by | Sep 8, 1989 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

If you’re looking for a guy to celebrate the good news, you’ve come to the wrong place. The way I see it, Barry Sanders signed a contract Thursday only because greed finally collided with patience and both sides figured all the blood had been scratched from the other guy’s eyes. You call that fun? You can have it.

Personally, I’m not sure which side makes me more ill. Here were the Lions,

just seven weeks ago, promising to “restore the roar.” Coach Wayne Fontes gave us his best Cheshire cat grin, and his assistants jangled the keys to their newfangled offense. Everything was supposed to be wonderful and fresh and exciting.

And today, before the season even starts, fans are already shaking their heads. The stretch offense reminds me of a paper airplane, beautiful and feathery — until somebody steps on it. And the promises of restoring a roar ring pretty cheap when you sign your backfield savior less than 72 hours before the opening kickoff.

What are we supposed to do, pat them on the back? That it took this long? That all but one of the 27 other first-round picks had to be signed before Lions management felt confident enough to offer its best money? Come on. If the Lions suddenly were able to give Sanders $6.5 million over five years and a $2.8 million annuity, where was that money until now?

They are the next-to-last team to sign their top draft pick.

They needed him in camp more than most.

They finally gave him the money that half the free world knew last month it would take.

And they had three days to the season opener.

You call that good news? Lions blew chance to win back fans

Not that Sanders is blameless. Hardly. In fact, his whole draft class seemed to believe that because school never began till September, why should an NFL career? Of the top 10 picks this year, only one was signed before the third week in August. That one, of course, was Troy Aikman (a name that has the same effect on NFL owners as scratching fingernails on a chalkboard). Aikman’s six-year, $11.037 million contract back in April blew the salary structure to smithereens. And because he was the No. 1 pick — and because Andre Rison, No. 22, also signed early for good money — the other draftees simply waited for the rich rainstorm in between.

“If you have agents telling their clients, ‘We know you’re missing camp, but wait a little longer, we’re talking big money here,’ ” said Chuck Schmidt, who handled Sanders’ contract for the Lions, “well, you can bet they’re going to listen.”

And sit. In fact, a lot of NFL clubs believe their top picks this year had no intention of signing before the last minute. Tony Mandarich, Deion Sanders, and now Barry Sanders — three of the top five, who signed this week — seem to bear that out.

And so what? That still doesn’t excuse the Lions. Sanders is new here. He doesn’t have a history of letting down the fans. The Lions’ brass had a chance to make a point, to win back the crowd.

They blew it. How can Sanders be ready to play?

What might they have done differently? Well. I would have liked to have seen them make a real offer early on — we were saying five years, $5 million back in July — put it on the table, tell Sanders that’s it, we’re not haggling, we want you in camp now. Had Sanders chosen to ignore it, fine, that only makes him look more greedy. But at least the effort would have been made. Fans could take solace in that. The Lions didn’t honestly expect to sign him for $600,000 a year, did they?

Instead, they watched their pennies. Right to the end, they waited to see what everybody else was doing. How much would Mandarich get? How much would Deion get? In business terms, they call that reactive management. It is usually a bad sign. Sure, the Lions will blame Sanders (“He wouldn’t have accepted a great offer; he’d still have wanted more”), and Sanders’ side will say if the money was there, he would have been, too, and blah, blah, blah.

The simple truth is this: Sanders has blown camp, maybe the most important camp of his career, and the Lions will be playing catch-up with him all season. And if they dare use him Sunday, they should be taken to a hospital and put in straitjackets. The man hasn’t hit anything harder than a pillow in nine months.

Yes, Fontes once claimed a “great running back only needs one day to get ready.” You bought that? Believe me. Not only should he sit out Sunday, but when and if he doesn’t live up to snuff come the third or fourth game, we’ll suddenly be hearing how “it’s tough for Barry to fit into the system this fast. He still needs time.”

And whose fault is that?

So Sanders is signed, you can clap, you can sing. I don’t want to be a party poop, but watching two greedy sides play a four-month game of chicken isn’t my idea of fun — any more than sticking a new uniform on a new player is the sign of a new approach. What I saw these past weeks is a last-place club still watching every dime, still following instead of leading, and I’m not sure where that will ever take us, except to where we’ve already been. CUTLINE Chuck Schmidt


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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