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Former Lions coach: Barry Sanders would’ve played 2-3 more years with coaching change

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What could have been....

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

This week’s theme at SB Nation is “sports moments that made you cry,” so why not dig up one of the most shocking, saddening moments in Detroit Lions history? July 27, 1999 or the Fax Heard ‘Round the World.

Barry Sanders’ retirement was ill-timed, devastating and set the Lions on a path of futility for the next decade. The Hall of Fame running back’s decision was based on a lot of things. He had fallen out of love for the game, he had butted heads with then head coach Bobby Ross and grew frustrated with the way the team was being managed.

But one former coach believes he could’ve salvaged Sanders’ career for at least a couple more seasons. June Jones, who served as the team’s quarterback and wide receivers coach from 1989 (Sanders’ rookie season) to 1990, said that if he had been hired as head coach, Sanders told him he would have stuck around.

“Right after that time when Bobby Ross was there, the job was open in Detroit and I was very, very interested in going back to Detroit if I could get the head (coaching) job,” Jones explained on the Sports Gambling Podcast. “I called Barry. I said, ‘Barry, if I get the head job in Detroit, would you still retire?’ He said, ‘Absolutely not. I’ll play two or three more years.’ Because he knew that his skill would excel in what we would do.”

Jones was the protege of Mouse Davis—Detroit’s offensive coordinator from 1988-90— who is credited with popularizing the run-and-shoot offense in the NFL—the scheme that was key to Sanders’ (and Detroit’s) success in the early 1990s. In Sanders’ first three season with the Lions, he rushed for 14, 13 and 16 touchdowns. He never reached that high of a single-season total again in his career.

Instead of coaching the Lions, Jones spent the aughts serving as the head coach for Hawaii and SMU.

It’s painful to even think about missing a couple more years of such a generational talent. Not only could it have set the franchise on a better path going into the 2000s, but with two or three more seasons, Sanders almost certainly would’ve made up the ground he needed (1,457 yards) to pass Walter Payton on the all-time rushing list, and he very possibly could have finished ahead of NFL’s all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith, who ended his career 3,086 yards ahead of Sanders.