Barry Sanders, Barry Sanders stats, Barry Sanders retirement, Emmitt Smith, Jim Brown, OJ Simpson

Barry Sanders is gone forever

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Although Barry Sanders unexpectedly walked away from the game of football in 1999, rumors of his imminent return to the field continue to flourish in his absence. After all, how could a running back who needed just 1,458 more yards to pass Walter Payton for the top spot on the all-time rushing list simply turn his back on history? Why would the third man to ever run for 2,000 yards in a single season hang up his cleats at the age of 31? We refused to believe that the guy who scampered his way to a record 10 consecutive 1,000-yard seasons would call it a career so abruptly without offering much insight into his reasons. 

So every year, training camps open and fans start speculating that this is the year #20 will slap on the pads again. And yet every year, Barry Sanders remains 1,458 yards behind Payton. Even worse, he's no longer second on the rushing list, having been passed by Emmitt Smith as he climbed over Payton and claimed the record for himself.

But if Barry kept playing, Emmitt never would have gotten the record, they say. Had he not retired, Emmitt would be choking on Barry's exhaust fumes right now, they say. Barry would've gone down as the greatest running back in NFL history if he would've just finished his career, they say.

And so the same recycled rumors are scattered every spring by hopeful fans who want Sanders to break the rushing record more than Sanders himself ever wanted to. 

After taking the 1999 season off and watching the Lions improve from 5-11 to 8-8, people thought a recharged Barry would jump at the chance to chase down Payton on a playoff-contending team.

But he didn't.

When Detroit head coach Bobby Ross, who reportedly stood as one of the main reasons behind Sanders' early retirement, resigned during the 2000 season, the rumor mill stirred again -- Barry had to come back now.

But he didn't.

With a new coach in place to start the 2001 campaign, the painfully unsuccessful Marty Mornhinweg, Barry surely would be ready for a glorious return after two long years away from the game.

But he wasn't.

Mornhinweg was canned following the 2002 season and replaced by former San Francisco head coach Steve Mariucci, who immediately approached Sanders about a comeback. Clearly, he'd be swayed by the Mooch.

But he wasn't.

And now, just a few weeks ago Detroit running back James Stewart dislocated his shoulder during a preseason game against the Bills. Initial word had Stewart out for three to four weeks. Then it was six weeks. Then, upon further examination, it was the entire season. Who would replace Stewart in the Lions backfield? 

Why, Barry Sanders, of course! Man, this guy's like Elvis.

I was hopping around on an ESPN message board the other day when I ran across a post that said, "I've got it from a good source that Barry Sanders is going to come out of retirement and play for the Lions this year!"

First off, who's this guy's "good source"? One of his idiot buddies who passed on the "informed" rumor that his idiot buddy first passed on to him?

Anyway, someone responded to this "newsflash" by saying that he'd heard Sanders was coming out of retirement and immediately would be traded to the Cowboys for rookie cornerback Terence Newman, the fifth overall pick in this year's draft.

Look, let's make this clear: Barry Sanders ain't coming back. I promise you. I don't need one of my "good sources" to tell me that. He's done. He'll never play in the NFL again. 

Honestly, why would he? He'd have absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose if he attempted any sort of comeback.

It's common knowledge that most running backs start to fade once they reach 30 years of age. NFL history is positively littered with elite backs whose bodies simply begin to wear down around their 30th birthdays because of the constant pounding they've been taking on the football field.

Clearly, this isn't any sort of steadfast rule -- a 30-year-old Payton rumbled for 1,684 yards and then went for 1,551 and 1,333 the next two years. Some running backs just handle the grueling wear and tear better than others. But consider these examples:

OJ Simpson
Age 26: 2003 rushing yards, 6.0 yards/carry
Age 27: 1125 yards, 4.2 yards/carry
Age 28: 1817 yards, 5.5 yards/carry
Age 29: 1503 yards, 5.2 yards/carry
Age 30: 557 yards, 4.4 yards/carry
Age 31: 593 yards, 3.7 yards/carry
Age 32: 460 yards, 3.8 yards/carry

Franco Harris
Age 27: 1162 rushing yards, 3.9 yards/carry
Age 28: 1082 yards, 3.5 yards/carry
Age 29: 1186 yards, 4.4 yards/carry
Age 30: 789 yards, 3.8 yards/carry
Age 31: 987 yards, 4.1 yards/carry
Age 32: 604 yards, 4.3 yards/carry (9 games)
Age 33: 1007 yards, 3.6 yards/carry
Age 34: 170 yards, 2.5 yards/carry (8 games)

Tony Dorsett
Age 27: 1646 rushing yards, 4.8 yards/carry
Age 28: 745 yards, 4.2 yards/carry (9 games)
Age 29: 1321 yards, 4.6 yards/carry
Age 30: 1189 yards, 3.9 yards/carry
Age 31: 1307 yards, 4.3 yards/carry
Age 32: 748 yards, 4.1 yards/carry
Age 33: 456 yards, 3.5 yards/carry
Age 34: 703 yards, 3.9 yards/carry

