FOOD FOR THOUGHT: LIONS MISUSE SANDERS

Barry Sanders eats by his locker. Carrot sticks and oranges. I remember when he ate Big Macs. I remember when he ate two giant chocolate chip cookies that he mooched from Jim Arnold. To me, it looks as if Barry has changed his diet.

“You’re eating health food now?” I say.

He smiles and squeezes an orange section through his teeth. ”Not necessarily. You just caught me on an off-day.”

Well. That seems to be the topic of the week, doesn’t it? Barry’s off-days? Those days like last Sunday, when he gained just 35 yards all afternoon — and got stuffed far too often? Why do they happen? How can the best back in football be stopped so completely? Why do we keep asking this question year after year after year?

Personally, I don’t think Barry Sanders ever has an off-day. He is electric, lightning in a bottle, he leaves tacklers in the dust before they know they’re on the road. He almost never fumbles. He’s almost never hurt. He doesn’t stay out late or do drugs or drink. He’s always in shape and he never gripes or mopes. So how could he have an off-day? It seems impossible.

Now, the blockers in front of him? And the coaching staff behind him? I think they have off-days. And that’s where those bleak rushing numbers come from. Between bad schemes, lack of adjustments, ineffective blocks and no counterattack, games like last Sunday’s are entirely possible.

And here we go again.

“Doesn’t it seem like we’re doing the same story over and over?” I ask Barry. “What’s the right way to handle you? How many carries? How many passes?”

He bites another carrot stick. He grins. “Maybe.”

All that health food must put him in a generous frame of mind. Nobody does it better

Look. Football is a simple game. Each side has 11 players. If the defense puts eight of those players on Barry Sanders — as some have done — that means only three are left to cover the rest of the offense. And since that offense has at least two receivers and a tight end who can catch the ball, and since those people are hard to cover one-on-one, you would figure the offense would always have an advantage, right?

“I’ll go along with that,” Sanders says. “We should have scored more points Sunday.”

Or, as offensive tackle Lomas Brown puts it: “Every time they put eight guys up to stop Barry, we should be hitting Herman Moore with a touchdown pass.”

Oh, if it were only that easy. Instead, Moore caught just four passes Sunday against the Vikings, only one for a touchdown. And Barry carried only 13 times. And the TV announcers spent much of the day saying, “Why aren’t they giving the ball to Sanders?”

Funny. They said the same thing last year.

Yes, it’s true. Minnesota, at home, just seems to have the Lions’ number — even though the Lions now have the Vikings’ defensive line coach and one of their best defensive linemen.

But it’s not just Minnesota. The fact is, over the years, Sanders has been a Rubik’s Cube to Wayne Fontes and his coaching staffs. Sometimes they get all the colors lined up, and things work fine, and other times, they completely miscalculate. Rarely has a running back with this kind of skill been as much of a puzzle to his coaches.

“I don’t get it, he’s not the first superstar in the NFL,” Brown says.
“How did the Bears do it with Walter Payton? When he was there, he was pretty much their only threat. I’m sure other teams were gunning for him. But he usually got his yards.

“Same goes for Emmitt with the Cowboys. He gets his yards and everyone knows what a threat he is. Sure they have Michael Irvin to throw to, but we have Herman Moore.”

These are good points. I pose them to Barry. I ask why is it that guys such as Emmitt Smith and Thurman Thomas — who are no better than Sanders — always seem to get at least a couple yards a carry, while Barry sometimes is swarmed into zero or negative yards.

He sucks down another orange section. “Mmmmm,” he slurps. “Are you sure about those numbers?”

I say I don’t have them in front of me. So I go home and check them out. And here is what I find: Lies, damn lies and statistics

Comparing Barry in his first two weeks to Smith of the Cowboys and Thomas of the Bills — widely considered the cream of the backfield — we find the following:
* Number of times he carried for zero or negative yards: Sanders, 10 times; Smith, five times; Thomas, five times.
* Percentage of carries that were for zero or negative yardage: Sanders, 29 percent; Thomas, 13 percent; Smith, 10 percent.
* Total yards: Smith, 277; Sanders 143; Thomas 137.

So what does this suggest? That Barry gets stopped more often, but makes up for it with a few big bursts? That Dallas and Buffalo have better offensive lines? Or that it’s only the second week of the season?

Sanders doesn’t seem too upset. “It was worse when I first got here,” he says. “There are things we could do that would get me more yards, but it would involve a lot of changes.”

So? I say, do them. Get more creative. Sweeps. Different kinds of screens. Play-actions. Delays. Something.

“Shouldn’t a guy with your talent be a mystery to the opposing team — and not his own?”

Barry takes another bite and smiles.

They say carrots improve your vision.

I think the wrong guy is eating them.

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