Trying to compare NFL players across different eras is a dicey proposition.
It’s like how the Oscars have only one best picture category, regardless of genre. Sorry, comedy. Borat was head and shoulders above any of the 2007 Best Picture nominees (Little Miss Sunshine, how much quirkiness can you fit into 90 minutes?), but didn’t get a single nod. Borat was 3,000 times harder to pull off than The Queen, no offense to Helen Mirren.
There are too many variables in football; it’s impossible to conclude how Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown would have fared in today’s NFL. Players are at the mercy of their environment: their coaches, teammates, system, city, GM…health. Sports are the part of life designed to eliminate the “what if’s”. Two teams face off, the better one wins. Simple. But football is complex, with so many moving parts we’re still left with hundreds of questions.
Jerry Rice had Joe Montana. Michael Irving had Troy Aikman. How effective would Marvin Harrison have been without Peyton Manning? What are the last five years of Larry Fitzgerald’s career like if he doesn’t downgrade from Kurt Warner to Derek Anderson, Kevin Kolb, John Skeleton and Ryan Lindley? How different is Warner’s career if he isn’t sold out by the St. Louis Rams? Was Bill Parcells a genius, or just lucky? What if Bo Jackson played 15 years later when sports medicine would have had a better grasp on his freak hip injury?
Too many questions. But, hey, it’s the questions that fuel the arguments. The arguments keep columnists and talking heads employed and the 24-hour sports news cycle from falling off a cliff.
There’s only one player in NFL history with no question marks, one player who left no doubt. He defied the elements that challenged his peers. He would have succeeded regardless of the system or coach or environment or era: Barry Sanders, the greatest football player of all time. Period.
His agility was unprecedented. His running style was breathtaking. His acceleration was effortless. He changed direction at will. His eyes were lightning rods. He made NFL defenders look clumsy. Sanders was too good for the NFL. It was as if he was mistakenly recruited by Kent State instead of USC. I could spend another three pages waxing on, or, you could just watch this . It says everything. No one has come close to Sanders. He remains untouchable.
Yet, his career represents its own behemoth “what if?” He ran for over 1,300 yards in nine of his 10 seasons, including a four-year stretch in which he topped 1,500 yards. He was an iron man, missing a grand total of seven games in his career.
But Sanders abruptly retired in 1999, still in his prime at the age of 31, and only 1,457 yards off Walter Payton’s career rushing record. The same record that Emmitt Smith broke three years later.
Why did Sanders leave? A few years ago, this is what he told the NFL Network:
"I understood full well who Walter Payton was, what he accomplished," Sanders said. "Not just Walter Payton, with all the guys that had tried to do what Walter did. The record for me wasn't important enough to force myself to stay around to try to get the record."
How could that not be important? Breaking the career rushing yards record for a running back is the football equivalent of the career home run record to a slugger. Can you imagine a steroid-infused Barry Bonds quitting baseball just 25 home runs short of Hank Aaron? Sanders was humble and non-effacing about his accomplishments. In a way, his disregard for the record added to his lore.
The Lions haven't won a championship since 1957, prior to the AFL/NFL merger. They're the only NFC team to never play in a Super Bowl. It’s been 23 seasons since they won a playoff game, a drought matched only by the Bengals of Cincinnati (24 years). Their last playoff win came during the 1991 season, when they made it to the NFC title game. Sanders dragged them to four more playoff appearances, but no wins.
Maybe the Lions’ futility left Sanders emotionally spent. It weighed on him, grated on him. Sanders couldn’t shake it and eventually it became too much. Unlike LeBron, there was no Miami Heat to flee to.
It looked like the Lions might finally snap the drought in their Wildcard tilt with the Cowboys in January. Heavy road underdogs and up three midway through the fourth quarter, the Lions were in full control before getting gypped by that pass interference call that never was. The tide turned. The Cowboys rallied. The status quo was restored.
There’s something sad about how the Sanders departure and the Lions’ subsequent failures mirrored the economic struggles of their city. As Anthony Bourdain discovered, a post-2008 Detroit was crippled by a changing economy, leaving once burgeoning factories empty and neighborhoods run-down and decrepit. The franchise somehow reflected that sadness.
Recently, Sanders appeared in that “no rings” commercial with Karl Malone, LaDanian Tomlinson and Chris Webber. It left me a little melancholy. The city of Detroit deserves a title, and no one deserved to give it to them more than Sanders. Instead they were awarded with the likes of Matt Millen and Joey Harrington, the injury riddled Megatron, the antics of Ndamukong Suh and the streaky Matt Stafford.
There's no wonder, then, that Detroit fans were thrilled when they saw this in the preseason. Ameer Abdullah's play garnered these words from Mr. Sanders: "He's a big-play player." That's the highest form of praise a second-round rookie could ever expect.
It didn't take Abdullah long Sunday to emulate his preseason magic. He capped the Lions opening drive with a sensational fake out of Eric Weddle on his way to a 24-yard touchdown, on his first NFL carry. He almost broke a kickoff return for a TD later in the first quarter. He finished the game with 50 yards rushing on only 7 carries, and another four catches for 44 yards. It didn't matter that head coach Jim Caldwell listed him third on the depth chart behind Joique Bell and Theo Riddick.
