There are no words to describe just how unbelievable Barry Sanders was as a football player, so I won’t try, and for those who have seen him play, you know exactly what I am talking about and why words are pointless.
The Lions signed free-agent running back Reggie Bush early in the 2013 free-agency period, and it brings up an intriguing question. Is Bush the best running back the Lions have had since Sanders retired?
Sanders was arguably the best running back to ever play in the NFL, and the Detroit Lions were lucky to have him for as long as they did. However, Sanders retired from the NFL before the 1999 season, and the Lions have tried to fill the void ever since. There will always be a void, like there is everywhere when the greatest to ever play retire from the game.
Since Sanders' retirement, the Lions have tried many different ways to find another franchise-type running back. In 1999, with almost no time to find a replacement, the Lions acquired running back Greg Hill in a trade with the St. Louis Rams.
The Lions gave up two picks for Hill, and Hill rushed for 542 yards and two touchdowns while starting eight games. He was released before the 2000 season began.
In 2000, the Lions signed James Stewart in free agency. Stewart came to Detroit after scoring 13 touchdowns in the 1999 season with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was to be the successor to Sanders in the Lions backfield, but it never happened.
Stewart started all 16 games in 2000, combining for 1,471 yards and scoring 11 total touchdowns. In 2001, Stewart started 10 games and registered 927 total yards, while scoring only two touchdowns. Stewart's last season with the Lions came in 2002. He registered 1,354 total yards and scored six touchdowns, but injured his shoulder and never played again.
With Stewart injured, the Lions went to running back Shawn Bryson. He started 13 games and racked up 946 total yards, while scoring three touchdowns. The Lions struggled to get much out of the running back position in the 2003 season.
The Lions thought they had their answer again in 2004 when they jumped back into the first round of the 2004 NFL draft to select Virginia Tech running back Kevin Jones. It certainly looked like the Lions had finally found their guy, and Jones’ career started with a bang.
As a rookie, he started 14 games and rushed for 1,133 yards, while scoring six total touchdowns. He became the third running back in franchise history to rush for 1,000-plus yards in his rookie season. Things looked extremely bright for Jones, but then, the injuries hit, and they took their toll on his career.
Jones started 13 games in 2005 and 12 games in 2006, but he wasn’t nearly as productive in his second and third seasons as he was as a rookie. He rushed for 664 and 689 yards respectively and never was able to put the injuries behind him.
In 2007, Jones started 10 games after returning from a Lisfranc fracture he suffered in 2006. He rushed for 581 yards, scored eight touchdowns and was released following the 2007 season.
In the 2008 NFL draft, the Lions selected Kevin Smith with the first pick in the third-round. Smith entered the draft out of the University of Central Florida after having an incredible college career. Again, the Lions felt they had a back they could rely upon to be their featured back.
Smith started the 2008 season as the Lions' starting running back, but lost carries to veteran Rudi Johnson. He started 12 games and 1,262 total yards. He also scored eight touchdowns as a rookie.
Smith started 13 games in the 2009 season, but he suffered a serious knee injury, missing the final two games of the season. He totaled 1,162 yards in 2009, and he scored five total touchdowns. The knee injury lingered into the 2010 training camp, and he saw extremely limited action with the Lions in 2010.
During the 2010 NFL draft, the Lions jumped back into the first round to select Jahvid Best out of the University of California. He was an electric running back who changed the Lions offense for the better simply because of his speed.
Best was incredibly explosive when he was in the lineup, but he suffered from turf toe in his rookie season. He started nine games, totaled 1,082 yards and scored six touchdowns, but his presence was felt as a receiving option and a player who opened up the offense for the rest of the Lions stars.
With a “lightning” option in the fold in Best, the Lions drafted Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure in the second round to be “thunder” in the tandem, and it looked like the Lions had the position fixed. Things truly turned foul in 2011 for the Lions—and for both running backs.
Early in training camp in 2011, Leshoure tore his Achilles and was lost for the year. It was a giant blow to the Lions' hopes of what their running back tandem would be, but it wasn’t the biggest blow.
In 2011, Best suffered a severe concussion in the preseason and another in Week 6 of the regular season. He was placed on injured reserve in November, effectively ending his career. He started six games and registered 677 total yards and scored three times in the 2011 season.
The Lions struggled to get explosive play out of the running back position in 2012, with Leshoure and Joique Bell handling the workload. They plodded along, but the Lions recognized that speed was missing in a big way, and they acted on it with the addition of Bush in free agency.
Now back to the question. Is Bush the best running back for the Lions since Sanders? The answer is yes—and no. He certainly brings an NFL resume that can be looked at more favorably than any other back the Lions have had since 1999.
He has the ability to be the best running back we have seen in some time, but an argument can be made that he might not be here if Best were still playing. Best could easily be called the most talented running back to play for the Lions since Sanders, and without his injuries, Bush would not even be on the roster.
The reality is that Best won’t likely play again, and it puts Bush in line to take over what Best had started. The Lions will exploit teams with Bush’s speed, just like they did with Best. The blueprint is there, and it takes the Lions offense to the next level.
At the end of the day, Bush is certainly in the mix to be the best running back we have seen in Detroit since the Sanders era. He needs to be productive on the field, but his game-changing speed is certainly an incredibly exciting element. If things go well during the 2013 season, Bush will easily be the best running back in Detroit since 1999.
Let the Reggie Bush era begin!