Barry Sanders was one of the most elusive running backs in the history of the NFL. He retired at 30 years old and still in his prime without ever winning a Superbowl in his lustrous career and this was through no fault of his own. In his 10 seasons in the NFL he punished defenses, not running through them, but by finessing his way around the field making defenders look meek in his presence. He is often compared to other great running backs of his day such as Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith. Although Smith and Payton were Hall of Fame running backs their numbers and teams they played with don’t add up to what Sanders was able to accomplish. Before the statistics start flying let me discuss a different point that may be overlooked. Barry Sanders never had a team around him point blank. Detroit’s offensive line that they put in place for Sanders was average at best. The quarterback situation in Detroit was a joke, putting quarterbacks such as Rodney Peete, Scott Mitchell and Charlie Batch behind center. This would put enormous strain on Sander’s because defenses would stack 8 or 9 defenders in the box to stop him. The teams had no fear of the quarterback’s that the Lions put against opposing teams and built their defenses specifically to stop Sanders. Now take Payton and Smith’s teams that were built around them and compare. You may have trouble doing this, since there is no comparison to the level of talent surrounding them. Emmitt Smith played with the Cowboys dynasty of the early and mid 90’s. When defenses lined up to face Emmitt Smith they also faced a pro bowl caliber offensive line, Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikmen and Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irving. Let’s just say they weren’t consumed with just stopping Smith. Walter Payton, though to his credit had no great quarterback, but had a good offensive line with multiple pro bowlers. He also benefited from one of the greatest defenses ever assembled, the Bear’s defenses of the 80’s with 1985 being the most famous year. This kept other teams of the field and Walter Payton on it.
Now here come the statistics. In his 10 seasons in the NFL he gained 15,269 yards, which is the most ever in league history in that time span. That is an average of 1,527 yards a season, with a career average of 5.0 yards per carry. Barry holds an NFL record of 14 straight games of a hundred yards or more. He accomplished that record in 1997 the same year he won the MVP (split with Favre) and rushed for 2,053. His rushing yards that season were the third most in league history ( Eric Dickerson – 2,105 & Jamal Lewis – 2,066) and he is only the fifth player in NFL history to accomplish an over 2,000 yard season. He went to the Pro Bowl every year of his career, and was inducted into Pro Football’s Hall of Fame in 2004. Walter Payton (16, 726) and Emmitt Smith (18,355), both have more yards than Sanders. Barry retired 1,457 yards behind Walter Payton, but could have eclipsed that mark very easily had he stayed for an eleventh season. Emmitt Smith eventually broke both their yardage records to become the NFL’s all time leading rusher. However it took him 13 years to pass Sander’s and broke Walter Payton’s all time mark in his fourteenth season.