For two decades Lions fans have been patiently waiting for the next Barry Sanders, if there is such a thing. Maybe they've finally found him. Who knows?
After watching Abdullah, Charger fans were probably asking themselves this question: Why did San Diego trade up for Melvin Gordon (No. 15 overall), when it could have stolen Abdullah in the second round? Gordon was mildly efficient in his own right, rushing for 51 yards on 14 carries,and catching three passes for 16 yards in his NFL debut. On a 21-yard TD run, he made an unbelievable spin move to stay on his feet. The run was called back on a dubious review because his forearm supposedly touched the grass.
"I don't know if I slowed it down in my head cause we watched so much film... It really didn't seem to fast," Gordon said of the speed of his first NFL regular season game.
Hindsight is 20/20, I guess. But didn't the Cleveland Browns trade up to get Trent Richardson, and how did that work out? When should you ever trade up for a running back?
The makers of Fantastic Four had a better opening weekend than the Chargers in the first half Sunday. Midway through the second, the Lions were up 21-3 and this had the feel of a blowout.
The Chargers opened well, but were plagued with bad luck. In the early second quarter, Philip Rivers' pass to Keenan Allen bounced off Allen's chest and into the waiting hands of Lions free safety Glover Quin, who returned it for a pick-six.
With 12 seconds to go in the half and the Chargers down 21-10 with a first and goal, Rivers was picked again trying to force a throw to Malcom Floyd in the corner of the end zone.
Then came the second half, an explosion of offense. Rivers hit eight different receivers Sunday in a balanced attack. After Keenan's pick-six snafu, he redeemed himself, finishing with career highs in catches (15) and yards (166).
"When you hear a play call, and it gets to third down, I just get fired up, I get a lot of energy," Allen said.
"We know we spread it to everybody, but we know we like to push it to him in times," Rivers said.
Veteran Stevie Johnson, signed as a free agent to replace the departed Eddie Royal, had six catches for 82 yards and a TD, reminding everyone why he had three straight 1,000 yard seasons in Buffalo. Ladarius Green, in place of suspended Antonio Gates, finally delivered on his promise, finishing with five catches for 74 yards and a TD.
Rivers had time to throw behind a new-look offensive line that saw D.J. Fluker moved to right guard, and placed free agent signings Joe Barksdale at right tackle and Orlando Franklin at left guard. Rivers was sacked only twice and finished 35 for 42 with 404 yards and two TDs.
Then there was Danny Woodhead, who missed most of last season with a fractured ankle. Woodhead had 20 yards receiving and 44 yards rushing, including a one-yard touchdown run that sealed the game late in the fourth.
The Bolts' defensive backs were exceptional, holding Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate to a combined six catches for 68 yards. The Chargers may have found a gem in rookie fifth round linebacker Kyle Emanuel, who started in place of Jerry Attaochu, out with a hamstring injury. Emanuel had a dream game. In the second quarter, he sacked Stafford on third down for a 13-yard loss. He followed it up in the third quarter by catching the interception caused when Melvin Ingram hit Stafford on a throw.
"In the NFL, when you get a chance you've got to make the most of it... The interception was all Melvin, I was just able to make a play on the ball," Emanuel said.
Like last year, though, there were some puzzling game management issues. On the opening drive of the second half, facing a 4th and 1 on Detroit's seven-yard line and down 21-10, head coach Mike McCoy opted for a 25-yard field goal. McCoy was conservative last year, and seemed to be following that trend now.
Then, after the Chargers scored a TD to cut the lead to 21-19 on a 12-yard pass to Stevie Johnson, McCoy attempted an extra point instead of going for two.
When the Chargers took a 26-21 lead on a Ladarius Green 13-yard TD catch, McCoy lined the Chargers up for a two point conversion. However, there was some confusion on the line and the Chargers got called for a false start. Josh Lambo missed the extra point.
McCoy was partially saved because Stafford, Megatron & Co. were too offensively dismal to take advantage of his conservative play calling. However, those mistakes nearly caught up with the Chargers in the final minute of the fourth.
With just over a minute left, Stafford hit Theo Riddick for a 21-yard TD to cut the Chargers lead to 33-28. The Lions were unable to recover the onside kick.
However, if they had, the Lions would have been left with plenty of time to march down and score the winning TD. The missed extra point and McCoy's risk-averse style on the two point conversions could have lead to a monumental collapse.
The Chargers have the tools, they just need to hope McCoy doesn't make those same in-game mistakes in Cincinnati next week in a game that could potentially decide playoff seeding down the road.
"When we can go through this type of adversity early on with young guys, with guys we've signed in free agency in the offseason, we can experience it together," Rivers said. "Really, it becomes real what we talk about all the time, about fighting together and sticking together and being tough."
-- Follow Faris Tanyos on Twitter @OnlyFairchild.