Commentary

Barry failed in big games; Deion flourished

In his new book, Sao Paolantonio questions the legacy of Barry Sanders while celebrating the greatness of Deion Sanders.

Originally Published: October 9, 2007
By Sal Paolantonio | ESPN

In his new book, "The Paolantonio Report: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players, Teams, Coaches & Moments in NFL History," Sal Paolantonio challenges some of your long-held beliefs about America's popular game.

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Here's what we think about Johnny Unitas: With one magical stroke in 1958, he changed the game of pro football forever. Each year, it seems, a new book mythologizes his status as a cultural icon. In short, he gets the John Lennon treatment. Bart Starr? He gets treated like Ringo -- not Jim Ringo, the great Green Bay Packers center, but Ringo Starr, the Beatles drummer who always seems to be overlooked and undervalued.

Starr has been dismissed as the caretaker of great Packers teams. Not so. Take a second look by comparing him to Unitas, who posted a career playoff passer rating of 68.9 with seven touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. Starr? He had a career playoff passer rating 104.8, the highest in NFL history, safely ahead of the next best guy, Joe Montana (95.6).

Starr threw just three interceptions in 213 career postseason attempts. And get this: When Tom Brady threw four picks during the playoffs last year, Starr reclaimed the career record for fewest interceptions per pass attempt in NFL postseason history.

Starr -- who won more championships than Unitas, Steve Young, Dan Marino and (thus far) Brett Favre combined -- is the most underrated quarterback in NFL history.

That's what "The Paolantonio Report: the Most Overrated and Underrated Players, Teams, Coaches & Moments in NFL History" is all about. It provides a fresh perspective. It's an attempt to set the record straight -- or at least provide plenty to debate.

Bart Starr
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswirePackers great Bart Starr was an efficient and accurate passer, especially in big games.
So much of what we know about pro football has been catapulted through the star-maker machinery, achieving mythical status -- undeservedly so. Take the 1985 Chicago Bears. A great, great team. But shouldn't we hoist the 1976 Oakland Raiders on the same pedestal?

Both teams lost only one regular-season game. But, to get their Lombardi Trophy, the Raiders had to beat teams for the ages with Hall of Fame quarterbacks -- first Terry Bradshaw and the Steel Curtain, then Fran Tarkenton and the Purple People Eaters. The Bears? They beat the Rams with Dieter Brock at the helm, then the Patriots with Steve Grogan at quarterback.

If it's not being overhyped, so much of the NFL is now being processed through the meat grinder of our current national obsession, fantasy football. So, while it contains plenty of statistical analysis, this book consciously avoids a slavish obedience to numbers and trends, instead considering the historical impact of the team, coach or player.

For example, the drafting of Bob Hayes is one of the most underrated moments in NFL history. His speed changed the game forever. You can't write a history of the league without Bullet Bob. Yet he's not in Canton. That should be corrected.

So, here's a snapshot of the book. Two guys named Sanders, two huge stars -- one overrated, one underrated. Let the debate begin.

Barry Sanders -- Overrated


Barry Sanders, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004 (his first year of eligibility), scored one touchdown for every 35 touches in his 153 regular-season games, but just one touchdown in 112 postseason touches in six playoff games.

Indeed, Sanders' only career playoff touchdown was a 47-yard run against the Dallas Cowboys in a 1991 divisional-round playoff game in the Pontiac Silverdome. The Lions won that game 38-6. Sanders' touchdown came in the final minutes of the fourth quarter with Detroit already leading 31-6. The following week, the Lions went on the road to play the Washington Redskins at RFK Stadium. Sanders was not a factor. Detroit took a 41-10 beating.

Barry Sanders
US PresswireBarry Sanders wasn't the same player away from home.
Sanders' postseason performance supports the notion that he was a product of the cozy, climate-controlled Silverdome. Nice carpet for easy, stop-on-a-dime maneuvering. Seventy-two degrees. Detroit faithful keeping the defensive line off balance with high decibel support.

In four career outdoor postseason games, Sanders averaged a paltry 2.8 yards per carry. He never scored a touchdown. And he never ran for more than 65 yards in a single game. With Sanders, the Lions went 0-4 in outdoor playoff games, losing by an average of 17 points.

Nobody is suggesting that a bust of Barry should not be in Canton. He's the third-leading rusher of all time with 15,269 yards. He holds the all-time NFL record for consecutive 1,000 seasons with 10, from 1989 to 1998. Sanders was the first player to rush for 1,500 yards in a season five times. He was selected to 10 Pro Bowls. In 1997, when he rushed for 2,053 yards, he was NFL co-MVP, an honor he should have not had to share with Brett Favre that season. In 1988, Sanders won the Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma State.

But this picture of perfection has a nasty blemish. Once Sanders got to the big stage, and got out of the Silverdome, he was a bust.

Take the wild-card playoff game at Lambeau Field in 1994. That season, Sanders averaged 5.7 yards per carry -- the second-highest total of his career. In the first round of the playoffs against the Green Bay Packers, on Lambeau Field's frozen tundra, Sanders set an NFL postseason record for rushing futility. He had 13 carries for minus-one yard. He had four catches that day -- for four yards. Which means he had 16 touches for a total of three yards -- 2.7 yards less than he averaged per rush in the regular season.

