The Lions played the kind of game Sunday I’d like to tape and show my grandchildren. Unfortunately, I don’t have grandchildren. And by the time I do, they’ll be playing football on the moon, so who cares?
Instead, maybe I’ll send a copy to a certain agent down in Atlanta, a guy named David Ware, who has been making noise about his client, Barry Sanders.
Ware should see this tape. He should see how the defense forced fumbles, how the special teams scored points and how the quarterback rifled touchdown passes. He should see it because the bottom line is his guy is not the only guy on this team. As great as he is, Barry Sanders cannot win by himself.
And Ware might not realize this. Last week, he said he was angry with the Lions’ latest “bottom line” offer — even though the offer is to rip up Barry’s current contract and make a new one. Most of us have to reach the end of our deals before we get new ones. In football, you just expect they’ll redo you.
Fine. Lucky them. But not only was Ware unhappy with the offer — which, according to the Lions, would make Barry the highest-paid running back in the NFL — but Ware issued an ultimatum: Make the money right (and “right” was rumored to be $18 million for four years) or else Barry declares himself a free agent.
This, by the way, would be like me declaring myself Mel Gibson. I’d like to be Mel Gibson. But I cannot be Mel Gibson. And Barry cannot be a free agent next season — unless he sues. He still has an option year with the Lions.
I asked Barry about this after the game.
“My lawyer said we’d explore other options,” Sanders explained, “he didn’t say I’d be a free agent.”
Sorry, but he did say that.
“Well, he didn’t tell me that.”
Doesn’t he work for you?
“Oh, yeah. But he meant we’d explore other options.”
What other options?
“I dunno. I could go back to school. I could go to Timbuktu. There’s always options.” Is NFL expanding to Timbuktu?
Now, while I’m sure Barry would make a fine student — and they’d love him in Timbuktu — my guess is he’ll play football next year. For the Lions. They just need to work this out.
So again, I suggest Mr. Ware look at the tape from Sunday’s game, a game which was won by the entire Detroit team. Barry played a nice part, yes. He had 101 yards on 22 carries. But the defense was terrific. It swarmed Seattle, forcing fumbles, interceptions and sacks.
And the special teams did some job. Mel Gray raced 95 yards for a kickoff-return touchdown.
And this week’s quarterback, Rodney Peete, threw two touchdown passes and actually ran up the middle for a 28-yard gain. I thought the only time Lions quarterbacks ran like that was when they saw William Clay Ford coming.
Still, in a perfect world — or even last year’s world — I’d say give Barry the keys to the vault. He’s a star blessed with talent. Everybody loves him.
But this is not a perfect world, nor last year’s world. This is the NFL with a salary cap looming next year that could be $33 million to $39 million. Either way, according to chief operating officer Chuck Schmidt, the Lions are already over that.
So suddenly the rules are changed: You give one player the keys to the vault, it means you’re locking out someone else. This, by the way, was something the players voted for. They wanted it.
They got it. The Lions say they need to keep money available for a star-quality quarterback, but it’s more than that. They need money for star-quality linemen (some of these guys are getting $2 million a year now) and star-quality receivers and star-quality defensive players. Free agency will make all great players more expensive.
And in a real way, Barry’s superstar status depends on getting that kind of talent. Barry needs teammates — good ones
This is what happens when all you have is Barry Sanders as a weapon: You hand him the ball and four defenders are snorting breakfast breath in his face.
It happened all last year. It still happens. Take Sunday. The first four times Sanders touched the ball he went for minus-2, minus-1, minus-2 and 2 yards. Why? Because the defense was just waiting for him. Barry is a gifted runner. But even he can’t knock over 11 people by himself. If he could, the Lions would have won the Super Bowl by now.
The best boost for Sanders is an offense that has other threats — and that includes a big-time quarterback. If the Lions try to acquire one, it’ll cost a lot. And if Peete fills the role and takes them to the playoffs, well, he’s a free agent after this season. Other teams will want him. And his price will go up.
Ware says Barry should be “the fourth or fifth highest-paid in the league.” Not running back, player. That includes all the quarterbacks. I asked
Sanders to compare the value of runner versus passer.
“It depends,” he said. “This isn’t a track and field meet. My job is directly tied to other players.”
Exactly. Only now, those players are tied together on the field and at the bank. That’s what a salary cap does.
Should Barry be the highest-paid running back in the NFL? Absolutely. But can you say the sky’s the limit? Can you say, in this new fiscal era, that you want “quarterback money” simply because you’re the best thing your team has?
Only if you’re prepared to play two positions. And if Barry can do that, he’s even greater than I thought.