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Dorktown: Barry Sanders vs. the touchdown vultures

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Sanders busts loose for 50 yards, then some other jerk nudges it in for the touchdown. This happened endlessly. Were it not for these touchdown thieves, Barry’s touchdown figures would have been even more incredible.

Barry Sanders was a one-of-a-kind running back for the Lions back in the day. There has never been, nor will there ever be, another runner with the kind of jaw-dropping ability to embarrass defenders and leave them grasping at armfuls of air with the flair that Sanders did for a decade in Detroit.

In the half-century since 1970’s AFL-NFL merger, not only does he average the highest yards per carry, but he’s got a quarter-yard cushion:

And he kept that astounding rate up across a workload that exceeded 3,000 career carries, which cemented his current status as one of the four Mt. Rushmore faces of backs who have topped 15,000 career yards on the ground. He’s also separated himself from the pack when it comes to career seasons with 1,400+ rushing yards, as well as career games with 150+ rushing yards:

One of the more remarkable things he did was in 1997 when he rushed for at least 100 yards in each of the Lions’ final 14 (fourteen!!) games. Even transcending multiple seasons, only two others have ever had such a streak last more than nine games:

Sanders’ annual consistency was also exceptional. He went 10 straight seasons rushing for over 1,100 yards, when no one else has even done so in nine straight:

And that streak didn’t even possess a single bookend of failing to reach that mark. It was preceded by his junior year in college at Oklahoma State and ended only when he ran off into the sunset. In other words, he rushed for over 1,100 yards every single season of his career, tying the record for most such seasons period (let alone consecutive) — only to be bound by one of the most shocking retirements in the history of sports.

Here is the yardage he accrued throughout his 10-year career, with him sitting at well over 15,000 career yards while no one else has ever reached even 14,000 at that point in their career:

But one area in particular worth busting out a magnifying glass to focus in on is extremely long runs, specifically those which covered at least 50 yards of real estate. For his career, he had 24 such runs, but there’s one chunk of time that requires closer inspection.

In 1994, there were 12 running plays across the entire NFL that gained 50+ yards. Here they are:

Sanders tacked on another four 50-yarders the next season, raising his two-year total to 10 … when nary a single other player had more than one such carry:

His proficiency at picking up huge chunks of yardage manifested itself with 15 career rushing touchdowns of at least 50 yards. At the time that was most ever, though Adrian Peterson has since one-upped him.

However, he unleashed mammoth runs so frequently, he even monopolized the idea of such plays not resulting in scores. Take October 1994, for instance. During a Week 5 game in Tampa, Sanders got loose for an 85-yard carry before Bucs DB Charles Dimry finally corralled him out of bounds:

Two games later vs. the Bears, Sanders bounced it outside, turned on the jets, and went 84 yards, but without finding paydirt:

How unusual is that? From that point forward, for another 20 years through the 2013 season, there were another 37 carries in the NFL that went for over 80 yards … and every last one of them resulted in a touchdown, with October ‘94 Sanders accounting for the entirety of the red:

Finally, in 2014, Le’Veon Bell got caught by Panthers safety Thomas DeCoud at the end of an 81-yard run in Charlotte, while 2015 saw Doug Martin get slowed up just enough by Eagles corner Nolan Carroll to allow Connor Barwin to shove him out of bounds at the end of an 84-yard run in Philly. And in the time spanning from after those Sanders runs in October 1994 thru the 2018 season, that Martin play stands as the lone carry to pick up at least 84 yards without a score to show for it:

For those scoring at home, that is the entire NFL combining to do a grand total of once across a quarter-century (and counting) what happened to Sanders twice within the preceding calendar month.

And for Sanders, no back in history was under more pressure to finish those long runs in the end zone. Because if he came up short, no back was more vulnerable to the (dreaded for fantasy players) touchdown thief™.

Now for the first four years of his career, that wasn’t the case. In that time the Lions recorded 18 rushing touchdowns from a single yard out, and Sanders was responsible for 11 of them. But then come 1993, things changed. Dramatically.

The Lions signed Falcons castoff Derrick Moore, and he scored all three of Detroit’s one-yard rushing touchdowns that season, two of which (in Weeks 4 and 10) capped drives in which Sanders gained every single yard but for the final one:

It was more of the same in 1994. Remember that aforementioned run in Tampa that got the Lions down inside the Bucs five-yard line? Welp, that meant no touchdown for Sanders, as a couple plays later, Moore punched it in. Moore’s other three touchdowns that year were all one-yard rushing scores, each punctuating drives that covered a combined 226 yards, of which Sanders was again responsible for the lion’s share:

Then the Lions traded Moore to San Francisco, so they turned to Scott Mitchell quarterback sneaks for six of their seven rushing scores from a yard out across 1995-96. The ensuing offseason, general manager Chuck Schmidt signed a new thief by the name of Touchdown Tommy Vardell.

And over the next two years under new coach Bobby Ross, it was the same story. 12 rushing touchdowns from the lip of the goal line, 11 accomplished by Vardell, the other a Charlie Batch quarterback sneak. So here’s how it breaks down from the first four years of Sanders’ career compared to the final six:

Two notable takeaways: During the latter period, 1993-98, here are the six instances in the NFL of a player rushing for at least four touchdowns in a season while failing to make even 125 yards worth of contribution on the ground:

Also, if you expand the time frame to the two-decade period from 1985-2005 in search for players who recorded at least four rushing TDs while failing to reach even 55 rushing yards, there were two such seasons; just Moore in 1994 and Vardell in 1998.

Vardell in particular stands out, with his 12 rushing scores across 1997-98 on just 159 rushing yards quite an impressive outlier:

And that was it. After that there were no more touchdowns to steal from Sanders, because there was no more Sanders — he vanished into thin air the same way he seemingly did whenever a linebacker approached to clobber him.

So while the concept of a goal-line back has become prevalent in the modern NFL, no one’s touchdown total has ever been more victimized by those vultures quite like Sanders.