The Detroit Lions had a new head coach for the 1997 season, one who had taken a team to the Super Bowl. But even though he was an experienced NFL coach, Bobby Ross didn’t understand his star running back. Because of that, his tenure in Detroit started off with some difficulty.
In weeks one and two of the ’97 season, Ross allowed his offense to use Barry Sanders as a decoy. As a result, the all-pro running back only handled the ball 25 times in those two games. Sanders ran for just 53 yards, a dismal total. Never before in his storied career had Sanders had such a low yardage total for two consecutive games.
After those first two games of the Bobby Ross Era in Detroit, Sanders was frustrated. He was perplexed. He was pissed off.
In week three, Ross retooled the Lion offense a bit and Barry got 19 carried. He exploded for 161 yards in Detroit’s 32-7 thumping of the Bears at Soldier Field. His per carry average was 8.5. But Barry still wasn’t getting involved the way he wanted, which promoted a sit-down with Ross in his office.
Neither party has ever divulged what was said in that meeting, but soon after, Sanders started to get the football more often.
In week four, Sanders scampered for 113 yards against the Saints. The next week he finally became the focus of the Detroit attack, touching the pigskin 28 times on his way to 139 yards rushing in a victory over the Packers at the Silverdome.
Sanders ran for at least 100 yards in each of the last 14 games of the 1997 season, an NFL record. The previous mark had been 11 games by Marcus Allen.
Barry’s incredible performance remains an NFL record, in fact no one has ever seriously challenged and probably never will. The game has changed to the point where passing has become the default and rushing is a featured add-on. Quick, bruising, athletic linemen and linebackers make it very hard for a team to run the football enough for a back to get 100 yards game-after-game. Add injuries into the mix, and the Sanders record seems safe.
The 1997 season culminated with Barry’s 184-yard game in week #16 against the Jets to push the Lion running back over 2,000 yards. His amazing season gained him the NFL Most Valuable Player Award.