When people talk about the top five greatest running backs to ever play in the NFL, Barry Sanders will always be in the conversation. The 5’8″, 200 lb. shifty back from Oklahoma State burst onto the national scene during his junior year in college. He set a NCAA record rushing for 2,628 yards during that season, capturing the 1988 Heisman Trophy. As the 3rd pick in the 1989 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions, Sanders was looked at as the next great running back. He wasn’t the prototypical power back that came before him like Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell or Franco Harris. He didn’t have the speed of Tony Dorsett either. What he had was the vision unlike any back before or since. His ability to take possible negative yardage plays and turn them into long TD runs with unreal jukes, spins and cuts made him must see TV. Whenever Sanders touched the ball, fans stopped what they were doing and watched him work, just in case he did something magical.
By the time 1997 rolled around, Sanders was considered one of the top backs in the league along with Emmitt Smith, Thurman Thomas and Terrell Davis. He had rushed for over 1,000 in each of his first eight seasons. In 1994, he had a shot at 2,000 yards before finishing with 1,883. That rushing total was the highest of his career until the 1997 NFL season.
Early 1997 Season Struggles
Barry Sanders start to the 1997 NFL season was not auspicious to say the least. In fact, people began questioning whether he had lost a step. In Week 2, in a head to head matchup against rookie Warrick Dunn and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sanders only rushed for 20 yards on 10 attempts in the loss, while the younger Dunn, whose running style was Sanders-esque, ran for 130. Some fans saw this as the passing of the torch. After two games, Sanders had a total of 53 yards rushing on 25 carries. The slow start didn’t last long as Sanders had other plans…historic ones.
Barry Sanders Back on Track
In Week 3, Sanders finally got rolling. He had his first 100 yard game of the season against the division rival Chicago Bears. He rushed for 161 yards on only 19 attempts as the Lions won 32-7. In Week 4, he had another 100 yard game, rushing for 113 on 18 carries. In Week 5, again Sanders broke the century mark, this time running for 139 yards against the Green Bay Packers.
Sanders looked like himself again and all the doubts went by the wayside. He was making tacklers miss left and right, turning short gains into long TD runs. Highlights of Sanders’ runs were routine again. And he kept his foot on the pedal!
In week 7, The Lions had a rematch against the Buccaneers. This time it was a different outcome across the board. Not only did the Lions pick up the road win in convincing fashion, but Sanders showed the young back Dunn he was still supreme. The Lions’ running back rushed for a season high 215 yards on 24 carries. He had two jaw dropping 80 yard TD runs (one went for 82 yards) in the 27-9 win. Sanders would eclipse the 215 yard rushing mark in Week 11 against the Indianapolis Colts, racking up 216 yards on 24 carries.
Barry Sanders Setting Records
Going into Week 16, Sanders had rushed for 100 yards in 12 straight games which was already a NFL record for most consecutive. Twelve 100 yard games in a seasons overall was a NFL record at the time held by Hall of Famer Dickerson and Barry Foster. Sanders broke the record with a 138 yard performance against the Minnesota Vikings.
Sanders Joins the 2,000 Club
In Week 17, Barry Sanders had the chance to make history once again. Like 1994, he had 2,000 yards in his sights but this time around he was knocking on the door the last game. He came into season finale at home against the New York Jets with 1,869 yards. With 131 yards needed to become the fourth back to cross the 2,000 mark at the time, he would achieve it while extending his NFL record streak of consecutive 100 yard games to 14.
With the football world watching, Sanders got off to a slow start. In fact, Sanders only had 21 yards rushing late in the third quarter. Fans learned from the start to the season that he can turn it around at any instant. True to form, Sanders burst through the line for 47 yards on the last play of the third quarter.
With just over two minutes remaining in the game and over 100 yards intact, Sanders took an inside handoff for two yards. That small gain put him at exactly 2,000 yards, the first back to do so since 1984. The record-breaking run wasn’t a typical Sanders run but it got him the mark. The very next play, Sanders sprinted through the middle of the defense, weaving through defenders for a 53 yard gain. Fans cheered as that was the type of run they were accustomed to seeing. Barry finished the game with 184 yards on 23 carries, bringing his final season total to 2,053. His remarkable season earned him Co-MVP honors with Brett Favre. Although this sensational season was 16 games, Sanders last 14 games of that season, all 100 yard games, totaled exactly 2,000 yards!