For me, Barry Sanders will remain in a class by himself for perpetuity. His greatness is measured by style, not yards, and he had plenty of both.
Some running backs played more seasons. Emmitt Smith, Sanders’ rival for a decade, ground out 15 seasons to satisfy his passion to be the NFL’s all-time rushing leader.
And three backs gained more yards in a season than the 2,053 Sanders churned out in 1997, when he finished the season with 14 straight games of 100 yards or more rushing to carry the Lions into the playoffs on his back. Eric Dickerson gained 2,105 yards in 1984, Adrian Peterson 2,097 last season and Jamal Lewis 2,066 in 1997.
Whatever the reason – winning the vote to be on the cover of Madden25, or his yearly appearance at the NFL draft show in New York to introduce a Lions’ draft pick – Sanders has been in the public eye of late. He’s still as magnetic as ever.
A link on his Twitter account last week showed a highlight reel of his greatest plays. Every one of them is memorable.
What was the greatest highlight play of his career? This week's Monday Countdown is devoted to picking a personal favorite.
I could give a blanket answer. It’s a 3,420-play tie for first.
He had 3,062 runs (for 15,269 yards), 352 receptions (for 2,921 yards), five kickoff returns (another 118 yards) and four passes thrown – one completion, two incompletions and an interception. The interception was probably exciting.
They all add up to 3,420 times that you took a deep breath the instant Sanders touched the ball and enjoyed the show.
As the late Detroit News sports columnist Shelby Strother once wrote about trying to pick the greatest football game ever, it’s like trying to pick up soap bubbles with chop sticks. It’s the same for picking Sanders’ greatest play.
There is no wrong answer. It can be twisting Harlan Barnett into the turf on a touchdown run at the Pontiac Silverdome, the TD run through half the Cowboys’ defense in a playoff win, a start-stop run against the Bears that makes every highlight reel or any of the other 3,417 times he touched the ball.
An easier answer might be to ask, "which of Sanders’ runs didn’t you like?"
I have three choices, mostly for personal reasons. Two represent a side of Sanders that was out of character for him on the playing field.
And the third is the play that I actually rate No. 1 on my all-time list. It shows how he could still pull out something memorable on a play when the defense made him statistically mortal.
In reverse order, here is my three-play Barry Sanders highlight package. As always feel free to disagree.
3. The flip, Game 3, 1996, at Philadelphia: The Lions were looking for revenge from a humiliating 58-37 loss to the Eagles in the NFC wild card playoffs the previous year. At one point in the game, the Eagles had a 51-7 lead.
The rematch was chippy, and there was some trash-talking as the Eagles built a 51-7 lead early in the third quarter.
The Lions began a comeback. Sanders scored on an eight-yard run, slashing through the left side of the line and breaking through a would-be tackler to reach the end zone.
As he got up, he flipped the ball to Eagles defensive back Troy Vincent. For Sanders, who routinely tossed the ball to an official and never celebrated scoring, it was as close to taunting as he ever got.
And even then, he did it with class.
2. The almost-spike, Game 3, 1996, at Philadelphia: Same game, fourth quarter, and Sanders put another dent in Philly’s lead after it had been restored to 14 points (24-10). He ran left with a handoff, cut back and chugged through a hole.
As he crossed the goal line, horizontal to the turf, Sanders gripped the ball in his right hand and made an overhand throwing motion. Before he could release it, the ball slipped out of his hand.
It was the spike that could have been – a moment in history. Barry Sanders spiking a football after a touchdown is like Mona Lisa with a frown. Never going to happen.
A side note: after the ball slipped, Sanders chased after it, in case the officials had ruled it a fumble. It was already called a touchdown.
1. A loss for words, Game 16, 1991, at Buffalo: The Lions were 11-5 going into the last regular season game and had clinched a playoff berth for the first time in eight years. There was more at stake for the Lions, though. A win and a Bears loss at San Francisco on Monday night would give the Lions a first-round bye and home-field advantage for the divisional round.
Ultimately, both of those things would happen.
It was a wintry setting in Buffalo, with the temperature close to the freezing mark and winds of 20 miles per hour and more.
The Lions would beat the Bills, 17-14, on a field goal by Eddie Murray in overtime. Sanders did his part, carrying 26 times for 108 yards and a TD and catching three passes for 53 yards.
Two runs by Sanders made the highlight reels. One was a one-yard TD run, when he avoided a blitzing Bills defender with a spin move and outran linebacker Darryl Talley to his left to reach the end zone untouched.
For the average back, it was the play of a lifetime. For Sanders, it was just another great move.
But the highlight play of the ages came earlier in the game. It defied every law of gravity and the physical limits of the positions a body can attain.
On a handoff from Erik Kramer, Sanders became a magnet for what seemed like half of the Bills’ defense.
Instantly after the handoff, he had to dart left to avoid the charge from Talley, who had him squarely in the crosshairs deep in the backfield. The spin move didn’t allow a clean shot, but Talley managed to grab Sanders by the left hip as Sanders spun away, doing a 360.
Cornelius Bennett, another linebacker, closed in to finish him off. Bennett had Sanders by the wrist, but Sanders managed to maintain his balance, stepping first with his left foot, then the right, with his left foot nearly waist high as he fought to maintain his balance.
Sanders finally pushed off with his left foot again, completing the spin move, with the side of his helmet and right elbow nearly scraping the surface of the playing field.
By then, Talley had recovered to get back in pursuit, with Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith also trying to close in, as Sanders reversed field to the right side.
Sanders had escaped the trap, but there was nowhere to run, and he was hemmed in by a cadre of Bills players.
The official play-by-play recorded the end of the play this way: “Sanders to BUF 27 for -2 yards. Tackled by B. Smith in backfield.”
All of that acrobatic skill was displayed in a two-yard loss.
It was the greatest two-yard loss in history – one for the highlight reel.