Waldman’s RB Cut-Down to Defend the Planet: No.2 Barry Sanders


With all due respect to William Sanders, his son was better than his football hero. At least for my team. 

Read the first quote to the last quote, and you’ll find the truth in between.

“I’m so proud of Barry, but I’m also a realist,” William said. “I watched Jim Brown play for the Cleveland Browns and he was the best I have ever seen. Playing football back then was harder.”

– William Sanders

“When I look at players like Jim Brown, at one time he was one of the biggest guys on the field. I think he would be different in today’s game. Barry Sanders is a guy that no matter what year–you can say 1920 and you can say 2012–he will still be ‘best running back’ in the NFL, any give time.”

– Curtis Martin

“What kind of a son would I be to take away my father’s hero?”

– Barry Sanders

I know old-school, hard-working men like William Sanders. Everything was more difficult in their time. The original was always better than the new version.

They don’t make ’em like they used to . . . 

I’m with Curtis Martin, the Sanders patriarch didn’t give his son enough credit.

Smart, versatile, creative, and all-day tough, Martin’s point about Sanders’ value across the history of position resonates with me. Martin is one of at least two dozen backs I haven’t mentioned during the RSP Writers’ Project that are worthy of adding to the conversation.

Martin’s statement that Brown “would be different in today’s game,” isn’t a knock on Brown’s greatness. Brown had the physical skills to excel in the modern era. Martin’s skepticism is based on the finest of points: Greatness is different from dominance.

Greatness is the result of distinguishing oneself–even when the margin of achieving greatness is narrower than the eye of a needle. Dominance creates a significant gulf between yourself and another. In his era, Brown was great (championships, rushing titles, sustained productivity) and dominant (bigger, stronger, and faster than even the biggest men on the field and attaining records that took decades to fall).

Brown was nearly super human. His physical dimensions gave him a significant advantage that he would no longer possess in today’s game. Look at height-weight-speed of the players in Brown’s era and compare it to the modern game and it becomes evident how the gap would have narrowed significantly.

The 6-2, 230-pound running back with 4.5-speed in pads and his vision, pad level, and stamina would still be great in today’s game. The compelling question is whether Brown would dominate defenses. Could he be a notch above Eric Dickerson, Bo Jackson or Adrian Peterson?

If you extrapolate Brown’s 1,863-yard effort during a 12-game era and set it in context of a 16-game season, do you think Brown could have earned 2,484 yards against the caliber of athletes on NFL fields today?

I think his skills were great enough to approach a 2,000-yard season. I’m not convinced that Brown could to do more than match Dickerson’s 2,105-yard campaign–and I think I’m being somewhat charitable with Brown’s agility and lateral quickness in comparison to Dickerson or Adrian Peterson.

Even if I’m confident that he could adjust to the modern game and the skills required for it, Brown didn’t display the pass pro or ball security of the more modern greats. I have the luxury of choosing among several great backs that I don’t have to wait and see if Brown feels like putting these skills to use.

Barry Sanders was not known for his pass protection, but he had good ball security and undervalued versatility. Sanders had a fumble rate of 1 per 88.5 touches, he caught at least 35 passes in 6 of his 10 NFL seasons, and he was also a talented return specialist at Oklahoma Sate.

This gave him the edge over Brown and a spot on my squad. What separates Sanders from every back on this list is the theory that his running style would be consistently more difficult to stop in any era.

Football players, especially linemen, have a more visceral appreciation for players that win with power and stamina. The warrior component of the game is ingrained in them and the influence trickles down to fan preferences.

Sanders’ power and stamina aids his greatness, but the foundation for what sets him apart is the ability not to take the full impact of a hit, if hit at all. Built lower to the ground, Sanders’ balance, stop-start skill, voluminous library of moves, stamina, and acceleration make him a more compelling big-play threat against any defense, in any run scheme, and in any era.

While you watch Sanders slip, slide, bounce, and tear through defensive units, consider that 1-per-88.5 fumble rate once more. Sanders was more elusive than Gale Sayers and displayed as much stamina as Jim Brown, but you could add their fumble rates together and Sanders was still better at maintaining possession of the ball on near-impossible runs.

Sanders could flip his hips, reverse his field, bounce off a hit, and accelerate past a defender’s angle as if he was encased in a bubble-like force field. Watch this video and the video at the end (2:51-mark of the second vid, I recommend highly…you won’t be disappointed) and ask yourself if there is another back in the history of the game that could do the same things Sanders could do.

Sanders needs less room to generate a big play than backs whose games are built so much on power. Sanders also can turn scenarios that heavily favor the defense to his advantage. All great backs have this skill, but few could achieve it with the same frequency and level of difficulty as Sanders. The fact that Sanders could turn the tables on a defense’s advantage and take a lot less punishment than his peers to do it also appeals to me.

My No.1 running back feeds into that visceral, warrior mentality more than any player in history but I’m telling you now, if Sanders was as versatile as Walter Payton, the Lion would start over the Bear. The elusive, creative dimension Sanders brings to the game is just a notch above what I’ve seen from any back in history.

Barry Switzer once told his Oklahoma team not to hurt Thurman Thomas (watch rest of the video) because they won’t be able to touch Sanders, the guy backing up Thomas. At the time of this Switzer story, Sanders was the OK St. return specialist. He only handled 34 punts, but he averaged 11.2 yards per return and scored 3 touchdowns, including a season with 16.3-yard average per return on 15 punts. During that same year, Sanders averaged 31.6 yards per kick return on 14 kicks.

Sanders’ otherworldly skill with the ball in his hands enhances the versatility of my special teams unit, which is why he’ll be my punt returner. As surprising as it may seem to absolutely no one, Sanders will also see time in the backfield.

While I agree with Adam Harstad’s point that it’s important to spell players during games, there’s a fine balance to maintain or you limit the opportunity for greatness to occur. Many coaches are too liberal with their substitutions and they inhibit a player’s ability to become fully in sync with the game at a level that leads to big plays.

It’s easy to say maintaining focus won’t be a problem when the fate of humanity is on the line. I think this will be true, but I’m not making that assumption. Just in case, I’ll get he right people to handle personnel substitutions with a deft hand.

I don’t think Sanders will have this problem. He’ll be this team’s version of Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson. He plays the game with the humility to do whatever is necessary. Have another taste of the most astounding pure runner in history set to Beethoven:

Sanders is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

What is the RSP Writers Project (RSPWP)?

The RSP Writers Project is a goodwill community effort among writers that is designed to spur conversation about the game. Here’s the back story for this year’s project and the directory of participating writer-built teams.

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