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Barry Sanders was the king of rushes... both positive and negative

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With Barry, you always took the good with the bad.

Minnesota Vikings vs Detroit Lions - October 6, 1991 Photo by Betsy Peabody Rowe/Getty Images

It’s “Who Remembers...?” week across the SB Nation NFL platforms, so our own Mike Payton decided to reminisce about the greatest Detroit Lions player of all time... but in a different way.

Some of my favorite articles that I’ve written started from a tweet. That tweet always involves some kind of narrative that leads me on this giant plunge into Stat Land where I stare at a computer screen for two days while I compile stats to prove that person wrong. It’s all part of the hyper focus feature of my ADHD. It’s a blessing and a curse. Unfortunately that didn’t happen today.

This past Tuesday was Lions legend Barry Sanders birthday. As we do every year, we light up Twitter with highlight videos and talk about the good old days while making the required comments about how nobody will ever be as good as Sanders was on the field. We’ve all made these comments. I made two. Including this one.

As I was wading through the dumb Saquon Barkley related responses I came across the one that sent me down this spiral of statistics and is the root cause of me writing this article. Here it is.

This really got me thinking a lot. I was just a kid when Barry was playing. I look back on all the incredible highlights that produce fond memories even to this day and think maybe I missed something. Maybe Barry’s incredible highs masked some pretty bad lows.

It made me wonder if Lions fans were looking at Barry with rose colored glasses. I started to think about how we look at Babe Ruth as a home run king and completely ignore that he struck out 1,331 times. Or the way football fans hold Brett Favre up in such high regard despite him throwing more interceptions than any quarterback in football history. Seriously. It’s an unbeatable record. He threw 336. The closest currently active player to him is 37-year-old Eli Manning with 239.

I had to find the answers. So I got onto the internet and went to my old friend Pro-Football-Reference. I proceeded to stare at that for two days and now I have some answers. We’ll get to those in just a moment. First, I have to tell you that PFR’s play-by-play stats only go back to the 1994 season. There was no way to find play-by-play stats for the previous seasons before that. So what you’ll see here is 1994 through 1998. The sample size is pretty good though.

What I found is that we did in fact look at Barry’s career with rose colored glasses. Now this of course doesn’t mean that Barry Sanders isn’t the greatest of all time. I’ll fight that fight with everyone any day of the week. Twice on Sunday. But what we found is that Barry left a lot of yards on the table. Here’s what we found from 1994 to 1998. This is the amount of runs he had that went for no gain and all his negative rushing yards of this time period combined.

No Gains and Negative Yardage

No Gain Negative Yards
No Gain Negative Yards
27 139
36 111
24 109
24 96
34 159
145 614

This is a lot. Barry ran for no gain 145 times in five seasons and left 614 yards on the table when he ran backwards. It’s pretty clear that Barry wasn’t completely unstoppable. There were probably also times where Barry tried to do too much and it cost the team some yards.

I thought surely this was a normal thing. So I tried to do a little comparison with a current day running back to see if maybe I got find something similar. Ezekiel Elliot led all running backs in rushing last year, and he only had 22 runs go for no gain. What’s more staggering is that he only left 50 yards on the table all together. That’s almost half of what Barry’s best year was in this category.

What’s worse yet is that according to NFL Films (as of 2012) Barry actually holds the record for most yards lost by a running back in a career with 1,114 yards. That’s a lot. If you add that to Barry’s total career rushing yards he would have been just 344 yards away from breaking Walter Payton’s record and maybe he would have stayed an extra year. Maybe even two. Who knows?

Don’t let this get you down. Barry’s positive stuff far outweighs the bad. Take a look at those 1994 through 1998 numbers against the full numbers that Barry produced in that time.

Full Barry Sanders Stats

Year Attempts Yards TD's No Gain Negative Yards
Year Attempts Yards TD's No Gain Negative Yards
1994 331 1883 7 27 139
1995 314 1500 11 36 111
1996 307 1553 11 24 109
1997 335 2053 11 24 96
1998 343 1491 4 34 159
Total 1630 8480 44 145 614

That’s got to make you feel pretty warm and fuzzy on the inside, right? All those no gains seem so small when you see that out of 1,630 attempts, he only got stuffed 145 times. Not to mention that out he ran for 8,480 yards in that time too. It makes that 614 negative yards seem pretty insignificant. The 15,269 yards Barry racked up in just 10 years certainly makes that 1,114 seem minuscule. Even if you do wonder what life would be like if those were positive yards.

So at the end of the day here’s what we have: Barry Sanders was an incredible running back. He’s the greatest of all time and I don’t believe there’s even a question about it. Yes he had his moments where he probably tried to do too much and it shows in the stats. You could really make the argument that he had to do too much because he never had a solid quarterback or offensive line helping him out. In one game in 1994 against the Cowboys, Barry ran the ball 40 times. That’s tied for 11th all time for most attempts in a game.

Let’s just leave it here. Barry is the GOAT. End of discussion.