The first thing I saw when I entered the Silverdome parking lot Sunday night was a Lions fan leaning against his car. He had a bag over his head.
This was not an encouraging sign. As headgear goes, the bag rates low on the sports list, behind the rainbow wig, the big piece of cheese, and the beer cans with plastic sucking straws. Still, I had to wonder how many fans would be there at all — including Mr. Baghead — if Barry Sanders were not on the team.
Which brings me to this new altruism toward Sanders. It’s going around. You hear it. On radio shows. On TV shows. In newspapers. You know. The idea that, since he is a nice guy, a tremendous talent, and this team is going nowhere, the Lions should trade him. Give him his freedom. Send him to a winner.
To which I say: Sure. And Sunday we’d have had eight people in the stands, and every one would be wearing a bag.
Sorry, Barry-lovers, but pro football is a business. That’s why they hand out paychecks instead of milk and cookies. And as long as Sanders is the biggest draw on the team, the largest mover of merchandise, and the single best reason you should go see a game in this era, the Lions would be crazy to trade him.
Would you if you owned this team?
That’s just Barry being Barry
On Sunday night, Barry was hurt. His ribs were bruised. They left him wincing after contact. You could see how even breathing brought a shiver of pain. This, for Sanders, was not a good night to work in a contact sport — especially on a team that had two wins and seven losses.
But here was Sanders, in typical fashion, racking up another 100-plus yard game, offering excitement on even the most routine plays. On his first carry, he scooted right for seven yards. On his second carry, he went left for 14 yards. The whole time, fans were shaking their heads in amazement.
He made simple plays complex and complex plays simple. On one first down, he went left, cut back right, lost the ball, turned around and picked it up, then shot up the middle for six yards. It brought a roar of approval from the Silverdome crowd. How many times does a fumble do that?
“Hey, he almost broke it for a touchdown!” laughed quarterback Charlie Batch after the game. “I mean, he shot out like a cannon. That’s just Barry being Barry.”
Barry being Barry. All night long, he did the blue-collar work. In fact, the only part of the offense he wasn’t involved in was the scoring. Four times, he helped get the Lions to first-and-goal, then backed off while fullback Tommy Vardell or kicker Jason Hanson scored the points. On one of those touchdowns, Barry came back to throw a block to free Vardell for the score. He shakes. He bakes. He blocks?
Yes. And all night, fans yelled, “Barry! Barry!”
This is the guy they want to trade?
Sorry, but no way. It is not the Ford family’s job to say, “Barry, we stink, you’re great, go seek your fortune somewhere else.” It is their job to say,
“You’re great, we’re not, we need to bring the rest of the team up to your level.”
And don’t tell me how trading Barry for five draft choices would somehow ensure a brighter future for the Lions. Come on. Would you trust this front office with five draft choices? Based on what? Chuck Long? Andre Ware? Ryan McNeil?
No. This is a business, an entertainment business, and Barry is your big name on the marquee. He is the reason the Lions get scheduled on Sunday and Monday nights. He is the jersey that kids want to wear, the only Lion with a true national draw.
You have an asset like that, there’s something wrong if you give up on it.
If it happened, it should be his call
Which doesn’t mean it won’t give up on you. There may come a time where the repeated failures of the Lions will lead Sanders to say, “Sorry, I’m out of time. I need to get to a winner before I retire.” But if that happens, it should be Barry’s decision, not the Lions’.
Personally, I’m not so sure it will happen. Barry has four years left on his contract, including the option year, which would make him 34 before free agency called. He could ask for a trade, maybe hold out and demand one, but blockbuster trades are hard to pull off in this salary cap era of the NFL.
Besides, he would want to go to a Super Bowl-contending team, and those teams don’t often have high first-round draft picks to give up. Nor are they likely to trade star players for Sanders, who is the type of back that requires a reorganization of your blocking schemes, your game plans, and your normal reliance on your running back to convert third-and-1.
Meanwhile, here was Barry on Sunday night, in another meaningless game, still chugging with less than eight minutes to go and the Lions leading by 20. He took a handoff and rocketed around left end, outrunning the defenders, picking up a first down.
And that wasn’t the most impressive part: Fans who were walking up the aisles, heading for their cars, suddenly stopped and wheeled around. They knew that sound. They knew it meant Barry might be doing something, and they’d be fools to miss it.
Sorry, altruists, but when you have an treasure like that, you milk it, you nurture it, you market it and you celebrate it. You don’t trade it. Not unless you want to wear a bag the rest of your life.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. He will sign “Tuesdays With Morrie,” noon-1 p.m. Nov. 27 at Barnes & Noble in Bloomfield Hills and 1-2 p.m. Nov. 28 at Borders in Novi.