With the newest Oakland Raider, Marshawn Lynch, just days away from continuing his football career, one year after retiring, one can only imagine what would have been if another great back was given the same option so many years ago.
What If Barry Sanders Had Unretired?
July 27, 1999
On this day, Barry Sanders announced to the world he would retire at the peak of his career. Everyone was shocked, not even his closest family and friends knew why or how he came to his decision. Over time we would eventually find out that Barry, just like Calvin Johnson, was tired of the Detroit Lions not putting forth a winning team around him. He wanted to be free of his contract to join a contender, but was denied, leaving him with few options, and the best being to retire. But what if Barry was let out of his contract?
We’ll soon find out when Marshawn takes the field. Barry and Marshawn aren’t the same types of players, but this finally gives us a glimpse into what could have been if one of the greatest running backs ever was allowed to play for the team he wanted during the prime of his career, just one year after retiring.
Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City Chiefs finished the 1999 season with a 9-7 record, 2nd in their division, and relied on their fullback, Tony Richardson for every game while they split the load for games started between their actual running backs; they were clearly looking for a sole rusher to lead the team. In a division whose leader had a 9-7 record, Barry could have done well in pushing this team into a real championship contender. Instead of a respectable 9 win season with a mediocre rushing attack, they could have been a multiple game winning team with a great back and title contender.
The New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens, Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks, and St. Louis Rams all desperately need a running game and selected a running back in the first round of the 2000 season. But if any of those teams were willing to forego a high draft selection on an unproven rookie in place of having the future Hall of Famer Sanders, which team would have been a good fit?
Of the above teams mentioned, the best fit would have been the Ravens. The previous season, they proved their defensive capabilities but were struggling offensively. They finished the 1999 season with an okay 8-8 record, in huge part to their rushing leader having less than 900 yards. The passing game was also a hindrance, with only a 6.2-yard average pass for the 3 quarterbacks that started throughout the season. But even with their offensive struggles, the defense was stellar ranking 6th during 1999.
Barry had been on a team in which he was the sole offensive threat, with little to no defense behind him. So although he would have again been the only offensive weapon, he would have at least had a defense he could rely on to not only stop the other team but also score.
By adding Barry, he would have provided an immediate rushing attack, so the team’s biggest liability would have been just the passing game instead of both. Fortunately for the Ravens, they seemed to realize this as they selected Jamal Lewis with the fifth overall pick and won a Super Bowl that very same season. The eventual champs would have been a really good fit as they had an average QB and needed to heavily rely on their running game.
Before head coach Jimmy Johnson left, Sanders’ agent made headlines by announcing that his client would be interested in joining the Miami Dolphins. At the time Jimmy Johnson and Dan Marino’s futures with the team were in question, but Barry didn’t care whether either were on the team or not, he liked the Florida area and the organization; Miami was always a real possibility. So what would that have looked like?
Right after Miami lost its head coach and starting quarterback, the team’s season ended with an impressive 11-5 record, finishing first in their division. They won their wildcard game but were shut out in the divisional round. For a budding team to not only just make the playoffs but to accomplish it after losing their future Hall of Fame quarterback and coach is impressive.
They accomplished this feat with a mediocre quarterback, Jay Fiedler, who had a TD to interception ratio of 1:1. Their starting RB Lamar Smith rushed for about 1,139 yards, the most rushing yards he ever had in his entire career. In every season of his career except for one, Sanders eclipsed the 1,300-yard mark. The sole season he didn’t was the 1993 season in which he ran for 1,115 yards in 11 games, missing 5 games that season due to a knee injury.
We can only imagine the numbers a premiere back like Barry Sanders would have been able to put up behind the same offensive line.
So as Marshawn takes the field again this season, think back to what could have been as Beast Mode gets a second chance that others have not. Now we can see, perhaps, how it will finally end if only Sanders were allowed the same opportunity.