Now, the spirited defense of putting him in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot always includes the theory that Sanders was the only thing the Lions had going for them in The Barry Sanders Era. That's exactly what it is -- a theory, and a bad one at that.

Did we forget about wide receivers Herman Moore and Brett Perriman? The Lions stretched the field for Sanders -- especially in the Dome. This helped him be wildly successful -- in the regular season. And in the years when the Lions went to the playoffs, their defense was not awful. It was middle of the pack -- ranked 11th in 1991, 15th in 1993, 19th in 1994, 14th in 1995 and 10th in 1997.

There is another ugly scar on Sanders' career: His Greta Garbo act on the way out the door.

After rushing for 1,491 yards in 1998, Sanders abruptly and mysteriously retired. At the time, he was 1,457 yards shy of Walter Payton's all-time rushing record. His defenders say Sanders -- who played the game with dignity and class -- did not owe anybody anything. As long as he was at peace with the decision, that was enough. That's bunk.

Here was a man who benefited greatly from the support of his teammates, his organization and his fans -- and he just turned his back on them without a word of gratitude. He left his teammates and a franchise in the lurch, to the point that the Lions demanded he return $7.3 million of his signing bonus.

Years later, when it was time for him to become eligible for Canton, Sanders had to be coaxed into providing some kind of explanation for his untimely retirement.

It was too little, too late.

Postscript: Of the five leading rushers in NFL history, Sanders is the only one to never reach a Super Bowl. The others -- Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Curtis Martin and Jerome Bettis -- all reached at least one Super Bowl. And all but Martin won at least one NFL championship ring.

Deion Sanders -- Underrated


You hear it all the time: Deion Sanders wasn't a great cornerback because he never tackled anybody. That's like saying Dan Marino wasn't a great quarterback because he couldn't run.

Sanders was the best cover corner in NFL history. Who cares how many tackles he made? The game is about making explosive plays and preventing them. Sanders did both.

Deion Sanders
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireDeion Sanders was a nightmare for opposing offenses.
With his astonishing makeup speed, remarkable instincts, and knack for reading quarterbacks, Sanders routinely blotted out the best receiver on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

And once he got the football in his hands, Sanders became a magician. Think Devin Hester skateboarding on the Millennium Falcon. Sanders was better than any defensive back in NFL history at transforming himself into an offensive weapon and going the other way with the football.

"There's two kinds of corners in the NFL," Bengals receiver Chad Johnson said. "Regular corners play not to get beat. Deion Sanders played the game to make a play."

The problem with Sanders is that there was always so much going on with him, it tended to overshadow his performance on the football field. He was "Prime Time" in M.C. Hammer's world. He recorded a rap album with song titles like "House of Prime," "Time for Prime," "Prime Time Keeps on Ticking," "Must Be the Money" and "Y U NV Me?"

Sanders hosted "Saturday Night Live." He appeared in commercials for Nike, Burger King, Visa and Pizza Hut. For a while there, he was everywhere, and the focus drifted away from Deion Sanders the cornerback to Neon Deion.

The image -- the designer suits, the controversial interviews, the celebrity appearances -- all served to distract people from his astonishing ability. And don't let that unparalleled speed and athleticism fool you. Sanders was a true student of the game. His film study and preparation were legendary. Most times, he knew the wide receivers better than their own quarterbacks. He had a catalogue of tics and tells on every guy he faced.

This rare combination of preparation and physical skill made him the greatest shut-down cornerback -- ever.

Even though opposing quarterbacks tried to throw nowhere near Sanders, he still finished his career with 53 interceptions in 173 NFL games, or one every 3.3 games.

And once the ball was in his hands, Sanders truly became Prime Time. His 1,331 career return yards are the second-most in NFL history, as are his nine touchdown returns. His average of 25.1 yards per interception return is an NFL record.

And true to his nickname, he really was a prime-time player. He's one of only five cornerbacks in NFL history to win Super Bowls for two different teams, the 49ers in 1994 and the Cowboys in 1995. He had an interception in the 49ers' Super Bowl win over the Chargers, and he shares the NFL postseason record with at least one interception in three consecutive games.

Sanders was such a skilled cornerback that when he came out of retirement with the Ravens in 2004 -- four years after he last played a game -- he had three interceptions in nine games playing almost exclusively in nickel situations, then two in '05 at age 38.

Postscript: Don't forge about his Major League Baseball career. Sanders hit .263 in nine seasons and had a .533 average for the Braves in their 1992 World Series loss to the Blue Jays.

Sal Paolantonio covers the NFL for ESPN. "The Paolantonio Report: the Most Overrated and Underrated Players, Teams, Coaches & Moments in NFL History" can be found on Amazon.com or at local bookstores.

Sal Paolantonio

SportsCenter correspondent / NFL reporter
Sal Paolantonio joined ESPN as a SportsCenter correspondent in August 1995, primarily reporting on the NFL. Beginning in 2004, he also served as host of NFL Match-Up, a weekly "Xs and Os" football show produced by NFL Films.

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