Detroit Lions: Life after Barry Sanders, 20 years later
For a solid three years, I was convinced that Barry would be back. After all, I’d already watched my other favorite athlete at the time retire at thirty and then come back to win three more championships with the Bulls. By that logic, it was only a matter of time before Barry returned to the field. Instead, he was true to his word and stayed out of the league and under the radar, other than one brief rumor in the 2000 off-season about potentially joining the Miami Dolphins.
The franchise, despite a surprise playoff showing in 1999 and a winning season in 2000, began to crumble as the dust settled and the longer-term ramifications of Barry’s absence became more clear.
No long term starting running back since:
The starting running back position for the Detroit Lions since Sanders retired has been pretty similar to the Defense Against the Dark Arts job at Hogwarts. No one who takes the post seems to last longer than a year or two. Abdullah, Bell, Bush, LeShoure, Best, etc, etc, all the way back to Ron Rivers, the original incapable replacement for the legend. James Stewart for a couple years and then the Kevins (Jones and Smith, both wearing #34) are the closest the team has had to a reliable running back in the past 20 years. None of them has made a single Pro Bowl for the team since Barry left. Kerryon Johnson is now the latest in a long line of hopefuls and has shown potential, if only he can stay healthy now.
Free Agency Abyss:
For pretty much an entire decade following Sanders’s departure, it would be a massive understatement to say that the Lions had a hard time getting top free agents to come to Motown. Forget competing with the Bears, Vikings, or Packers for impact players. If memory serves, the Lions would have had a hard time competing with North Korea for elite free agents during the 2000s.
Dre Bly was a great signing in 2003. James Stewart was a boring but decent one in 2000. Other than that, it was a rough decade for star signings in Detroit. This obviously isn’t entirely Barry’s fault; the franchise had a ton of dysfunction in the front office and some woefully bad head coaches. However, when the best player in team history walks away right before training camp during his prime, that’s not a good look when it comes to attracting more talent to the team in free agency.
Another source of shame:
Losing Barry was like getting dumped by someone that you were always afraid might be too good to be with you anyway. When he went off to vacation in London in July 1999 and left only a short breakup letter that explained nothing, these insecurities were realized.
When Calvin Johnson did it again after the 2015 season, even though the circumstances were very different, it felt like the same thing all over again. On top decades of losing seasons and struggling for league-wide respect, now the club has the reputation for eating their own, demoralizing even their all-time greats to the point where they walk away from the game altogether rather than remain Lions. Whether this is fair or not is beside the point; that’s the perception.