Every player has a season that defines them, and for Barry Sanders career with the Detroit Lions, that year was 1994. The events of that season are perfect examples of all the things people say about the Lions greatest player. Sanders was coming off MCL and PCL tears in his knee, injuries that likely would have ended his career a decade earlier. Nobody was entirely sure whether he would come back the same. Similar injuries had all but ended the careers of other promising running backs like Gale Sayers. He responded by putting up 1883 yards rushing, and what was at the time a career high 44 receptions.
Out of the 891 offensive plays the Detroit Lions ran, Barry Sanders touched the ball 375 times. To put that into perspective, David Johnson led the NFL in touches last season with 373, but the league is faster paced in 2016. The Cardinals ran 1086 plays. There is no modern equivalent to how much that team relied on Barry Sanders. He touched the ball on 42% of the Lions offensive snaps. He gained 43% of the team’s offensive yardage.
This was also the season that Barry Sanders carried the ball 13 times for -1 yard in the wildcard round against the Green Bay Packers. The Lions lost the game by four points with a horrendous performance from the one player they had been able to count on all year. One of Barry’s signature big plays could have easily turned the tide, but it never came. Four weeks earlier he had torn the Packers apart for 188 yards on 20 carries.
Everything good and bad about the legacy of Barry Sanders was evident in the 1994 season. He had great games, and he had terrible games. Watching the terrible games, those watching just wanted to scream “Not every carry can go for a 75-yard touchdown, get back to the damn line before you start dancing!” Watching the great games we stared at the screen in gape mouthed awe. It was the season that would forever define Barry Sanders.
In 1999 Barry Sanders walked out on the Lions just before training camp. It has been said that he was tired of carrying a team every year and that he just didn’t think there was any hope for the team to win. He decided that it wasn’t worth his time anymore. The team went after the bonus money they had recently given him on a long term contract, something that had never been done before, and won. The team went 9-7 without Sanders and made the playoffs, proving his assessment wrong. Matt Millen even reached out to Barry shortly after taking over the team, hoping to bridge the gap and bring Barry back, but there was no chance. Barry Sanders would have played for any other team, or at least any team he believed could win. The Lions have been struggling to replace him ever since.
The Effect Of The Curse In The 2000s
Now, Barry Sanders didn’t give any interviews on his way to the train station like Night Train Lane did. This curse is not that literal. With that said, every running back the Detroit Lions have drafted in the first three rounds of the draft have befallen a terrible fate. Each that was not a complete bust from day one has come into the league, flashed brilliance as a rookie, and never reached that height again.
Kevin Jones stepped in to the league as a highly touted three down back out of Virginia Tech in 2004. He ran for 1133 yards as a rookie, joining Sanders and Billy Sims as the only Lions rookie running backs to reach the 1000 yard plateau. A series of injuries, most significant of which was a broken bone in his foot that required listfranc surgery, led to Jones falling off. He never averaged four yards per carry, of reached 700 yards rushing after his rookie season.
Kevin Smith was the next man up. 2008 was a horrendous season for the Lions but one of the few bright spots was Smith’s 1262 yards from scrimmage. He managed 1162 yards from scrimmage as a sophomore but started only six more games in his career following that season.
The Curse Since 2010
Jhavid Best was among the most electrifying running backs in the history of the Detroit Lions. He took over as the team’s lead back in 2010 and gained 1047 yards from scrimmage as a rookie, before finding himself out of football after only two professional seasons. His horrifying concussion at Cal turned out to be terminal to his football career. Lions fans were starting to get used to the pattern. The highlights above (compiled by the incredible Sandman: Twitter, Youtube) make any Lions fan wonder what could have been.
Finally Mikel Leshoure’s 2012 rookie year, in which he gained 1012 total yards came. Leshoure’s blend of agility and power made him an intriguing and effective player for the Lions. His career, however, was not a long one. It was cut short by an achilles tendon rupture. He was never the same player.
A New Hope
Ameer Abdullah has the opportunity to end all that. He enters the 2017 preseason with an opportunity to re-define his career. Abdullah did not reach the lofty heights of his predecessors as a rookie. The team had some other options with Reggie Bush and Joique Bell in the backfield. When Abdullah fumbled three times in weeks five and six combined, he got benched. Abdullah managed 780 yards in 2015, despite the lack of playing time. He was also dangerous as a returner, tilting the field toward the Detroit Lions opponents every time he brought back a kick. His lack of playing time was also later revealed to be due to a shoulder issue that required surgery after the season concluded.
In 2016 the other options were gone, and Abdullah was going to be the team’s primary running back. He showed Lions fans what they might be in store for with over 100 total yards to open the season. Unfortunately he went down with a listfranc injury half way through week two. In a game and a half Abdullah gained 158 total yards. After his injury the Lions running game disappeared, and they relied on Matthew Stafford alone to fuel their offense.
What people are saying about Ameer Abdullah right now is what they were saying before his draft year. They say he has ball control issues. Fumbles plagued his early college days at Nebraska before he adjusted to the level of play. They say he is not big enough to be a three down runner at the NFL level. He has required surgeries at the conclusion of his first season, and near the beginning of his second. 2017 is the opportunity for Ameer Abdulah to define himself differently. It is the year for Ameer Abdullah to take his shot at ending the curse of Barry Sanders.
I Want My Barry Back, Barry Back, Barry Back
The Detroit Lions have successfully brought Barry Sanders back officially as their “brand ambassador” for the 2017 season. Sanders’ oldest child recently graduated from college, and all are adults. That made it the right time for him to rejoin the football world. The team entered a dark period at the running back position as his playing career concluded. Lions fans can only hope that it ends with his return to the franchise. The team has reportedly reached out to Sanders every year since his retirement, trying to bring their disgruntled legend back in to the fold. Initially they wanted him as a player, and then in any capacity in which he was willing. In 2017 he finally said yes.
In February, at the Superbowl, Sanders began talking about a potential reunion with the team. He said that he had been made to feel welcome, to feel at home. Bob Quinn and Rod Wood had been making overtures, just like all the others before them, much like everything else they have done, they simply did it better. Players like Barry Sanders should always feel at home in the places they played. If they don’t, something has gone very wrong. So wrong that it may even affect the franchise for nearly two decades. Not merely Abdullah, but the entire franchise are looking to change the narrative that defines them in 2017. Bringing back a franchise great is the first step in doing so.
What Would It Take To End The Curse?
The Detroit Lions did not bring in other options for 2017. Their running game will be completely reliant on Ameer Abdullah yet again. If he stays healthy, he will have the opportunity to become one of the NFL’s premier running backs. The only real questions are whether he will stay healthy, and whether he is capable of grasping that opportunity. There is no honest way to answer either of those questions. Abdullah has been tantalizing when on the field for the team, but the sample size is too small. The words “listfranc surgery” cause a rapid inhalation and a look of dread in anyone who follows sports injuries. Abdullah had a tear, not a break, however, giving him the best possible prognosis for a healthy return.
There are few teams in the NFL that seem willing to hand their fate over to one running back. Certainly there are none doing it to the extent that the Lions once did. Ameer Abdullah does not have to have a season that is statistically comparable to Barry Sanders 1994 in order to bury this curse for all time. He merely has to remain both healthy and effective for the Detroit Lions in 2017. By merely exceeding the statistical performance of his rookie season Ameer Abdullah can bury the curse of Barry Sanders and redefine himself.
Thanks to Sandman for his great work on the highlights.