Eric Dickerson
Age 27: 1288 rushing yards, 4.6 yards/carry
Age 28: 1659 yards, 4.3 yards/carry
Age 29: 1311 yards, 4.2 yards/carry
Age 30: 677 yards, 4.1 yards/carry
Age 31: 536 yards, 3.2 yards/carry
Age 32: 729 yards, 3.9 yards/carry
Age 33: 91 yards, 3.5 yards/carry (4 games)

Thurman Thomas
Age 27: 1315 rushing yards, 3.7 yards/carry
Age 28: 1093 yards, 3.8 yards/carry
Age 29: 1005 yards, 3.8 yards/carry
Age 30: 1033 yards, 3.7 yards/carry
Age 31: 643 yards, 4.2 yards/carry
Age 32: 381 yards, 4.1 yards/carry
Age 33: 152 yards, 4.2 yards/carry (5 games)
Age 34: 136 yards, 4.9 yards/carry (9 games)

Like Dorsett and Thomas, some backs held strong in their 30th-birthday seasons. But while guys like Dorsett and Ricky Watters delivered 1,000-yard campaigns after the big three-oh, their superb play didn't last much longer. Meanwhile, so many others watched their numbers suffer the instant they slid out of their 20s; hell, guys like Terrell Davis and Jerome Bettis couldn't even make it to 30 before their bodies quit.

That 30-year mark is merely a convenient gauge -- some guys excel beyond it, some disappear before it. But it's a useful indicator nonetheless, especially as we watch current workhorses like Eddie George and Curtis Martin creep up on 30 just as their numbers begin to sag.

I'd be surprised if the then 31-year-old Sanders hadn't started to feel the effects from that post-30 hangover when he announced his retirement. True, he gouged another 1,491 yards out of opposing defenses the year before, but amazingly that marked his lowest end-of-year total since 1993 while his 4.3 yards/carry average matched his career low set in 1992.

Maybe the end wasn't too far off for Barry Sanders. And maybe he knew it.

So tell me why, at the age of 35, would Sanders even dream of coming back now? Better yet, let's ignore his age for a moment. After a four-year coffee break, how much rust do you think even somebody as great as Sanders would have to sandblast off before he could actually take the field? Come on -- he'd practically be pushing 40 before he'd be in game shape again.

But in my mind, the biggest reason we'll never see Barry Sanders back on the football field is the preservation and, more important, the enhancement of his legacy.

On the surface, it's easy to see how a 35-year-old Sanders would chip away at the reputation that the 25-year-old Sanders built during his decade-long NFL career. How often do we see guys hang around a bit too long, either trying to attain personal achievement or simply hoping to delay the inevitable? 

Charles Barkley did it. Cal Ripken did it. Dan Marino did it. Emmitt Smith's doing it right now.

But this goes a bit deeper than the negative effect a comeback would have on Sanders' lasting image. Instead, let's focus on the positive effect his early exit had on his reputation.

Ask anybody to list history's top running backs and you'll hear many familiar names: Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, Jim Brown, OJ Simpson, Tony Dorsett and, yes, Barry Sanders, among many others. 

But evaluating the careers of Payton, Smith, OJ and Dorsett is much easier than evaluating the careers of Sanders and Brown. Why? Because Payton, Smith, OJ and Dorsett carried their respective careers out to the very last yard, wringing every ounce of production they could out of their days in the NFL.

Sanders and Brown, on the other hand, they were different. They both still had handoffs to take, first downs to gain, touchdowns to score. Their final lines are magnificent: 15,269 yards and 99 touchdowns for Sanders; 12,312 yards and 106 TDs for Brown.

But clearly they could've been better. How much better, though, is where the debate lies. And chances are, because the images that we have stored in our own mental video libraries, the images that we're constantly shown on highlight reels, feature Sanders and Brown in the primes of their careers, what we envision them accomplishing after their premature retirements is likely much more glorious than what actually would've ensued had they chosen to play on into their mid-30s.

In short, the legacies of both Sanders and Brown are augmented by the unknown. We look at their places in NFL history now and shake our heads, saying, "What if?" Sanders could've hit the 20,000-yard mark... and he still could've been a couple hundred yards short of Brown.

By leaving the game at such an early age, not only will Barry Sanders and Jim Brown be measured by what they accomplished on the football field, they'll also be measured by what many feel they would have accomplished if they'd kept playing. Sanders could've run for 900 yards in 1999 if he hadn't retired, but we'll never know. Instead, it would've been another magnificent 1,500-yard campaign in the minds of most fans.

The sports world is a massive jumble of numbers, and most athletes are judged by what picture their own statistics paint of them once they move on. 

But Sanders and Brown will forever be remembered as running backs who were even greater than their stats illustrate. Why would somebody voluntarily give that up?

We've seen superstars like Mario Lemeiux and Michael Jordan return from retirement before, but when Barry Sanders said he was finished four years ago, he meant it. It's time for everybody to finally accept that and move on.

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