replaced him and changed offensive philosophies, using a fullback for the first time in Sanders' career. In theory, this could make holes easier for Sanders.
Sanders was a generational player considered the best running back of all time. It sounds silly now that coaches had to figure out how to make an offense with Sanders work, but that's exactly what happened. Sanders ran for 53 yards his first two games in 1997, including 20 against Tampa Bay -- his lowest rushing total in three years.
Something was off. Sanders admitted some of it was relearning how to run behind a fullback. But it was also the coaching.
"I don't think they understood how to run Barry," fullback Cory Schlesinger said. "You can't give him the ball three times, because he's going to lose yards. But the next play, he's going to make five guys miss and he's going to do some outstanding running. I think they learned they have to just keep feeding him the ball, feeding him the ball.
"And he's going to do what he does."
Before Sanders, Ross and then-Lions offensive coordinator Sylvester Croom had a different type of back -- burly Natrone Means, in San Diego. With the Chargers, if Means didn't gain yards, they went away from the run game. With Sanders, you didn't do that because he often lost yardage for a couple of plays before breaking out for a massive one. So the San Diego-based strategy was failing.
Multiple meetings between players and coaches and among the staff occurred after the Bucs game. Something needed to change. The answer became obvious: Let Barry be Barry.
"We said we're going to build this thing, our offense is going to be built around Barry Sanders running the football and everything is going to feed off of it," Croom said. "What it allowed us to do, it helped our passing game because one of the other things that was part of it is that people had to put that safety in the box to try and stop Barry."