Barry Sanders had an all-time season in 1997, and what he did in that campaign has taken its rightful place on a list of running back seasons.
If he had just played a few more seasons at somewhere close to the bar he had set, and not necessarily hung on as a shell of himself the way Emmitt Smith did, Barry Sanders would undoubtedly be the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. As it is the best player in Detroit Lions history is fourth, a shade more than 3,000 yards behind Smith–who played five more seasons.
In 1997, Sanders rushed for 2,053 yards and won league MVP. That’s the fourth-highest single-season total in league history, and he bested second place Terrell Davis by a little over 300 yards. Sanders’ 11 rushing touchdowns were tied for third in the league, as he averaged 6.1 yards per carry.
Barry Sanders’ 1997 season in rightful place on list of NFL running back seasons
When ESPN ranked their top-10 college running backs of the last 60 yards in April, they gave Sanders his rightful acknowledgement as No. 1. He is also of course very high on any list of the NFL’s greatest running backs too, but a recent list has narrowed things a bit.
Bryan DeArdo of CBS Sports has ranked the 10 best seasons by a running back in NFL history. Eric Dickerson’s record campaign in 1984 (2,105 rushing yards) is there of course, and O.J. Simpson’s 1973 campaign (over 2,000 yards in 14 games) definitely deserves a high spot.
But Sanders’ 1997 season came in at No. 1.
"The ’97 season was a testament to the greatness of Sanders, who did more with less than any running back before or after him. Sanders ran for 53 yards during the season’s first two games, then proceeded to run for exactly 2,000 yards during the final 14 games. He eclipsed over 100 yards in each of those games while leading the Lions to the playoffs. The ever-elusive Sanders finished the season with 2,053 yards (then the second-highest total in NFL history) while averaging a whopping 6.1 yards per carry."
These kind of things are always open to healthy debate, and even within this list there are things to quarrel with. But no one who watched Sanders during that 1997 season, even without Honolulu Blue-shaded glasses, would greatly question it as the greatest running back season in NFL history–especially given the slow start.
The worst part of that 1997 season for Lions fans (and NFL fans) is it wound up being Sanders’ second-to-last season. And it’s not as if went out on a slow note in 1998 either, with nearly 1,500 yards on the ground. There was more there, but Sanders made a decision to call it quits knowing he could still do it if he wanted to.