Barry Sanders' vision on the football field was extraordinary. It was part of what made him the best pure runner in football history.
From end zone to end zone, Barry saw every crack and seam. His twisting, acrobatic runs that filled up highlight reels for 10 seasons with the Detroit Lions from 1989-98 didn't happen by accident. He saw the game through a rare prism.
His vision extended beyond the field and continues in his retirement. It wasn't often presented to the general public because he didn't seek out media attention, but Barry has acute knowledge of the overall game -- college and pro, offense and defense, front-office decisions.
Barry gives his insights into the Detroit Lions of 2017 in this week's Monday Countdown. It is an extension of an interview conducted at last week's annual Taste of the Lions event at Ford Field, where his appearance benefitted Eastern Market's food access and entrepreneurship programs.
Barry addresses a range of Lions topics: Bob Quinn's performance going into his second year as general manager; what experience means to Matthew Stafford – who he calls "an elite quarterback;" offensive line becoming a priority in Detroit and the NFL; Stafford and key Lions reaching their prime years; the concept of the Lions getting "over the hump," and where they stand in breaking the Green Bay Packers' dominance of the NFC North.
We start with Barry's take on Quinn:
Quinn's "pedigree:" Barry is particularly interested in what Quinn has done through the draft and free-agent signings to strengthen the offensive line, but he likes the overall approach.
It's a reflection, Barry said, of Quinn's experience from working in personnel for the five-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots before being hired by the Lions in January of 2016 to run the football operation.
"When I look at what he's done, I don't see anything that I would second guess," Barry said. "Obviously, he comes from a great pedigree – seeing how things are done, seeing how you have to orchestrate and really design."
He stressed the word design.
"You have to design winning teams," Barry said. "It starts with the leaders at the top – like him. Coming off a playoff run, I just think there are a lot of great things going on – great possibilities with this team, and with his leadership.
"I think he's done a solid job at this point, with the hope that we can get over the hump."
Matthew Stafford, prime experience: Stafford is only 29, but he's going into his ninth season, with eight in the bank as the full-time starter. The blend of youth and experience sets up Stafford and the offense for what could be a long, productive run.
Stafford was mentioned prominently as an MVP candidate last year until the Lions lost their last three games, and Stafford's performance fell off in large part because of an injury to the middle finger on his right (passing) hand.
Barry always had been high on Stafford, and that opinion has not changed.
"The great thing is, he's in his prime," Barry said. "Certainly, over the last decade you've seen quarterbacks play well into their 30s. That's promising for us. Just what he's done on the field, he's an elite quarterback and has a lot of experience under his belt.
"He's just dangerous. He's dangerous with the ball in his hands. At this point, he really understands the game. He's been learning the game, for the most part. Now he really understands the game.
"As a ninth-year player and an eight-year starter, you really understand the game, and you can just go out and relax and play. I think we saw that last season."
Offensive line: Quinn has added to the unit with three draft picks in 2016 and two free-agent signings this year – right guard T.J. Lang and right tackle Rick Wagner. There has been a growing trend around the NFL to make offensive line a premium position.
"It still starts up there for most teams that are successful," he said. "You have to pay attention to that. When you miss that, it gets really obvious. When you take time and are lucky enough to choose right, it really makes a difference. You really are playing well into January, when you do that part of the game right."
Barry is glad to see the Lions are part of the trend, and he joked about a comment he made to former teammate Lomas Brown – a seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle – Wednesday night.
"It's 20 years too late," Barry said, laughing.
"It's exciting," he said, seriously. "If you've been around the game enough, you realize that there really are some difference-makers up front. If you watch the game, you watch the teams that win, the teams that are really good, you have to have good offensive-line play.
"With how prevalent the passing game is, you have to have guys up front that compete with these Von Millers getting to the quarterback, and J.J. Watt and so forth. You've got to have guys that can contend with these very athletic guys coming off the ends. It's a must.
"With what we're doing, I'm glad to see those priorities priorities are there."
Contending with the Packers: The Packers have won five NFC North titles in the last six years. Twice – in 2014 and 2016 – they beat the Lions in a final-game showdown to win the division and start the playoffs at home.
The Lions should be contenders again, but the Packers still wear the crown – or the belt, as Packers QB Aaron Rodgers prefers.
"I hope so," Barry said of the Lions contending. "I think you still have to look at Green Bay and how you stack up there. We have a lot of guys that are in their prime, along with Matthew – guys like Golden Tate, and on the defensive side of the ball a lot of talent.
"I don't want to say we're the favorite outside of Green Bay. We still have to go out and win the games. We have some stability there that the Vikings don't have, that Chicago doesn't have. I'll word it that way.
"It's always going to be nip and tuck with Green Bay. There's no reason we can't (contend) if we just build from what we did last year."
"The hump:" For years – and sometimes decades – there have been projections about the Lions getting "over the hump."
One man's opinion: You have to get to the hump before you get over it. The teams Barry played on made the playoffs five times in seven seasons from 1991-97. They won two division titles and had double-digit wins three times. They got to the hump. They just didn't get over it to win a championship.
Barry was asked about the Lions of 2017 being to the hump – with three playoff appearances in six years – and reaching a point where they have an opportunity to get over it.
"I think they still have a good nucleus here from the last couple of years," Barry said. "There are guys in their prime that are top-caliber players, Pro Bowl caliber.
"There's no reason why we shouldn't."